If you’re a fan of spicy sauces, you may have heard of harissa, a chile paste from Tunisia. A product of dried hot peppers, garlic, salt, olive oil, and various spices, harissa is popular in Middle Eastern and North African countries. There are many ways to make harissa, with variations to adjust for spice preference.
Today, harissa can be found in cuisines all over the world and made at home. Keep reading for some facts about this versatile spice and ideas for how to use it.
The History of Harissa
Harissa is a result of the Columbian Exchange. Chiles were brought to European countries and their territories, which were then incorporated into existing cuisines. Tunisia, which was a Spanish colony at the time, was introduced to red peppers in the mid-16th century.
The word “harissa” itself is derived from the Arabic term for “to crush/grind/puree.” Harissa is a regularly used component of Maghrebi cuisine, which describes the culture of the northwestern region of Africa. The Maghreb includes Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, Libya, and Mauritania, as well as parts of the Western Sahara and autonomous Spanish cities Ceuta and Melilla.
Tunisia is still known for its harissa products, growing large quantities of peppers in the Cap Bon (sometimes spelled Cape Bon) peninsula. With a soil and climate perfect for the cultivation of these peppers, it is no surprise that harissa holds such a strong influence on the country’s culinary culture.
Harissa has become internationally popular along with other hot sauces, such as sriracha and Tabasco. As multiculturalism flourishes and people try new cuisines, like North African cooking, harissa has emerged as another distinct paste to enhance dishes.
What Makes Harissa Special?
Harissa is more than just chiles. Its flavor incorporates olive oil, garlic, and the numerous spices that go into making it. Classic harissa recipes include popular North African spices such as cumin, coriander, caraway seed, and fennel. Sometimes, it’s given some extra acidity with the addition of lemon or lime juice.
This recipe even includes rose water and petals, which can both be found at Mediterranean stores.
There is also no “correct” consistency for harissa paste, as there are multiple versions of the recipe. You can have a thicker or thinner paste, depending on your preference. The style and flavor of harissa varies depending on where it’s made. Each country, region, and even household can have alterations based on supplies available and personal taste.
Though harissa is a paste, its flavor can be found in seasoning as well. Our Daring Dunes Hot Harissa Organic Moroccan Seasoning captures the same depth and intensity as regular harissa paste — just in powdered seasoning form. This spice blend can be used the same way as other forms of harissa, adding a bit of kick to any dish you’d like!
How is Harissa Used?
As a paste, harissa is often used as a complementary ingredient. In Tunisia, for example, it is often added to soups and sandwiches. It can also be a marinade for meat or dip for bread, plated with oil and olives or capers.
Harissa's use is not restricted to traditional ideas, however. People have used harissa for pretty much everything. Harissa can be used in curries to add extra spice, dolloped on top of hummus, or even stirred into scrambled eggs. There are no limits to what and where harissa can be used.
You can even use harissa as a substitute for other hot sauces. Korean gochujang, sambal, and Picante sauce can all be swapped out with harissa. The flavors are different, but the heat impact is the same, making it an ideal swap for a new spin on any old favorite recipes that use hot sauce. And remember, you can adjust your harissa consistency and spice flavor to best fit your tastes.
In seasoning form, the same applies. For marinades, it can be used as a part of the dry seasoning, alongside or in place of any other spices you would like to use. As the core ingredients of hot peppers, cumin, garlic, salt, and coriander are all found in our seasoning, you won’t be missing out on any of the essential flavors.
Where Can You Find Harissa?
Harissa can be found in multiple forms in multiple places. Canned or jarred forms of harissa can be found at your local grocery store. It may be in the international cuisines section or alongside other hot sauces/pastes.
Fresh harissa can be found in many North African and Middle Eastern restaurants. It has even expanded into large chains such as CAVA, where you can find it in their dips and spreads options. However, CAVA’s and many other brands will feature tomato paste or puree as a component of their harissa. This is a deviation from the original recipe, and while it contains a tangy, acidic profile, the tomatoes could also result in a less spicy harissa. If you’re into that flavor combination, there’s nothing wrong with buying it. Just make sure you check the ingredient label of any product you buy to see if chiles, spices, and other ingredients (like tomatoes) are used.
For the most authentic store-bought harissa paste, Tunisian brands like Le Phare du Cap, Les Moulins Mahjoub, and Zwïta might be your best bet.
Our Daring Dunes harissa seasoning doesn’t contain tomatoes, but it does feature ancho and chipotle peppers. We add cayenne pepper, organic chili flakes, paprika, onion, and peppermint on top of the classic spices to make an as-close-to-authentic taste as possible. Our organic seasoning is the perfect alternative to paste or saucy textures.
Find a bottle of FreshJax’s organic harissa seasoning on our website. You can find it in our Taste the World Seasonings Organic Sampler Pack (currently on sale), which features organic spices including the harissa seasoning, Jamaican jerk, Thai spice, Greek herb blend, and Madras-style curry powder. Delivery is available in the United States, with Jacksonville residents eligible for free local pickup.