In 2014, Food & Wine called it the “new sriracha” sauce. Time named it one of 2015’s food trends. Jamie Oliver has been using it in recipes for years. London’s Yotam Ottolenghi learned to make it for a 2013 episode of his BBC TV show Mediterranean Feast. US chefs have been playing with it, too; Seattle’s Renee Erickson features it in a delightfully fiery dish of roasted carrots and fennel.
While it hasn’t yet become the next sriracha, harissa – Tunisia’s delicious chilli paste and one of the world’s great condiments – deserves to be in every pantry. Robust and with a nutty, pungent earthiness behind the heat, it gives a range of dishes a vivacious and dynamic backbone with more complexity than most other hot sauces offer.
Since I fell for harissa on my first trip to Tunisia 12 years ago, it has become one of my kitchen staples. It goes into not only such Tunisian favourites as couscous and spicy seafood pasta, but a multitude of global dishes.
A spoonful whisked into mayonnaise makes a speedy and rich sauce that adds the depth of garlic, caraway and coriander to the classic Spanish dish of patatas bravas. It’s great for marinating skewers of chicken, delicious stirred into a pot of stewed lentils, and a spoonful adds a jaunty punch to scrambled eggs (particularly delicious when eaten as a vegetarian taco).
But if I have some homemade harissa on hand, or an artisanal jar from Tunisia, then I simply spoon some on a dish or give it a lacing of bold olive oil and use it as a dip for bread.
Workers in a field on the outskirts of al Haouaria, at the tip of Cap Bon in Tunisia. The peninsula is an important agricultural area and key producer of chilli peppers used in harissa (Jeff Koehler)
The heartland of harissa is Tunisia’s Cap Bon peninsula, which locals call terre rouge, or “red land”, not only for soil that deepens in hue in the late-afternoon light, but also for the different types of peppers that ripen and turn bright red in autumn. The capsicum peppers that reached Tunisia in the 16th century after being brought back to Spain from the New World took particularly well to the peninsula’s climate and soil. Fittingly, the country’s most famous harissa brand (and best-known export) is named for the lighthouse at its tip, Le Phare du Cap Bon.
The one thing you can’t ignore
Cap Bon juts off northeast Tunisia like a thumb pointing toward Sicily. From nearby Tunis, it takes four or five hours to circumnavigate. The road around the peninsula passes through commercial towns with busy weekly souks, ruins, old Roman villas, the fishing port of Kebilia – with an ancient fortress towering above it – and salt flats before ending in Nabeul on the southeast shore. Along the way, glimpses of the brilliant Mediterranean flash behind orderly rows of gnarled olive trees, vineyards and fields of melons, tomatoes and – most famous of all – peppers.
After being harvested, chilli peppers are sun-dried until the long, tapering pods, some five or six inches in length, turn a rich, ruddy crimson colour and take on a smooth, leathery sheen. It is a common sight to see a wire running over the patio of a home, with drying chillies and long ristras of dried ones hanging from hooks. The chillies are similar in shape and colour to larger New Mexico varieties.
While harissa is widely available in cans and tubes in stores, and by weight in market stalls that sell olives, preserved lemons and capers, many Tunisians prepare their own.
It’s simple, I was told repeatedly on a visit this summer by people in markets, spice shops and around Nabeul, the peninsula’s spice (and pottery) capital.