What Is Harissa and Can You Handle It?

Americans have their BBQ sauce, Italians have their marinara, Greeks have their tzatziki. You can spend years exploring all the sauces from around the world. One sauce that is new to me, and one that I am really excited about, is harissa. Let’s talk about it.

What is harissa?

Harissa is a pepper-based sauce that originates from the Northern Arabic countries of Africa: Algeria, Morocco, Libya, and Tunisia. Way back in the Age of Exploration, when European countries transported things back and forth between the Americas, Africa, and Europe, it is believed that Spanish colonists introduced the chili pepper into Northern Africa. 

Over time, the chili pepper evolved into its own local cultivar: the Baklouti pepper. Primarily grown in Tunisia, they are the basis for harissa. Today, Tunisia is the largest exporter of harissa around the world and UNESCO lists harissa as part of Tunisia’s Intangible Cultural Heritage

Cooks often add harissa to meat and vegetable stews and use it as accoutrement to couscous. It can also be used as a sauce on grilled meats and vegetables.

What is in harissa?

There are many variations on harissa; each country listed above has their own slightly different version and there are even regional variations within Tunisia. But there are a few constant ingredients.

First is the Baklouti pepper; every Tunisian version of harissa starts here. The peppers are roasted and ground into a paste and then mixed with salt, garlic paste, coriander, caraway seeds, cumin, olive oil, and lemon juice. There are varieties out there that add onions or crushed red pepper. There is even a version that uses rose petals.

What does harissa taste like? Is harissa spicy?

Harissa is very pepper forward and often has a strong smoky taste thanks to the roasted peppers. There are also strong hints of garlic and citrus from the lemon juice. The flavor is slightly similar to sriracha, but sriracha tends to be sweeter than harissa.

The Baklouti pepper falls between 1,000-5,000 on the Scoville scale, which is about the equivalent of a jalapeño. Harissa does tend to taste spicy, though, because there is not much in there to help cut the heat.

Harissa sauce vs harissa paste vs harissa seasoning: What’s the difference?

Harissa paste has the same texture and consistency as canned tomato paste. This version is a better ingredient to use in soups and stews. Harissa sauce is harissa paste diluted with olive oil, making it a better option for a dip or spread. Harissa seasoning is a powdered version of the paste that attempts to replicate the flavor of the paste/sauce. It usually has a base of chili pepper with cumin, coriander, and ground caraway seeds.

What is the correct harissa pronunciation?

Google says “huh-REE-suh,” so stick with that!

About the Author

Luke Field

Luke Field is a writer and actor originally from Philadelphia. He was the former Head Writer of branded content at CollegeHumor and was also a contributing writer and actor to the CollegeHumor Originals cast. He has extensive improv and sketch stage experience, performing both at The Upright Citizens Brigade Theater and with their Touring Company. In addition to writing, he also works as a Story Producer, most recently on season 4 of Accident, Suicide, or Murder on Oxygen. Keep your eyes peeled for his brief but impactful appearance as Kevin, the screaming security guard, in the upcoming feature The Disruptors, directed by Adam Frucci.

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