Culinary cultures based in steamy equatorial climates all have their own spicy chile condiments, like Mexico’s hot salsas, Indonesia’s sambals, Caribbean vinegar-based habañero sauces—even our own Louisiana’s Tabasco. But harissa, the garlic-laced spice paste of Tunisia, shared also by Morocco and Algeria, imparts a singular fruity complexity in the luxurious stews, sautés, and delicacies of that region. Maybe it’s the redolent blend of caraway, cumin, and coriander seed that typically make up many of the family recipes for harissa, or maybe it’s the sauce’s fragrant olive oil base, but there’s a three-dimensionality to the condiment that gives it a prominent role in whatever dish it touches.
In its native Tunisia, bright red harissa pairs with the national dish, couscous, as both an ingredient and a side condiment. Tunisian cooks stir spoonfuls of it into the broth that traditionally accompanies steaming plates of the granular steamed handmade pasta. And small pots of extra harissa accompany the stewed vegetables, chicken, and lamb that complete the meal.
Influences from nearby Italy are evident in the frequent combination of harissa with pasta. Since the spicy paste can be made to varying degrees of heat, and married with other sauces such as tomato sauce, sweet roasted red bell pepper purées, and mayonnaise, it can and does flavor most savory dishes in North Africa. Just as Mediterranean pesto sauces have become popular as spreads and dips, harissa has become a popular sandwich spread, bringing both depth and hot zip to vegetables, cheeses, fish, and meats piled onto the French breads that still abound in the former colonies.
Harissa is unequalled as a meat marinade because it contains all the elements necessary to transform the ordinary to the extraordinary: salt to bring out the meat’s natural essence, aromatic spices to complement that flavor, bright vegetal acidity that keeps each bite tasting fresh, and fruity olive oil that enables all of these flavors to penetrate the meat. Add to that harissa’s stimulating, chile-fueled heat, and nothing can compare to the full-palate sensations of this condiment.
In Morocco and surrounding regions, tagine is both the name of a dish and the name of the vessel the dish is cooked in. Intricate Moroccan tagines demand equally sophisticated complements, and none is as essential as fiery red harissa. These complex tagines and stews of meats, fruits, legumes, and juicy vegetables exhibit multi-layered flavors that gain immensely from pairing with harissa. The resulting symphony of sensation makes the time-consuming task of preparing a classic North African meal well worth the effort.