Originally from Tunisia, harissa is a traditional condiment commonly used in Middle Eastern and North African cooking. Like ketchup or Sriracha in the U.S., harissa is widely used every day in southern Mediterranean countries by those who are fans of heat and layered flavor. Like hot sauce, the focus and main ingredients in harissa are chiles, and its sharply defined flavor profile can lift all kinds of dishes.
Typically, harissa features a base of hot and sweet red peppers that have been roasted or grilled. Recipes vary among different countries, but most versions of this spicy paste include a blend of hot chile peppers, garlic, olive oil, vinegar, and whole spices such as mint, caraway, cumin, and coriander that are cracked and toasted. Other common ingredients include tomatoes, lemon juice, or rose petals that can be added to create tasty variations. Harissa is spicy, smokey and packed with rich, deep flavors. Depending on which peppers and chiles make up the sauce, harissa can range in levels of heat. For a very spicy harissa, use a blend of cayenne, chile de arbol, or cayenne with a milder chile like ancho chiles. For medium spiciness, use a blend of New Mexico chiles with guajillo chiles.
Harissa is commonly found as a paste, but it can also be a powder. The main difference is that the paste incorporates moisture, whether it be in the form of oil, water or a combination of the two. The powder is simply a dried version of the peppers and spices. The flavor profile of harissa powder is similar to the paste, but it offers different culinary uses. The powder can be used the same way as cooking with any dried spice blend, or it can be mixed with oil and water to make a harissa paste.
Harissa is a flavorful and incredibly versatile ingredient that has found its way into many dishes, sauces and specialties. Harissa can be spread on sandwiches, used in rice or couscous dishes, mixed into mayo, added to ground meat or used as a topping for scrambled eggs. It can be used as a marinade to enhance the flavor of grilled and roasted meats or mixed into aioli as a dip for veggies or fried foods.
A little harissa goes a long way, and from marinades and braises to dips and dressings, it can add a spicy kick to just about anything.