Harissa: The North African Jewish Hot Sauce

I don’t know when it happened, but one day I started liking a little spice in my food. It started slowly, little by little, and before I knew it, I found myself sprinkling red pepper flakes or squirting Sriracha on many of my meals. Not to say that I don’t appreciate non-spicy cuisine. On the contrary, I love simple roasted vegetables with the perfect sprinkle of sea salt, or a sun-warmed summer tomato with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. But I also love reaching for hot sauce to give certain dishes a kick. Not one for Tabasco-style sauces (no flaming XXX bottles here), I started experimenting with more complex chili sauces. After a recent affair with North African cuisine inspired by picking up a few recipes from a friend’s Jewish Moroccan mother, I have been enjoying harissa, a blended hot pepper condiment. Most people think Jewish food is quite tame in the spice department, but not so! This fiery condiment is a testament the diversity of Jewish culinary roots, and our love of flavor. If you’ve ever asked for your falafel “spicy” — then you, too, have had harissa.

A few years ago, Huy Fong Sriracha, the (kosher!) Vietnamese, rooster-emblazoned version of the Thai hot sauce, was sitting pretty in everyone’s fridge, enjoying its 15-minutes of fame as “the hot sauce of the 2000’s.” Sriracha whet the American palate for chili sauces, and paved the way for harissa, which stepped in as a rebuttal to the ubiquitous Sriracha. The average American hadn’t heard of harissa, however, Jews in North Africa have been enjoying the spicy condiment since the mid-1500s, when according to Jewish culinary historian Gil Marks, the Turks conquered Tunisia, bringing with them hot peppers. Once harissa was established as a staple in North African cuisine, it crossed back over with North African Jews immigrating to France after World War II. In her recent book “Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France,” Joan Nathan includes harissa as an ingredient in a variety of French Jewish dishes such as Soupe au Blé Vert (green wheat vegetable soup) and Couscous de Poisson (Tunisian fish couscous). Harissa, Nathan explains, is now sold in open-air markets throughout the south of France. In Tunisian Jewish dishes, traditionally harissa is listed an ingredient and cooked directly into the dish, whereas in Morocco, it is served alongside the cooked dish, on the table in a separate bowl with a little spoon, so guests can add however much they want.

Once you’ve tasted it, you will understand how this little condiment with a big punch gained such a following. Harissa is unabashedly bold and spicy, yet underneath, it has a rich complexity. Its only ingredients are dried hot peppers, garlic, salt, olive oil and a mix of spices, commonly cumin and coriander. There is no cooking involved, the peppers are simply soaked then blended with the other ingredients. Traditionally, a mortar and pestle is used, and in an effort to be authentic, I gave this a try, but after 20 minutes of pounding, the peppers didn’t break down to my liking; since then, I’ve turned to my trusty immersion blender.

Each family in each region has its own special recipe, although they all include chili peppers, garlic, olive oil and salt, and there are endless variations. I’ve experimented with throwing some preserved lemon in to add an acidic edge, which worked well with a fish tagine I made for Shabbat a few months ago, but it certainly is not traditional. I’ve also seen versions that use tomato paste with the chili peppers, which makes for a mellower harissa. You can also experiment with the type of hot pepper you use. I’ve seen variations that use chipotle peppers, which give a nice smokiness to the sauce, and even recipes that call for fresh jalapeños and mint, for a crisp, refreshing taste. The recipe below very forgiving, and the ingredients and amounts should act as a guide.

Once the harissa is made, it stays fresh in the fridge for 7-10 days, which gives you time to experiment with adding it to a variety of dishes. Some ideas to get you started:

-Add a teaspoon of harissa to chickpea cholent for a spicy Shabbat lunch
-Mix some harissa into a marinade for meat, chicken or tofu
-Add a touch of harissa to the cooking water for rice or couscous
-Kick up your hummus by mixing in harissa
-Stir some harissa into your chicken soup to boost its healing punch!

Harissa

10–15 dried red chili peppers (I use a combination of New Mexico, guajillo, and Mulatto—you can get a variety of dried peppers at Asian and Latin American grocery stores)
4–5 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
1 teaspoon cumin seed
1 teaspoon coriander seed
½-¾ cup extra virgin olive oil
½ teaspoon kosher salt

1) Soak peppers: Remove the stems and the seeds from the chilies. Soak in warm water, cover with a plate for 30 minutes.

2) Toast spices: In the meantime, place the cumin and coriander seeds in a hot, dry skillet and toast for about 5 minutes, until they are fragrant. Remove from pan.

3) Drain and place soaked chilies with spices and salt in immersion blender or food processor. Pulse, while drizzling olive oil, until smooth; have a rubber spatula handy, and push down the sides so everything is well incorporated.

4) When blended, place harissa in a jar, and cover with a thin layer of oil.

5) Store in the refrigerator, replenishing the oil to cover when needed.

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