What to Cook Now
This exotic paste is heating up to become the next sriracha
This paste will punch your palate with a powerhouse of flavor—and history
During the Spanish occupation of Tunisia in the 16th century, the conquistadors brought with them via the Colombian exchange crates of chilies from their escapades in South America. The exchange of cultures between the Moorish and Spaniards bore many wonderful creations in the field of architecture, language, and food.
The Maghrebis, immigrants mainly from Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia, were quick to understand and utilize these new products the Spanish carried with them, from livestock, vanilla, and beans to tobacco, corn, and capsicums. Consequently, this gave birth to the humble table condiment and flavor powerhouse we know as harissa.
There is no “original” recipe for this hot, aromatic paste. Perhaps, each household had their own way of preparing it with varying ingredients. Just like our humble adobo, the Maghrebis kept their secret recipes within the family and passed them from one generation to another. Although harissa is made up of two main ingredients: red capsicums and hot chilies, all other ingredients act as supporting actors to create a truly signature concoction.
Harissa is extremely versatile and can literally be used with anything that lacks punch. Because of its chili content, a lot can go a long way. It pairs well with subtle flavors and creates a back door of flavor that makes the taste buds jump. Adding a dash in a hummus or creating an aioli with a hint of harissa adds depth and character. Pair with a beef, lamb, fish, or poultry and it’s a match made in heaven. It’s not very often chefs come across an ingredient with multiple uses but harissa is an exception.
Whether it’s red or green (depending on the bell peppers used), smooth or grainy (depending on your preferred consistency), spicy or smoky sweet (depending on your palate), harissa always delivers a fiery character to dishes with no personalities. It’s currently hot on the radar because of the Americans’ affinity for hot sauce, which eventually gave fame to cholula chilli sauce and sriracha. Harissa is currently enjoying the same attention, more so with its exotic and multi-cultural history.
It is a relatively simple condiment to make at home, and since its popularity in the Philippines is not yet in its prime, I strongly suggest you try making it from scratch and enjoy pairing it with a variety of flavors.