Take a look inside my refrigerator and one thing becomes immediately clear: I’m a condiment fanatic. Lined up in not-too-tidy rows are mustards (potent and mild), ketchups (spicy and regular), barbecue sauces, tangy chutneys, Indian pickles called achar, garlicky tapenades, jars of funky fermented bean curd, Tabasco-like sauces galore, and probably my most-used condiment, harissa.
I’d like to say that I discovered the bright-red paste on my first and only trip to Morocco a few years back, but the truth is that I’ve been eating the imported stuff you squeeze out of a tube for more than a decade—long before I visited North Africa, where harissa originates. (Besides Morocco, Egypt, Tunisia, and Algeria have their own traditional takes on the spicy sauce.)
This hot condiment is not like any other. It has a slow-burn quality, with the haunting flavor mélange of coriander and garlic following just behind the red-pepper kick. I slather it on roasted potatoes, rice-and-vegetable dishes, and, of course, couscous. Harissa is so good, though, that it deserves a more prominent place at the table, rather than being relegated to a supporting role.
These recipes from the VT vaults showcase the sultry, spicy flavors of whatever harissa you’ve got on hand. I buy mine at my neighborhood supermarket, and sometimes at Middle East import stores, where it’s sold in cans, tubes, and—once in a while—freshly made in refrigerated tubs. As the weather turns warmer, I recommend doing like the locals do in more sun-splashed climates and activating your internal cooling system with an extra dose of sweat-inducing spice.
Nutty Sweet Potato Soup with Harissa and Spinach
Roasted Vegetables with Green Olive Vinaigrette and Pistachio Couscous
Carrot Dip with Crushed Walnuts and Olives
Aurelia d’Andrea’s passion for travel is deeply intertwined with her love of food. Whether in Perth, Prague, or Phnom Penh, she always gravitates toward local markets in search of edible treasures, and takes pleasure in re-creating tasty travel memories at home in her tiny Parisian kitchen.
Missing harissa? If you’re all out of the super hot Moroccan chilli paste it’s all good. Just use one of these simple harissa substitutes.
My first experience with harissa was in a recipe called ‘Firey Harissa Chicken’ which used 50 fresh chillies in the marinade. It definitely lived up to its name!
I remember my fingers were burning for hours after I had chopped and de-seeded all the chillies. I wish I had used gloves.
Luckily the finished dish was a big hit with my friends. And so my love affair with harissa began.
- What is Harissa?
- The Best Harissa Substitutes
- My Favourite Recipes Using Harissa
- More Ingredient Substitutes
- ps. Like More Ingredient Substitute Ideas?
- What is harissa? Sian Meades investigates the world’s most popular chilli paste.
- Where does it come from?
- Where can I find it?
- Wait a second, I can I make my own?
- What should I cook with it?
- What else?
- What Is Harissa and How Can You Use This Bright Red Chili Paste?
- Everything You Need to Know About Harissa
- Easy never tasted so awesome.
- Harissa is a cornerstone of North African and Persian cooking, and growing in popularity due to the burgeoning interest in Middle Eastern cuisine.
- Chillies turn up in Africa
- What is the origin of harissa?
- The variants of harissa paste
- What is tabel?
- What is karwiya?
- How to make harissa
What is Harissa?
At it’s simplest, it’s a paste made from pureeing fresh red chillies, garlic, ground coriander and carraway seeds. It’s used in Moroccan and Tunisian food to give an addictive chilli hit.
A little goes a long long way.
You can buy commercial harissa in a tube or jar.
I’ve also made a milder version using roast mild red chillies and red capsicum (bell peppers) which is used more as a sauce.
Either way it’s super delicious.
If you don’t have any harissa in the house, here are my favourite harissa substitutes.
The Best Harissa Substitutes
(in order of preference)
1. Fresh Chopped Red Chilli + Carraway Seeds
If I’m out of Harissa I just mix up a quick substitute by finely chopping a few fresh red chillies and adding a pinch of carraway seeds and enough olive oil to make a pesto-like paste. Leave the seeds in for a stronger kick.
If you don’t have carraway seeds use ground coriander instead.
2. Chilli Oil
I make my own, but there are plenty of great commercial chilli flavoured oils which will give a similar kick to harissa.
3. Hot Sauce
If a recipe calls for Harissa, often you just want some heat. In this case whatever hot sauce you have in the house will do the trick.
Just be careful to match the amount to your heat tolerance. You can always add more if needed but fixing a fire-extinguisher dish is tricky!
4. Home Made Harissa
If I have more time I make a batch of this flavoursome sweet harissa. This much milder than commercial Harissa paste in a tube so you may need to use more than your recipe calls for.
My Favourite Recipes Using Harissa
- Firey Harissa Chicken
- Yuuummy Spiced Tomato Soup
- Miso Harissa Roast Cauli
- Miso Harissa ‘Ketchup’ (Low Carb)
- Potato & Artichoke Salad with Harissa Dressing
- Spicy Carrot & Chicken Salad
- Harissa Steaks with Yoghurt Sauce
Or see the Harissa archives.
More Ingredient Substitutes
- The Ultimate Guide to Vegetable Substitutes
- Collard Greens
- Miso Paste
- Oyster Sauce
Also see see the Simple Ingredients Substitutes Index.
Have fun in the kitchen!
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What is harissa? Sian Meades investigates the world’s most popular chilli paste.
If you like your food spicy, you’ve almost certainly tried harissa, but how much do you really know about this hot pepper chilli paste?
Harissa paste is so much deeper than chilli, and it’s certainly greater than the sum of its parts. You get a spicy hit but it’s not one-note, backed up by garlic and lemon. Sometimes it’s sweet, sometimes it’s smoky. Harissa can certainly be blow-your-head-off spicy but it takes its time, and tends to have an earthier flavour rather than the immediate whack of heat you’ll get from fresh chilli or flakes. Chilli peppers are also said to be an aphrodisiac, thanks to their stimulation of the nerve endings in the tongue.
The most common peppers used are Baklouti pepper and serrano peppers. Some varieties are heavy on the garlic, others go all in with the cumin. You’ll also find rose harissa, which is packed full of sweet flavour from rose petals. You may even find a paste that’s got a whack of fresh mint in it.
Here’s the lowdown on what exactly harissa is and how you should you be using it.
Where does it come from?
Harissa originates from North Africa and while every region has its own variation and take on the paste, it’s particularly associated with Tunisia.
The Spanish occupation of Tunisia in the 16th century is then thought to have begun the spread of its influence around the world. Today, it’s estimated that over quarter of the world’s population eat harissa in any single day.
Where can I find it?
Harissa is most commonly sold in jars, which you should find easily in the supermarket spice aisle. You’ll sometimes see it in tins and tubes as well.
Want to get busy in the kitchen? You can also buy harissa powder, which is ground chillies, spices and herbs without any oil, so it lasts for longer. You can use it as seasoning, or you can add oil and garlic to form a harissa paste.
Wait a second, I can I make my own?
You certainly can. If you want to use the powder, just mix it with oil and garlic (and rosewater, if you prefer a sweeter, more delicate spice hit). If you’re really into your chillies, start from scratch with a mix of dried chillies, salt, and oil. The most common peppers used are kaklouti and serrano but any spicy red chilli will taste delicious.
The best thing about making your own harissa is that once you’ve nailed the basics, you can mix and match spices to create your own blend, depending on your taste and what you have in the cupboard.
Some recipes call for coriander, paprika or cumin. Others suggest caraway seeds or even mint. It’s totally up to you. Don’t worry about making it “authentic”, just concentrate on making it delicious.
Whizz everything in a food processor until you’ve formed a paste and adjust to taste as you go. You can use it straight away but as with most spicy pastes, it tastes best if you can leave it in the fridge overnight to to allow the flavours to develop. It’ll keep refrigerated for a couple of months, and makes an excellent gift.
Lebanese-style lamb from Feasts From the Middle East/HQ
What should I cook with it?
The versatility of harissa is one of the best things about it. Just a smidge will give your dinner a lift: add a little to a basic tomato sauce, or use it to pep up a chicken breast or piece of fish. You can also let it really dominate the dish – it’s historically used as a flavouring for couscous – and it’s especially good if you like the flavour of chilli but want something a little more complex behind it.
Fire is its friend, so the barbecue is a good place to start. Burgers work really well: try this harissa-spiced lamb patty tempered by a cooling raita. A spoonful is delicious with this breadcrumbed chicken burger and even better in the marinade for these grilled prawns.
Anything that you want to spice up can benefit from a dollop of the firey red stuff. Its flavour deepens as it cooks so low and slow is best. Oh boy does harissa want to get friendly with your leg of lamb. Use it as a spice rub before cooking, or follow this recipe for Lebanese-style lamb and serve it on the side with the finished dish.
You can also use it to make an incredible herb and squash dip, best served with strips of toasted pitta bread.
Vegetarian? Spice up aubergine and wrap it in crispy strands of kataifi pastry or wow with this beautiful summer vegetable and mozzarella stack, layered with harissa-spiked avocado cream.
Nicola Graimes/New Vegetarian Kitchen
Don’t mix harissa paste up with harisa cake. That’s a very delicious Middle Eastern coconut and semolina cake and chilli paste has no place in it.
You might also like:
Everything you wanted to know about ‘nduja
What are anchovies and how do you cook with them?
How to cook with chickpeas
Header image by Kietichai charoentrirat/
What Is Harissa and How Can You Use This Bright Red Chili Paste?
Move over Sriracha, you’re about to be upstaged by a bigger, bolder-flavored cousin—harissa. Harissa can spice up everything from meat marinades to scrambled eggs, or be eaten as a dip or spread for crudités and bread. Learn more about this versatile ingredient, then try some hand-picked spicy harissa recipes.
What is harissa?
Harissa is a condiment that originated in Tunisia in North Africa but is now seen in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern, as well as North African cooking. The paste is made with a base of roasted red peppers, dried chili peppers, and a blend of garlic, cumin, lemon, salt, and olive oil. “The flavor profile of harissa is spicy and slightly smoky,” says Israeli chef Efi Naon of Taboon and Taboonette in New York City. His restaurants combine Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisine that he calls Middleterranean. Fair warning: Harissa is meant to be hot, thanks to its healthy dose of chili peppers. You can adjust to your taste preferences by reducing the amount you use in at-home recipes or how much you use as a topping at restaurants.
What are the health benefits of harissa?
“Spicy food can increase your feelings of satiety, meaning harissa makes you feel full and happy,” says Tori Martinet, registered dietitian and director of wellness and nutrition at Restaurant Associates (the company behind the cafes at The Smithsonian Institution and The Metropolitan Museum of Art). The main health benefit of harissa is that it contains capsaicin, the compound in chilis that makes them spicy, says Martinet. Capsaicin is an antioxidant that may be able to boost your metabolism, improve heart health, and reduce cancer-causing inflammation. (Bonus: One study found that spicy foods might be the secret to a longer life.)
Harissa is also lower in sodium than other hot sauces, which is great for people monitoring their blood pressure, or really anyone trying to watch their salt intake. A 2015 study published in The British Medical Journal found that people who ate spicy food six to seven days per week had a 14 percent lower mortality rate. So, it may be worth adding one of these healthy hot sauce recipes into your dinner rotation.
How do you use and cook with harissa?
Harissa is most often found in the form of a ready-to-eat paste that is sold at most grocery stores or can be made at home, but it’s also available in a powder that is simply mixed with olive oil and lemon juice when you’re ready to use it. Similar to chipotle or Sriracha, harissa can be used in a marinade, to season a dish while cooking, or as a final addition at the end. Swirl it into hummus, yogurt, dressings, and dips because the cool, creamy flavors balance the heat, says Martinet. A new way Naon uses the spice is with a harissa aioli or in Moroccan sauces like heryme, which is a blend of harissa with added olive oil, fish stock, cilantro, and peppers. “This sauce is incredible to poach fish and makes for a tasty dish,” he says. At Taboonette, harissa is left on the table that customers can use to add more spice to their hummus bowl, kebab, or shawarma.
Image zoom Smoked chickpeas stew. Delicious vegetarian lunch on a rustic wooden background, top view OksanaKiian/Getty Images
Recipes That Use Harissa You *Have* to Try
Grilled Lamb Kebabs with Harissa & Figs: If you haven’t tried lamb outside of a restaurant, these kebabs will change your mind. A marinade made with yogurt, harissa, mint, orange juice, and honey imparts so much flavor to the grilled meat.
Sheet Pan Harissa Chicken and Sweet Potatoes with Lime Yogurt: Dinner honestly doesn’t get much easier than this recipe with harissa. Chicken, sweet potatoes, onion, and harissa paste are baked, then topped with a simple yogurt sauce for a cooling effect.
Carrot Harissa Salad: The fresh kale, spinach, pomegranate arils, and olives balance the spiciness of the harissa.
Roasted Shawarma Cauliflower Steaks with Harissa Tahini: This recipe proves that plant-based cooking doesn’t need animal protein for flavor. Coat your cauliflower steaks in olive oil and honey before roasting in the oven. Whip up the harissa-infused tahini dressing to drizzle on top while they cook.
Easy Shakshuka with Harissa: Give a spicy kick to this traditional baked eggs dish by adding harissa to the stewed tomatoes. Serve the one-pan meal to your friends to crush the ultimate #brunchgoals.
For even more cooking inspiration with wow-worthy flavor try one of these Moroccan recipes that will have you booking a flight to Marrakech.
- By Shannon Bauer
Everything You Need to Know About Harissa
Photo: Thomas J. Story
Whether dolloped atop a pita sandwich, rubbed into a piece of flame-grilled meat, or mixed into a fiery stew, chances are you’ve tried harissa, the chili-laden spice blend that has experienced a boom in popularity in recent years.
Like Zaatar and Tahini, harissa has recently gotten a boost in its international profile thanks to an increased interest in and craving for Middle Eastern cuisine around the globe. Not to be confused with the dish called harisa, a thick Armenian porridge made with chicken or lamb, harissa seasoning is a versatile spice mix that typically takes the form of a paste and can be used to flavor a multitude of heat-friendly dishes.
Easy never tasted so awesome.
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Though the specific recipe varies from region to region and maker to maker, the essential ingredients include variety of hot peppers—typically including red peppers, serrano peppers, and Baklouti pepper—garlic, coriander, caraway, saffron, mint, and occasionally rose. The blended spices are then often mixed with olive or vegetable oil and served in paste form to maintain the freshness and flavors longer.
WATCH: How to Make Your Own Sriracha
While the addition of rose isn’t a given in every blend of harissa, many spice mongers and cooks incorporate the flower into their mixes, as the floral sweetness tends to balance out the intense spice of the chilies well.
With roots in Northern Africa, in the Mahgreb region now occupied by Morocco, Algeria, Libya, and Tunisia, harissa’s exact place of origin is uncertain. However, many believe the blend was first created in the spice markets of Tunisia, the first African nation to incorporate chili peppers into their cuisine during a 16th century Spanish occupation. Today, Tunisia remains the world’s top exporter of harissa, though many other countries and spice distributors also produce the fiery mixture.
The spice blend’s unique name is taken from the Arabic word “harasa,” meaning, “to pound.” Though it is often compared to Sriracha and other chili-based pastes and sauces, harissa is used not only as a condiment—to be slathered on bread and sprinkled over dishes for an added kick—but is also an integral part of a countless variety of recipes. In Tunisian cooking, harissa is typically used as a meat rub or to flavor stews, whereas in Israel you’re likely to find it on top of Sabich, a popular Middle Eastern sandwich made with fried eggplant and hard boiled eggs.
While harissa can now be bought in most grocery stores—and online—the best way to experience this rich spice mixture is to make your own, using these recipes for Homemade Harissa Paste or Mad Spicy Harissa.
Once you’ve played around with your chilies and perfected your personalized mixture, the dish options are endless. Go the vegetarian route with Spice Roasted Eggplant with Garlic Yogurt and Harissa or Couscous with Spring Vegetables and Harissa Sauce. Or, try your hand at a spicy meat dish like Leg of Lamb with Spicy Harissa, Tunisian-Spiced Turkey with Garlic Couscous and Gravy, Chicken Thighs with Harissa Vegetables, or Lamb Burgers with Green Harissa. Just don’t blame us if your tongue is a little numb in the aftermath.
Image zoom Photo: Victor Protasio
To learn more about some of your other favorite spice blends, check out Everything You Need to Know About Dukkah, and Everything You Need to Know About Herbes de Provence.
Harissa is a cornerstone of North African and Persian cooking, and growing in popularity due to the burgeoning interest in Middle Eastern cuisine.
Traditionally Harissa is most closely associated with The Mahgreb region, specifically Tunisia, the northern edge of Africa touching the Mediterranean Sea, made up of the modern countries Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria and Libya.
The name Harissa comes from the Arabic verb harasa, meaning ‘to pound’, or ‘break into pieces’. It’s thought to originate from Tunisia, where shoppers in spice souks watch it pounded out while-u-wait. The simplest versions are just the bare bones: chillies, salt and olive oil.
Chillies turn up in Africa
Most historians think chillies first landed in Africa as a result of the Spanish occupation of Tunisia in 1535-74, when chilli peppers first started turning up at the souks (it’s fun to imagine what Tunisian chefs would have made of these fiery new ingredients…what do you think?).
Over the next 500 years, chilli would go on to fire the taste buds and imaginations of cooks all over the globe, in just about every culture. In North Africa, they popped up as Harissa.
Harissa has literally hundreds of uses, adding depth and complexity to any dish. Chefs as diverse as Yotam Ottolenghi and Mary Berry all swear by it – and Nigella Lawson once said she’d like a years’ supply of our Rose Harissa for Christmas.
Harissa is a Tunisian hot chili paste, which is sometimes described as “Tunisia’s main condiment”. Bright red in color, it is served with most meals as a dip and is often used as an ingredient in stews and soups.
Harissa paste is commonly used to season couscous, or as a rub for meat and vegetables. Tunisia is the world’s largest exporter of prepared harissa, producing 22,000 tons a year. The name “harissa” originates from the Arabic word harasa which means “to break into pieces” or “to pound”.
What is the origin of harissa?
Chili peppers were imported into Tunisia during the time of Spanish occupation in the 16th century, and harissa has been part of the cuisine for nearly as long.
The variants of harissa paste
This traditional condiment varies from region to region, with the simplest versions comprised of just chili peppers, garlic, salt and olive oil. Cumin, lemon juice, coriander, onions and tomato may be added into some harissa pastes, and variations from the Saharan regions have a smokey flavor to them.
Harissa sauce is a common ingredient in other Middle Eastern cuisines. In Israel, it is a common topping for shawarma and in Morocco, it is used as a condiment for tagines and mixed into dishes.
Chili peppers belong to the family of foods called capsicum, and contain a substance called capsaicin, which gives them their characteristic heat. They are known to fight inflammation and boost immunity.
There are many varieties of chili peppers and they vary in shape, size and color. Some of the most popular include jalapeño, cayenne, chipotle and habanero. The origin of chili peppers can be traced to Central and South America, and exported across the world in the 15th and 16th centuries.
Traditional Tunisian harissa is often prepared with hot peppers grown in and around Nabeul and Gabes, coastal cities in the east on Tunisia. These chilies are relatively mild, measuring 40,000-50,000 on the Scoville scale. Traditionally, the peppers used to make harissa are dried as they have a stronger flavor and heat to them than fresh ones.
What is tabel?
Tabel (tabil or tawabel), is a spice mixture that is added to harissa for seasoning, and is a common ingredient in dishes in Tunisia and Algeria.
The literal translation of “tabel” is “coriander”, but other spices and herbs are found in the mixture, including caraway, dried onion and hot pepper. Variations of this spice mix include cumin, bay leaves, mint and turmeric.
What is karwiya?
Karwiya (Arabic word for caraway seed) is also known as Persian cumin or meridian fennel. Caraway is native to North Africa, Western Asia and Europe and has an anise flavor and aroma to it.
Harissa has a complex flavor to it thanks to the mixture of spices and the heat of the chili peppers, and it can vary from batch to batch depending on the variety of peppers used. Harissa is much more than a hot sauce, it is milder and it adds a unique depth of flavor to dishes it is added to.
How to make harissa
It can be a little daunting to make harissa from scratch at home, especially when it is readily available in super stores, but the end result is so much fresher, more colorful and textured than any premade paste you will buy.
Although it is tempting to use a food processor, to get the texture of an authentic harissa, it is best to use a meat grinder or mortar and pestle, using a food processor will result in the paste being too smooth.
Harissa can be stored in the fridge for several weeks in an airtight jar, just cover the top of the paste with olive oil to keep it fresh.
This recipe is validated by our expert in Tunisian cuisine, Chef Mounir Arem. Chef Mounir is the chef-owner of the restaurant Le Baroque in Tunis.
Harissa Prep Time 1 hr 15 mins Total Time 1 hr 15 mins Harissa is a Tunisian hot chili paste, which is sometimes described as Tunisia’s main condiment. Bright red in color, it is served with most meals as a dip and is often used as an ingredient in stews and soups. Course: Condiment Cuisine: North African, Tunisian, Vegan, Vegetarian Servings: 5 (1-cup) jars Author: Betty Davies Ingredients
- 6 lb dried red peppers (ideally dried under the sun)
- 1 lb coarse salt
- 3 cups vegetable oil
- 1 lb garlic
- 6 oz. tabel (Tunisian spice blend)
- Olive oil (to preserve)
- Meat grinder (with coarse plate)
- Surgical mask
- It is very important to wear gloves, a surgical mask and goggles for all stages of the preparation of this recipe as peppers could burn depending on their intensity.
- Stem and seed the peppers.
- Soak them in a bowl of cold water, immersing them completely, for 45 minutes.
- Change the soaking water twice.
- Drain the peppers in a colander for 1 hour and shake the colander to get rid of their water.
- Squeeze them with both hands to remove as much water as possible.
- Place the peppers on a large dry cloth and place another dry cloth over them.
- Press firmly on it to dry them well.
- Grind the peppers and garlic cloves in small quantities in the meat grinder (coarse plate), and into a large bowl.
- Mix the ground peppers with coarse salt and half of the oil with your hands. Grind the mixture again through the meat grinder.
- Add the remaining oil and the tabel. Mix well by hand and grind the mixture for a third time.
- Mix again by hand.
- Pour the harissa into sterilized glass jars. Pour olive oil on top and close tightly.
- Harissa can be kept for several months in the refrigerator.
- It is very important to avoid the food processor as the blades will not help get the texture of traditional harissa. A mortar and pestle could replace the work of a meat grinder but it can be much longer and be tedious.
- Dilute with a small amount of water or lemon juice to obtain the desired texture, based on your tastes. However, do not dilute the harissa when it is incorporated in the recipe of a dish in a sauce.
209 Shares Betty Davies is the lady behind Slow The Cook Down. Originally from London, Betty now lives in Toronto with her husband and two cats. Slow The Cook Down was born from a true love of whiling away hours in the kitchen on lazy Sundays with a glass of wine in hand. She loves experimenting with different flavors and trying out new techniques, whilst keeping it accessible for her readers.