Harissa/Tunisian hot sauce

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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.

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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.

harissa

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.

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Recipe:

Ingredients:

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.

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  • 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.

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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.

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Shukno lonkar achar/stuffed red chili pickle/bharwan mirchi ki achar and the winner of the giveaway

DSC_0180Stop buying those fairness creams and throwing your money at beauty salons.  Instead, start eating pickles. Yes, you heard me right…pickles. Good old pickles. Apart from the nutritional benefits of pickles, they were considered to be a beauty aid in ancient times. Even Cleopatra attributed her beauty to a hearty diet of pickles. The most common vegetable pickled in ancient times was the cucumber. Cucumbers, native to India, were brought to the Tigris valley around 2030 BC, around which time the tradition of pickling was introduced.
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Pickles mean different things to different people. Depending on the country, it might be fish, cabbage, dill, cucumbers, lemons, chilis and the list goes on and on. In the era of sailing ships, when sailors sailed for months without ever seeing fresh produce, pickles were a lifesaver as the vinegar and the brine helped hundreds of seamen dying from scurvy. Amerigo Vespucci was a pickle trader and loaded hundreds of pickle barrels onto his ships before he headed out to explore the world. Even Christopher Columbus tried feeding pickles to his crew to save them from the ravage of scurvy; one theory holds that he brought the pickle eating culture to the New World.
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When I say pickles, Americans will think mostly of cucumbers or dills, in contrast to the mindboggling variety of pickles in India. Whereas in the West, vinegar and brine were commonly used as pickling agents, in India, spices, oil and salt are used instead, lending to a much broader range of flavors. Also, being a hot tropical country, we learnt how to make use of the natural sterilizing power of the sun’s rays to the full extent, by keeping pickle jars in the sun to kill the bacteria and prevent fungal growth. Great care is taken not to introduce any moisture as it can spoil the pickle even before a day of pickle making ends. First the vegetables or fruits will be washed, thoroughly cleaned and then laid on a piece of paper or clean fabric to air dry them. Then depending on the type of pickle, it will be either coated with spice, salt, oil or all of these and will be kept in the sun in a glass or porcelain jar covered with a dry and clean fabric tied tightly around the mouth. Here it will sit for weeks or months, as the myriad flavors of the spices and the natural goodness of the fruits or vegetables seep into each other. If the jars survive the naughty hands of kids yet to learn the virtues of patience, magical changes will transform the contents into mouthwateringly delicious pickles. You will know the pickles are ready when their beautiful aroma wafts through the house on the tails of a summer breeze, and the vegetables and fruits have changed color and surrendered to the oil, salt and spices.
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Anyway, cancel that salon appointment and start making your pickles. If they won’t make you the next Cleopatra, at least they will be a delicious addition to your meals (and then who wants to end up like Cleopatra anyway?). In case you were wondering, in my quest for eternal beauty and culinary bliss, this is what I have been doing all summer.

And now, I am excited to announce the winner of my first book giveaway. The winner is Joyita, and she will get copy of Marjorie Shaffer’s book Pepper (which I recently reviewed) and a cute jar of Extra Bold Tellicherry Peppers from India’s famed Malabar coast. The author and publisher are thrilled to see my review and I hope you enjoy the book as much as I did. Thank you all for your participation and hopefully I’ll be doing many more giveaways in the future.

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I used random.org to chose the winner.

  1. Joyita
  2. Nik@ABrownTable
  3. pridreamcatcher
  4. Ballari Chatterjee
  5. masterminion
  6. Rachel
  7. Gouri
  8. Payal
  9. Sutapa Basu
  10. Sonia
  11. Bonny
  12. Chitrangada

Timestamp: 2013-08-05 03:25:32 UTC

Recipe:

I was inspired by Soma from eCurry to start with the pickle making venture and borrowed the addition of whole nijella seed idea from Harini’s blog.

Ingredients:
12-15 red hot fresh chili peppers (depending on the size you might need more or less).
A sterilized jar
A clean cotton fabric
Dry spatula
Cotton twine
Ample sunlight (yes, it’s very important)
Stuffing:
First:
Aamchur/dry mango powder: 1 tbsp.
Cumin: 1 tbsp.
Mustard: 1 tbsp.
Fenugreek: ½ tbsp.
Fennel: 1 tbsp.
Salt to taste
Mustard oil: enough to cover all the chili peppers
Dry roast cumin, fenugreek, fennel and mustard, cool and then grind to a fine powder.

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Second:
Aamchur/dry mango powder: 1 tbsp.
Cumin: 1 tbsp.
Fenugreek: ½ tbsp.
Fennel: 1 tbsp.
Ajwain/carom seeds: 1 tbsp.
Kalonji/Nijella seeds: 1 tbsp.
Black salt: 2 tbsp.
Red chili dry: 4-6 nos.
Hing/Asafetida: ¼ tsp.
Salt to taste
Mustard oil: enough to cover all the chili peppers
Dry roast cumin, fenugreek, fennel and ajwain, cool and then grind to a fine powder. Do not grind the nijella seeds. Check for the balance. If you need more salt or heat, you can add now.

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• Wash the chilis and then lay them flat on a tray or paper towel. Let them air dry overnight or for a day. You can keep them in the sun but be careful not to crinkle them, as it will be difficult to stuff them later. Be careful, there shouldn’t be any external moisture.
• Cut the top part and de-seed them with a small knife or a small spoon.
• Mix all the ingredients together except oil and hing.
• Stuff the chilis with the powder and then press with your finger to keep the stuffing in place.
• Place them in a dry sterilized jar. Try not to over crowd them.
• Heat enough mustard oil to cover the chilis in the jar. Do not burn the oil. Add hing (if using) and then let the oil come to room temperature.
• Pour the oil on the chili peppers and cover the jar with a clean cotton fabric. Tie the neck with a twine and put it in the sun for few weeks (depending on the sun, it might be ready in couple weeks).
• Stir in the pickle once in 3-4 days.
The first recipe gives the pickle a very mild taste but the second one is more complex and hotter in taste. So go for the one you will like.

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