Harissa, a spicy chili paste originally from Tunisia and a staple in North African cooking, is one of our favorite condiments at Milk Street. Whether you’ve seen it in Milk Street recipes like our Harissa Roasted Potatoes, read about the hot sauce elsewhere or seen it turn up with increasing frequency on restaurant menus, there’s no doubt harissa is becoming more ubiquitous by the day. No complaints here.
What It Is
Originating in Tunisia before catching on in Libya, Algeria, Morocco, France and eventually the rest of the world, harissa might be one of the original hot sauces. It’s warm and spicy without being incendiary, providing a complex jolt of flavor to boost countless dishes.
Like most foods, harissa’s uses have sprawled and morphed, making it difficult to get agreement on exactly what goes into it. Chilies are a given. Cumin, garlic, lemon and olive oil also show up in most variants. After that it’s murky.
Harissa contains—at a bare minimum—dried chilies, tomato or roasted pepper, cumin, caraway, coriander and olive oil. In Tunisia, you might find spicier blends, whereas in Morocco, other ingredients—like rose water or preserved lemons—might come into play.
How to Make It
Our own Milk Street version—which takes just 15 minutes to make and lasts for up to three weeks in an airtight container in the refrigerator—contains dried New Mexican chilies, neutral oil, garlic, caraway, cumin, roasted red peppers, sun-dried tomatoes, white balsamic vinegar, salt and cayenne pepper. You simply cook the first five ingredients, transfer to a food processor and blend with the rest, seasoning with salt and cayenne pepper to taste.
Where to Buy It
If you’d prefer to buy a jar of harissa, the paste is available at more and more super markets, and we also carry a brand we love in the Milk Street Store called Villa Jerada Harissa. It has a nice balance of sweet and heat that clearly shows off notes of cumin and caraway. Ingredients also include mint and preserved lemon, offering a complexity and brightness we love.
How to Use It
The hot chili pepper paste can be used as a finishing touch or ingredient in a recipe. Here are some quick ideas that show off the hot sauce’s versatility, and below you’ll find some of our favorite harissa recipes.
- Squirt a bit into your hamburger or meatball mix for instant complexity.
- Add it to vinaigrettes for a punch of flavor and touch of sweetness.
- Add a spoonful to any basic marinara.
- Try tossing roasted vegetables with harissa. Wait until the vegetables are almost cooked through before coating them in a couple tablespoons of harissa, otherwise it can burn. After they finish cooking, toss them with chopped cilantro or scallions and a squirt of lemon juice.
- Slather harissa inside a grilled cheese and pair with a mild cheese like Monterey Jack or pepper jack. (Add a little crumbled feta cheese if you have it.)
- Mix harissa with softened, salted butter (equal parts) and slather on blanched broccoli, Brussels sprouts or cauliflower. Stir into a pot of bulgur, couscous or pasta and blend with feta and chopped arugula for an easy meal. Or dollop harissa butter onto resting steaks, chops or roast chicken where it can mix with the meat’s juices for an instant sauce.
- Stir a spoonful or two into Greek yogurt with a pinch of salt and use as a vegetable dip.
- Mix with mayonnaise for sandwiches (perfect with turkey) or egg or tuna salads.
- Add a squirt to deviled egg filling—or a dollop on top for a contrast to the creamy filling. Top with chopped cilantro or a dice of pickled jalapeños.
If you can’t find or make harissa, here’s a good substitution: 2 teaspoons Sriracha + 1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil + ½ tespoon red pepper flakes + ½ teaspoon chili powder.