There is a fancy French bakery chain close to where we live. I like to go there once in a while to taste their freshly baked baguettes and soups. On one side of the restaurant, they sell overpriced, fancy, organic, locally grown/made sauces, condiments, pasta and books. While waiting in line, I often look at the wall and glance through the bottles and jars. One day my eyes spotted a very different looking bottle with a fiery red, very un-French looking substance inside labeled harissa. I was very surprised to see that they were selling something so obviously not French in origin. I came home and asked my husband and to my surprise he was clueless too.
Knowing my curiosity for food, exotic spices and their history, I knew it would bug me for a while if I could not find a reason for harissa to be sold in a French store. When I came back home, I promptly googled and found the answer.
Tunisia is the smallest country of the Maghreb region, with Algeria on one side and Libya on the other. It has a vast coastline on the Mediterranean Sea. Being a very fertile country and its convenient geographical location (only 100 miles from Italy by sea), Tunisia attracted many invaders in the past. Among many others, there were Italians, the Arabs, Spaniards, the Turks and lastly the French. Being a demographical melting pot, Tunisians eat a variety of foods which might surprise you if you do not know the history or the country’s background. You might end up eating French baguettes for breakfast, fresh pasta and spaghetti for lunch and Turkish pastry for dessert. The French invaded Tunisia in 1881 and ruled it until 1956 under the Treaty of Bardo. Although France didn’t confiscate any land or displace the monarch, and preserved the preexisting government structure, the French resident general remained the supreme authority.
Usually when one country invades another, there is an exchange of culture in both directions. As the Tunisians acquired a taste for French cuisine, the French in turn grew fond of some of the Tunisian delicacies (which explains why I saw that bottle of harissa in the French bakery). The composition of harissa, which is a hot pepper sauce, can widely vary from region to region and country to country. Tunisia is the largest exporter of this bright red, fiery paste. Hot red peppers were originally native to South America but gained extreme popularity and spread like wildfire after the Spanish and the Portuguese invaded them and introduced them to Europe. Soon after, peppers crossed the Mediterranean Sea and travelled from Europe to northwest Africa, where they got blended and mixed with the native spices and beautiful concoctions were made.
Harissa, which can be quite hot even for my Indian tastes, has a very unique flavor palate that lends itself to a thousand uses. Spread it on a sandwich, drop a couple teaspoons in your soup or stew, mix it with mayonnaise or hummus to add a little edge to them or rub it on meat before grilling. Once you taste it, it may soon end up being you go-to hot sauce.
I cannot vouch that my recipe is as authentic as it can get, but at least I have used nothing but the basic spices to keep it simple and close to the original taste.
Dried Guajillo chilies: 4 nos.
Kashmiri chilies: 4 nos.
Dried Red hot chilies: 8 nos.
Caraway seeds: 1 tsp.
Cumin seeds: ½ tsp.
Coriander seeds: ½ tsp.
Lemon juice: one tablespoon or less (will depend on you)
Salt: ½ tsp.
Sugar: ½ tsp.
Olive oil: 1-2 tbsp.+ more to top off the paste while storing.
- Toast the dry chilies on a dry skillet for few minutes (optional). Break them into few pieces.
- Soak them in enough hot water to cover all the chilies.
- Dry roast the caraway, cumin and coriander seeds. Cool and then grind them to a fine powder.
- Drain the chilies and discard all the seeds.
- Put them in a spice grinder with the olive and blend them to a fine paste.
- Add all other ingredients and blend them again.
- Put the paste in a completely dry glass/non-reactive jar and top it off with olive oil. Every time you use it, replace the olive oil. The oil will keep the paste stay fresh longer.
PS: You can use any chilies you have in the pantry and play with the ratio. The guajillo chilies give the sauce a nice smoky flavor, the Kashmiri chilies I used gave it a nice color and the heat came from the hot chilies. You can use any hot and smoky chilies you have or can buy.
You can also add a little bit of chopped cilantro or lemon zest to it. I haven’t but I think next time I surely will.
Adjust the seasoning according to your taste. It might need a little bit of tweaking.