Monday, February 9, 2009
Harissa, Mon Amour
The trip centered around the examination of Roman ruins on the North African country-side -- fascinating history lessons accompanied by long, hot bus rides, scrappy terrain, and sparse desert landscapes. We trekked through the ruins at Carthage, Dougga, and El Jem.
I had the opportunity to travel with a band of Berbers on camel-back. I took tea overlooking the sea at Sidi Bou Said.
I even mastered the art of bartering in the open air markets of Tunis, Sousse, and Hammamet. Despite all those adventures, the highlight of the trip was still, remarkably, culinary.
It would be irresponsible to go without mentioning the gargantuan prawns I ate for lunch at a small road-side restaurant off the coast of the Mediterranean. And a shame to leave out the experience of eating the freshest (and most delicious) local figs one evening for dessert. And certainly the egg and shrimp brik (Tunisian filled pastry, sometimes known as a burek) I ate during a dinner at my hotel is worth mentioning. But, it was something much more simple... a condiment... that captured my heart.
We flew into Tunis early in the day. After an exhausting (and loud) bus ride to our hotel, we were not only extraordinarily jet-lagged, but also particularly famished. So, most of us headed down to the hotel's restaurant for a bite to eat. The restaurant offered an extensive buffet, which included interesting variations on German fare (meant to accommodate the German tourists) and a variety of Tunisian stews. Since the spread seemed a bit overwhelming for the uninitiated, a group of us opted for some small plates -- selecting our food from a smaller "antipasti" bar of sorts, featuring a wide variety of olives, pickles, condiments, and freshly baked bread. Among the offerings was a deep red, oily-looking paste that we were told we could eat with stew or spread on sliced bread.
One bite of the spicy spread, and I was hooked. Harissa became my condiment of choice -- and the flavor accompanied me, without exception, for the remainder of my trip.
Harissa, as I've known it, isn't much more than a paste made of dried, smoked chiles, a bit of garlic, and some olive oil. But, for those who have sampled it, it's a pleasure that goes well beyond the sum of its humble parts. Smoky and sharp with a definite kick, harissa livens up just about anything.
The sauce is excellent when served simply -- as I first encountered it -- with a loaf of crusty French bread. However, it's extremely versatile and makes a great accompaniment for grilled meats, a superb addition to pasta and pasta sauces. It's also excruciatingly good spread on a sandwich.
World Spice Merchants in Seattle makes up a very nice harissa blend. Not quite as I remembered, but the best I've found so far.
If you haven't had enough after all of MY ramblings, check out Amy Scattergood's flattering ode to the North African condiment, which was published in the LA Times in 2007.
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