Tunisian Cuisine — Harissa (or Hressa), Tunisian Red Pepper Condiment

Tunisian food has a lot in common with its North African neighbors.  Meat is eaten with much less frequency than in Western nations, and due to the predominance of kosher Muslims in the culture, pork is rarely served (and is in fact illegal in Tunisia).  Beans, especially chickpeas and favas, are used to fill the protein void, and coastal areas use, as you might expect, a lot of seafood in the local diet.  Whereas the rest of North Africa enjoys a very mild cuisine, Tunisian cookery uses very spicy chili peppers in just about everything.  The origin of Tunisian spicy cooking is unclear, but our guess is that it stems from trade links with Italy, which is Tunisia’s closest European neighbor and also a heat-loving culinary culture.  Spicy food is a way of life in Tunisia, so much so that a common Tunisian proverb states that a man can judge his wife’s affection by the amount of chilies in her cooking.  If the food becomes mild, the husband is prone to the belief that his wife no longer loves him.  Lucky for us, Angie consistently makes spicy food in our home.

Tunisia quick facts:

  • Capital: Tunis
  • Population: 10,777,500 (2012 estimate)
  • Notable Tunisians: Hannibal, Victor Perez, every Star Wars location on Tatooine

Chilies are introduced to Tunisian dishes by a few notable methods, but most frequently it is via the national condiment harissa (recipe follows).  Fiery hot chiles, spices, garlic, olive oil, and sometimes tomatoes are pulverized together into a paste, which can be added to soups and stews, grain dishes, or as a sauce for meats.  Every household’s recipe for the spicy paste is different, and regional differences in its preparation exist as well.  Coastal regions stick to the basic recipe, and Saharan desert areas like to either smoke or roast their peppers and spices to impart a richer, more complex flavor.  We decided to go the Saharan route and roast most of what went in to our harissa, since that is what Luke’s uncle Owen and aunt Beru would have wanted.

Harissa

adapted from From the Lands of Figs and Olives by Habeeb Salloum and James Peters and from Off the (Meat)Hook

  • 17 red Thai bird chilies
  • 4 cloves garlic
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 Tbs coriander seeds
  • 1 Tbs caraway seeds
  • 1 Tbs cumin seeds
  • 2 Tbs extra-virgin olive oil

First, we heated one of our trusty cast iron pans over medium heat for a few minutes, then added the peppers and garlic to roast:

peppersgarlicinpan

Turning frequently, the chilies and garlic were roasted until charred over much of their surface, about four minutes:

peppersgarliccharred

They went into our food processor bowl, then the spices went into the pan to toast:

spicestoasting

Once they kitchen began to fill with the aromas of the toasting spices, maybe two minutes at most, they were removed to our mortar to be ground:

spicesinmortar
Toasting spices is a time-sensitive ordeal. These were a bit overdone.

Once pulverized:

spicesground

…the spices were added to the food processor with the chilies and garlic and the salt:

everythinginporcessor

The mixture was pulsed about ten times, then allowed to process continuously for about thirty seconds until everything was minced finely:

ingredientsminced

The feeder cap from the lid of the food processor was removed and the mixture was buzzed again so we could incorporate the olive oil in a slow drizzle:

oilin

Once the mixture had reached a paste consistency, the harissa was done:

harissacombined

Kept in a small jar in the refrigerator, we expect our harissa to last for about two weeks or so:

harissajarred

Harissa is used as an ingredient in just about every savory food in Tunisia, and also as a table condiment.  Ours was incredibly spicy, beyond what even spice lovers like us would consider acceptable as a table condiment, and could be perhaps improved with the addition of some red bell pepper to the mixture to add sweetness and reduce the heat just a bit.  We can’t wait to try it rubbed on a roasted chicken or maybe tossed with some stir-fried green beans.

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