Spice Hunting: Harissa, North African Hot Sauce

Spice Hunting

Your guide to the world of herbs and spices—how to spot them, where to get them, and how to cook with them


[Photographs: Max Falkowitz]

During ambitious times I'll dig deep into the spice pantry and start making blends for a special dish I'm preparing. For the rest of (read: most) the time, a ready-made ingredient-condiment hybrid of intense flavor and surprising complexity is nothing short of a glowing gift, whether you're lazily grilling some corn or prepping that lamb for a seven-hour spit roast.

In fact, I'd go so far as to say that if you're fan of heat and have harissa on hand, you can move that sriracha from the front of your fridge to second row. Don't get me wrong: sriracha's a beautiful thing, but I tend to agree with Kenji that it's a little one-dimensional. Powerful stuff, but with the potential to make your food taste like sriracha at the expense of anything else.

Harissa, artfully blended with oil, garlic, and lemon, kissed with cumin and coriander, is a whole different game. It can be as hot or not as you want it to be. And beneath a jolt of sharp, bright chile drums a beat of spice that elevates and compliments instead of overpowers. A blast of heat tinged with citrus adds levity to rich monotones while subtle spices unearth depth. It does as the best spice blends do: increase the range, the highs and lows, of one or two main ingredients, offering a chance for them to strut at full potential while hinting at flavors and ideas beyond.


You can buy harissa in little cans like this. Leftovers can be covered with a layer of olive oil and stored in the fridge.

What does it enhance? Best to look to the cuisines of its birth, the wildly varied and elegantly spiced cooking of Tunisia and Algeria. Think lamb and fish, smoky-grilled or steamy-stewed. Braises and tagines crowning soft-cooked couscous and rice. Eggs, baked or fried, served any time of day. And vegetables as varied as the moods and colors of the Mediterranean.

Tunisian cuisine, the home and headquarters of harissa use and production, is notably spicier than some other African fare, which keeps the flavors wide and varied but the volume turned down. It appeals to sun-drenched food kicked up with spice, a halcyon cuisine for summer inspiration. Consider eggplant and olives and tomatoes, and olive oil with everything. Pair it with mint and parsley and orange rind, vital elements of the southern European season.

Or look to the cooking of Algeria, another harissa-loving cuisine, with its strong French influences. Harissa is the smart and sophisticated update to any number of French-ish classics: roast chicken, steak frites, and ratatouille.

Harissa looks to the modern as well as the past. It is brilliant with corn, excellent in salad dressings, solid in stuffings, spice rubs, and as the swirling finish in soups lean or rich. There is no set recipe for harissa, so you can tailor heat, acidity, and spice to compliment whatever you serve. And with a wealth of harissa varieties on the market, sold in tubs, cans, and tubes, there's one for every cook and dish.


Charred eggplant and tomatoes with harissa and mint.

Part of harissa's appeal to me is how easy it is to buy the good stuff, a value/flavor to effort ratio other ingredients can only envy. But making your own is easy. Soak your favorite chiles (whole or ground) in enough boiling water to soften them, then blend in finely minced garlic, spices (start with cumin and coriander), and add a generous squeeze of lemon and a pinch of salt. Adjust ingredients to your taste, keeping in mind the flavors will mellow a bit and blend as it sits, then cover with a layer of olive oil (the preservative) and refrigerate. For a more exacting method, this recipe from Mediterranean cuisine historian Clifford Wright is a worthy beginning.

I introduce harissa into a dish five or so minutes before it's finished cooking to allow the flavors to meld while preserving bright notes. Go lightly to begin and serve extra as a condiment at the table. Don't worry, your tolerance will build quickly. As may your addiction.