Make Your Own Spicy Harisa For A Taste Of North Africa

   |  Updated: January 19, 2016 11:06 IST

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Make Your Own Spicy Harisa For A Taste Of North Africa
Image credit: Clifford A. Wright

Given how easy it is to make harīsa, the ubiquitous chilli paste of North Africa, I've never had much use for those inferior tubes of the stuff. Harīsa is the most important condiment used in Algerian and Tunisian cooking, and you need to make this recipe and keep it in the refrigerator before attempting any other Algerian or Tunisian recipe you might have in my or others' recipes.

It's hard to believe that so essential a condiment could evolve only after the introduction of the New World capsicum after Columbus' voyages. It's thought that the chilli entered North Africa by way of the Spanish presidios that dotted the coast in the 16th century or came up from West Africa overland from the Portuguese holdings there.

Harīsa comes from the Arabic word for "to break into pieces," which is done by pounding hot chilies in a mortar, although today a food processor can be used. This famous hot chilli paste is also found in the cooking of Libya, and even in western Sicily where cùscusu is made. In Tunisia it would be prepared fresh at home. The simplest recipe is merely a paste of red chilli and salt that is covered in olive oil and stored.

Harīsa is sold in tubes by both Tunisian and French firms. The Tunisian one is better, but neither can compare to your own freshly made from this recipe.

I first became intrigued with making harīsa from a preparation made by Mouldi Hadiji, my Arabic teacher more than 30 years ago. I concocted this version, based on a Berber-style one I had in Djerba, from a recipe description given to me by a merchant in the market in Tunis, who unfortunately provided measurements that could last me a century (calling for 50 pounds of chilli).Some cooks also use mint, onions or olive oil in their harīsa. You also don't have to use the exact dried chilies I call for, but at least one should be quite piquant.

Be careful when handling hot chilies, making sure that you do not put your fingers near your eyes, nose or mouth, or you will regret it. Wash your hands well with soap and water after handling chilies. After you make your first harīsa, with all the modern conveniences, I hope you can appreciate what exacting work this was, making it in the traditional mortar - 50 pounds of the stuff!

Harīsa

Prep time: 1 1/4 hours
Yield: 1 cup

Ingredients:

2 ounces dried Guajillo chiles
2 ounces dried Anaheim chiles
5 garlic cloves, peeled
2 tablespoons water
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground caraway seeds
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground coriander seeds
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
Extra virgin olive oil for topping off

Directions:

1. Soak the chiles in tepid water to cover until softened, 1 hour. Drain and remove the stems and seeds. Place in a blender or food processor with the garlic, water and olive oil and process until smooth, stopping occasionally to scrape down the sides.

2. Transfer the mixture to a small bowl and stir in the caraway, coriander and salt. Store in a jar and top off, covering the surface of the paste with a layer of olive oil. Whenever the paste is used, you must always top off with olive oil making sure no paste is exposed to air, otherwise it will spoil.

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Variation: To make a hot harīsa, use 4 ounces dried Guajillo chiles and 1/2 ounce dried de Arbol peppers.

Note: To make ṣālṣa al-harīsa, used as an accompaniment to grilled meats, stir together 2 teaspoons harīsa, 3 tablespoons olive oil, 2 tablespoons water and 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh parsley leaves.

CommentsCopyright Clifford A. Wright via Zester Daily and Reuters Media Express.

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