Harissa Is the Spicy Sauce That Will Liven Up Any Dish

Harissa Is the Spicy Sauce That Will Liven Up Any Dish

The chile pepper has found its way into many dishes, sauces, and specialties. In North Africa, especially Tunisia and Algeria, red chiles often become harissa, a widely-used everyday condiment. If you're a fan of heat or layered flavor, harissa should be on your radar and in your fridge. Here's why.

What Does Harissa Taste Like?

Compared to your average big-brand hot sauce, harissa brings another dimension. Like hot sauce, the focus and main ingredient are chiles. But harissa combines chiles with spices like cumin, caraway seeds, coriander, and even mint. The additions vary from place to place, but these spices create a duskier, bolder pepper condiment in any true harissa. In fact, they make harissa less like a condiment and more like an add-on with its own, distinct personality.

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A quick, careful, tip-of-the-spoon taste of harissa from the jar (or tube!) will reveal the different flavors and textures.

Olive oil is one of the main ingredients in a jar of harissa. A top layer of olive oil gives it a creamy mouthfeel and a touch of a fatty lushness. Peppers are pasted rather than liquified, accentuating this feeling. They give harissa the body not of a runny sauce but of a spread with a slightly velvety nature.

Harissa sauce
Harissa sauce

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Since the chile first traveled through colonial channels from Spain and Portugal to North Africa, harissa has been incorporated into the local cuisine. It's a go-to condiment in these southern Mediterranean countries—like ketchup, mustard, or mayo in the U.S. In North Africa, it's used on couscous, grains, sandwiches, and eggs. Its sharply defined flavor profile can lift all kinds of dishes.

Finished with olive oil, harissa keeps nicely in a jar. Even the more affordable, store-bought varieties can taste great.

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And harissa has a lot more uses than a condiment like ketchup or mustard. You can add a spoonful of harissa to a marinade, giving your meat a slight kick. Or you can finish cooked chicken, pork, beef, or lamb with careful smears of harissa, layering new chile-and-spice-based flavors that go smoothly with the warm juices and charred bits.

Warning: Be prudent when using harissa as a simple condiment. Some pastes are hot-hot and can overwhelm the food. A little harissa goes a long way. Before spooning this red paste from the jar, give the jar a quick stir, so the olive oil integrates and you get a more even portion.

How to Use Harissa

What goes well with harissa? The better question might be: What doesn't?

Use harissa for the same purposes you use hot sauce and then some. Add harissa to shakshuka, burgers, stir-fries, a chickpea and butternut squash stew, or roasted pumpkin soup.  Use it to enhance the flavor of grilled and roasted meats, or mix it into aioli as a dip for fried foods.

With a chile paste so potent and versatile, your imagination is the limit.