Pascale's Kitchen: Harissa and other spicy spreads

These days, you can buy jars of harissa in the grocery store in Israel, but it’s not quite the same thing as making it fresh at home.

Harissa (photo credit: PASCALE PEREZ-RUBIN)
(photo credit: PASCALE PEREZ-RUBIN)
A few weeks ago, I received a call from a reader asking about the difference between Moroccan and Tunisian harissa. My answer, of course, was that there is only one type of harissa: Tunisian harissa.
We got to talking about the origins of the various versions of this spicy pepper spread, and I was inspired to dig out my old recipes and offer my readers a couple options.
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These days, you can buy jars of harissa in the grocery store in Israel, but it’s not quite the same thing as making it fresh at home, and each family is proud of its own special formula. But I’d like to reiterate that there is no such thing as Moroccan harissa. Harissa is found only in Tunisian cuisine. Moroccan cuisine does, however, feature spicy spreads that are also made with dried peppers, called sahka and filfel di tvih, which are stored in jars and can be stirred into food.
Moreover, harissa is also not found in Libyan cuisine, which instead is known for a spread called pilpelchuma. A few weeks ago, I was watching a cooking show on TV, and the chef was explaining how to make Moroccan fish using pilpelchuma. The interviewer expressed his shock that the chef was using the Libyan pilpelchuma to prepare a Moroccan dish. I thought for sure the chef would explain that this was his way of making the dish a bit spicier or more to his taste, but no, the chef insisted that this was definitely the original recipe for Moroccan fish.
So, it’s clear that there is a general misconception, and many people do not know how to differentiate between each community’s unique culinary traditions. This is understandable, since all three of these countries are located in North Africa, and there are many commonalities between their culinary traditions. When you look at the products on sale here in Israel, you’ll see that there isn’t even a set way to spell the word “harissa” in Hebrew. Some brands write “harissa” with the letter “alef,” some with the letter “he” and others with an “ayin.”
I remember as kid watching my mother prepare spices, spreads and pickled vegetables at home. She would buy the spices whole and spread them out on a copper tray in the sun to let them dry. After a day or two, she’d pick out all the tiny stones and then grind them into a fine powder using a mortar and pestle, then store them in jars and close the lids tightly. She’d do this every month or two. She’d also take fresh garlic and string the heads so that they could dry in the sun on the porch off the kitchen. She’d also slice tomatoes and let them dry in the sun for a few days before placing them in jars with lots of quality olive oil.
She’d dry fish eggs and then pickle them. She’d buy fresh spicy red peppers and hang them up to dry on the porch in the sun. If we ran out of dried peppers, my mother would come home from the shuk with a huge bag of spicy dried peppers, as well as a bag of sweet peppers. This way, she could play around with the ratio of each, making some powders more or less spicy.
My mom made harissa without any additions: just dried peppers, salt and then olive oil on top to preserve it. The general rule about harissa is that it should be “natural,” and you don’t add any other spices to it, since harissa itself is used to add to dishes as its own spice. Some people do add other spices, such as cumin, to their harissa mixture, and so if your recipe calls for both harissa and cumin, you need to know if the harissa you are using already has cumin mixed in it.
Another way traditional harissa is different from what you will find in the store is that it should be coarsely ground and dark, and not creamy and light-colored, as it will be if you make it in a food processor.
Traditional Tunisian harissa is extremely spicy. You can make less spicy versions of harissa by adding some bell peppers. If the harissa you prepared is too spicy, then split the spread into two containers. Keep one version of the extremely spicy harissa for certain dishes, and then add some crushed tomatoes, olive oil or lemon juice to the other half to make it less spicy. This latter spread is great for adding to sandwiches.
You can mix a little bit of harissa into any dish you want to be a little spicy: pasta, dough, stews, meatballs or fish.
The Ten Commandments for making harissa
1. Buy only quality dried peppers. They still need to be “fresh” even though they’re dried. Peppers turn bright red when they get old, and some of the skin will begin to flake off. It’s best to buy from a seller you trust.
2. Wear gloves when touching spicy peppers, or at least put oil on your fingers before you touch the peppers, especially when you clean and grind them.
3. You can reduce the level of spiciness by soaking the peppers in water for 24 hours before preparing them.
4. You won’t find any seeds in quality homemade harissa, as you will in store-bought versions. Taking out the pieces of seeds is a process that needs to be done by hand.
5. Only freshly ground spices should be used to make harissa, if you want it to last for a long time.
6. Traditionally, harissa was made with a mortar and pestle or meat grinder. Nowadays, it’s easy and quick to make it with a blender by adding the oil or water gradually.
7. If you will be adding spices to your harissa, add them only at the end. Add the salt, too, only at the very end. You can taste and then adjust seasoning.
8. In order to extend the shelf life of harissa, it’s best to add a layer of olive oil on top to seal in moisture. Always close the lid well.
9. If you didn’t use gloves and your hands are stinging from touching the peppers, you can reduce the inflammation by covering your hands with oil, waiting five minutes, and then rinsing it off.
10. If you’re already going to the effort of preparing homemade harissa, it’s best to prepare a large amount so it will last for a long while. You can separate it into a number of small packages and store them in the freezer.
Harissa (Pascale Perez-Rubin)
Makes one jar.
1 kg. dry red peppers
Water for soaking
1 cup salt
2 cups oil
1 cup water
Optional ingredients:
½ head of garlic (or more)
1-2 tsp. cumin (or more)
Some caraway or coriander seeds
Put on disposable gloves. Remove the seeds, pith and top from the peppers. Soak the peppers in water for 15 minutes.
Rinse the peppers well and then grind them with a meat or vegetable grinder. Add the salt, oil and water. Mix well by hand or with an electric mixer.
Transfer the mixture to a jar and then add three tablespoons of oil on top so that it doesn’t dry out.
Spicy pepper spread (Pascale Perez-Rubin)
Makes 2 jars.
Orange spread:
6 spicy habanero orange peppers
3 sweet, large, yellow bell peppers
3 large cloves of garlic
½ tsp. salt
½ tsp. coriander
2 Tbsp. olive oil
Red spread:
6 habanero red peppers
3 sweet, large, red bell peppers
1 tomato
5 sprigs of cilantro
4 cloves of garlic
½ tsp. salt
2 Tbsp. olive oil
For both:
Olive oil to keep from drying out
Put on disposable gloves.
Process all of the ingredients for the orange spread in a food processor until smooth and creamy. Transfer to a jar. Pour enough oil on top so that it covers all the spread, and close lid tightly. Store in fridge.
Follow the same steps to prepare the red spread.
Translated by Hannah Hochner.