To make harissa you blend chilli peppers together with garlic, olive oil and aromatic spices into a thick paste using a pestle and mortar, though nowadays food processors are commonly used for that - unless you are a foodie and love cooking in an authentic old fashioned way. This condiment has North African roots and is currently well known across all the continents and is used in multiple cuisines.
There are a couple of opinions about the origins of harissa and chilli peppers in it. Chili peppers arrived in America from Europe, Portugal, in particular. However, chili peppers were used in South American cuisine approximately 7500 BC. One fact is true - North African countries, such as Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria got their chillies thanks to spice merchants from the countries of the New World. Harissa is very popular in Israeli too due to Moroccan and Tunisian migrants that brought their favorite recipes to the country.
Each North African region has its own harissa recipe.
Across Europe harissa is most often served with pasta, pizza or rice, while in the countries of its origin, it is used in couscous, soups, meat and fish dishes and even as a sandwich topping. Surprisingly, couscous has become one of the most popular dishes in France and quit often harissa is served alongside it. There are multiple dishes that call for harissa, for example in Moroccan cuisine it could be added to a shakshuka or tagines and is often used with couscous too.
You can buy harissa in the majority of large supermarkets. It is normally sold canned or in a glass jar, as Mina harissa. You can also get a thick harissa paste sold in a tube. It is also available as a spice powder that should be mixed with olive oil and garlic. One of the most popular harissa substitutes is sriracha, as it also uses chillies as a base; however harissa has much more flavor to it.
According to multiple sources, harissa can be vaguely split into three main varieties: red pepper semi-ready base, multiple variations of harissa sauces as well as more sophisticated sauces with more expensive ingredients, such as rose petals.
Red pepper paste, the basic harissa type – is normally sold in tins and tubes. It looks almost like tomato paste. This is the mildest harissa and it has just a tiny addition of coriander and cumin, which is almost not noticeable. This harissa paste is just a cooking ingredient and is not normally used on its own, as it requires additional spices and olive oil. This is the cheapest one too, and it could be used as a substitute for chilli, as it wouldn't add much flavour to the dish.
Berber harissa, also known as Tunisian harissa is made of dried or smoked peppers. It normally has coriander, cumin and dried garlic. Peppers keep their seeds in and mashed just slightly, to keep the chunky consistency. Due to these peppers, the resulting paste that is rich with olive oil gets a deep red color and looks amazing in soups and other dishes.
Arabic harissa is a classic version of harissa. It’s made of partly-dried or sun-dried and deseeded peppers. It has less red bell peppers and more spices, that’s why the color appears to look more brown than red. Arabic harissa has generous amounts of cumin, garlic and coriander. Sometimes it would also have cloves and cinnamon in it. This harissa normally wouldn’t have any olive oil in it, if store-bought. It’s also cheaper than the previous type.
How to make Harissa – recipe
In order to make harissa you need to have olive oil, chilli peppers and coriander, as a base. For example, Yotam Ottolenghi, an Israeli-British chef famous for his Middle -Eastern cooking, adds red onion, fresh garlic and tomato puree as well as caraway, cumin and coriander seeds to his harissa. Tunisian harissa would normally have caraway seed in it, while the common harissa spice in Moroccan and Algerian one is cumin.
There is no right or wrong recipe to harissa as everyone makes it slightly different. You can adjust the flavor and spiciness by using different types of peppers. Ancho chilis, that are extremely popular in Mexico are considered to be medium heat and have mild fruity flavour. Habanero chilis, for example, would also have a noticeable fruit flavor, but they are super hot, while Ghost chili which is occasionally used for harissa making wouldn’t bring a lot to the sauce except for “burning your face off” flavor.
The basic recipe we provide below is quite spicy as we don’t use any bell peppers. If you prefer milder food – add one baked red bell pepper to the mixture. You can also use green chillies and green red bell peppers to make green harissa, which would be of a nice bright green color, different to usual red-brownish one.
- 4 ounces dried chilli peppers
- 5 garlic cloves
- 1 ½ teaspoons coarse salt
- 1 ½ teaspoons caraway seeds
- 1 ½ teaspoons cumin
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- To make harissa, soak peppers for 15 minutes and meanwhile toast spices on a dry frying pan first. This would bring some extra aroma to it. Then smash all the ingredients using a pestle and mortar and let the harissa sit for a couple of hours – then all the flavours would mingle well. If you don’t have a mortar- just use a food processor to whizz all ingredients together.
- Once ready, transfer it to the glass jar and top up with olive oil for storage.
Instead of making your own harissa, you can get one of Mina harissas. Mina harissas are made in according to traditional Moroccan home cooking recipes and come in a different varieties: mild and more spicy, as well as green harissa.
If you have already prepared or bought you harissa, explore our recipes and harissa-inspired articles to get some ideas on how it can be consumed
- Moroccan and harissa couscous recipes – Moroccan couscous dishes featuring harissa.
- Top 7 harissa dip recipes – harissa can be used as a dip on its own or as an ingredient for other delicious dips that are great with bread or veggies.
- Harissa uses and recipes that may surprise you – explore less conventional uses of harissa
- Harissa roasted vegetables recipe – flavorful and simple side dish