If Tunisia were as close to Los Angeles as Mexico is, there’s no doubt we would all be eating harisa today rather than salsa. Given how readily we Americans accept spicy food, we’d surely embrace it.
Harisa is the most important condiment in Tunisian cooking, used in nearly everything. In fact, in Tunisia you practically can’t cook without it. The first time you taste it, you’ll agree. You’ll start making it on a regular basis, then you’ll begin reserving shelf space in your refrigerator door for a jar of it.
The name comes from an Arabic word meaning “to beat, to break up” (in the eastern Arab countries, harisa is a wheat porridge beaten to a smooth paste), and that is how it is traditionally made. Dried chiles are reconstituted by soaking, then pounded in a mortar with garlic, caraway and coriander seeds and mixed with extra-virgin olive oil to the consistency of thick tomato paste. It’s a laborious process and, understandably, everyone uses a food processor for it today.
Harisa is used in the cooking of Algeria and Libya, and I’ve even seen it in western Sicily, where couscous, cuscusu, is made. But Tunisia is where it is really at home.
The Tunisians use harisa mostly as an addition to prepared dishes, such as putting a dollop in the broth for a couscous, adding a tablespoon to a ragout or spooning it on top of a breakfast stew of garbanzo beans. Some Tunisians like to take a little harisa, dilute it with olive oil and spread it on bread for a snack.
Some dishes require the addition of harisa, while for others it’s technically optional, but Tunisian cooks can’t seem to help themselves; they use it with the same abandon with which a Mexican cook might use jalapenos.
I became intrigued by harisa more than 20 years ago, when Mouldi Hadiji, my Arabic teacher, brought some into class. After years of experimentation, I have arrived at this version, based on a Berber-style harisa I had on the island of Djerba in southern Tunisia. It comes from a recipe description given to me by a merchant in the spice souk of Tunis, who, unfortunately, provided measurements that could last me a century (beginning with 50 pounds of chiles).
I had an illustrious group of opinionated people help me formulate it, including the Tunisian chef Moncef Meddeb; Mohammed Kouki, the doyen of Tunisian food experts; and cookbook authors Paula Wolfert, Martha Rose Shulman, Nancy Harmon Jenkins and Deborah Madison.
Though it’s impossible to think of Tunisian cooking without harisa, it could not have existed before Columbus’ voyages to the New World. That’s where the Spanish found chile peppers, which they brought back to Spain, where they were first used as ornamental plants before being adopted as food.
It seems likely that the Spanish introduced the chile pepper to Tunisia via the military presidios that dotted what was then known as the Barbary Coast in the first half of the 16th century.
Tunisian food at the time was not terribly spicy because it was a poor country and spices, being imported, were therefore expensive. But once chile peppers could be grown locally, what better way to spice up the otherwise monotonous food than through a pungent harisa?
Today, harisa is made commercially by both Tunisian and French companies and sold in tubes or cans. I find the Tunisian one better, but both versions pale in comparison to the vibrancy of the one you can make yourself so easily.
It takes a little effort, especially if you make it by hand, but after you make your first harisa--even with all the modern conveniences--you’ll certainly appreciate what exacting women’s work this once was, making it in the traditional mortar.
Of course, you’ll also appreciate how truly indispensable it will become in your cooking.