It was during a trip to Morocco last year where I was first exposed to harissa, a thick, hot paste of red chiles. It's a staple in neighboring Algeria and Tunisia, and just recently making inroads in Morocco. "When I first walked on Moroccan soil, harissa didn't even exist," Moroccan food expert, Paula Wolfert, told me. "At that time, it wasn't in the tradition of Moroccans to use harissa. Moroccan food is more sweet and savory, not sweet and spicy. It was foreigners, like us, who would find the food a little bland, and use it."
Nowadays, Moroccans stir harissa into a broth to drizzle over couscous or dollop into soups and stews. What I enjoy about harissa is the added flavor that cumin, coriander and garlic bring to the spicy paste. Harissa can be found all over North Africa, but it depends on the family whether they buy the condiments or grind chiles, coriander, cumin and olive oil into the blend own their own.
The flavor and heat level of harissa varies depending on how it's made, and it can be found at various grocery stores like Whole Foods. But with a couple roasted red peppers and dried chiles, you can make a batch at home (which I prefer because then I can tweak the flavor to what I like).
- 2 whole roasted red peppers, seeds removed
- 5 to 6 dried chiles (use one variety or a combination like ancho, guaijillo, chipotle, etc.)
- 1/2 cup boiling water
- 1 garlic clove
- 1/2 teaspoon cayenne powder
- 1 teaspoon cumin
- 1/2 teaspoon coriander
- Juice of half a lemon
- Salt, to taste
- 4 to 5 tablespoons canola oil
Place the chiles in a heatproof bowl, and cover with the boiling water. Let sit for 20 to 30 minutes until the chiles are softened. Reserve chile water.
Once chiles are softened, cut top off the chile and remove the seeds from inside the chiles. Add to the food processor or blender, along with remaining ingredients, except salt and oil. Add two tablespoons of reserved chile water.
Purée, slowly pouring in the canola oil to emulsify and thicken mixture (Note: All of the oil may not be needed.).
Season to taste with salt and extra lemon juice. The harissa will keep refrigerated for a few weeks.