Monday, February 9, 2009

Harissa, Mon Amour

One of the highlights of my college career was a trip to Tunisia that I made with a mentoring professor and a few other lucky students. Although I was already seriously interested in cooking, and a flat-out push-over for trying new ethnic cuisines, I credit this trip with giving me first-hand insight into the brilliance of culturally inspired fare.

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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  1. wow! what an interesting trip. Looks wonderful. My husband would love the harissa.

  2. I love harissa! I've only tried the store bought kind, I want to make my own soon.

  3. I've never tried it but heard of it often. What a trip you experienced which is the best part.

  4. If I close my eyes, I can just about smell this. Come by my blog, I have awards for you.

  5. It sounds really tasty!

    I moved! Check me out at

  6. Hey Lo! Thanks for stopping by OmniEater last week; I've been following your blog for a while and am excited you found me!

  7. Wow, that looks and sounds amaaazing! I love the food memories I've stored from my travels: pebre in Chile, rice dumplings in Japan, real Vermont cheddar... Nothing creates a lasting culinary impression like being a hungry visitor in a strange land.

  8. You were so lucky to have such a wonderful experience - culinarily and site-wise.

    I don't think I've ever had harissa. I have heard of it many time, but I don't think I've ever been anywhere that serves it. I know I'll try it one day and I do look forward to that spicy kick.

  9. Like others, the name harissa is familiar but I don't think I've ever had it. I guess I'll have to wander down to World Spice Merchants and pick some up! Thanks for sharing.

  10. I keep meaning to try harissa. It's right up my alley. You may have given me the much-needed kick in the pants to make some. I bet it'd be killer smeared on shrimp and just eaten in a flatbread.

  11. Ugh, gorgeous. Spread it on me baby! I really love harissa. Why don;t they sell it in tubes? Oh they do. Why doesn't it come out of the tap??

  12. I love harissa, but I'd have loved to have enjoyed it like you did in Tunisia. Thank you for the very evocative post.

  13. I've never tried harissa before, but I know I would like it.
    Thanks for sharing about your trip. I'm jealous.

  14. I love the raw harissa ingredients about to be pulverized...and that waterside photo...I want to sip a drink there.

  15. I absolutely ADORE harissa, and I think if I went to Tunisia I would die of happiness after eating some food.

    I read a book called: Mediterranean Winter, and in the book the author describes a Tuna sandwich he ate in Tunisia that was filled with olives, olive oil and harissa! I have often made this sandwich and dreamed of going to Tunisia!


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