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The Star Condiment of Tunisia: Harissa

posted on: Oct 10, 2018

By: Blanche Shaheen/Arab America Contributing Writer

Sometimes all you need to transform a simple everyday dish into something exciting is an exotic condiment. Full of complex flavors that sync harmoniously together, like cumin, coriander, mint, garlic, and red pepper, Harissa is enormously popular in the North African Arab regions like Tunisia for good reason. Bright red in color and smoky, slightly sweet and spicy in flavor, this sauce can be served as a dip but adds an edge to soups, stews, meats, and grains. Tunisia happens to be the world’s largest exporter of harissa, producing a whopping 22,000 tons a year. The word “harissa” originates from the Arabic word harasa which means to pound or break into pieces. Indeed, to make this paste you can use a mortar and pestle to pound the ingredients together with the traditional way, but the following recipe uses a food processor for the busy modern home cook.  

Harissa was created around the same time chili peppers were imported into Tunisia during the Spanish occupation in the 16th century. Every region in North Africa has its own special recipe, but the foundation usually contains cumin, olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, and chile.  This sauce is traditionally so intense that a little goes a long way, but this particular recipe uses a bit less spice so you can use an extra amount over your chicken, fish, roasted potatoes, or rice dishes. This would also make a unique Middle Eastern style bruschetta, just spread over toasted baguette slices and serve.

For the video tutorial, click on the video below:

Ingredients for Harissa:

1 large red bell pepper

1 small red onion (peeled and quartered)

6 cloves garlic

1-2 red chile peppers (depending on your tolerance for heat)

1 tbsp tomato paste

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

2 tbsp lemon juice

1 tsp cumin

1 tsp ground coriander

1 tsp mint

Salt to taste

A handful of cilantro (or parsley if you don’t like cilantro)

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Onto a baking sheet add the bell pepper, onion, hot pepper, and garlic. Drizzle with the olive oil and rub onto the vegetables to make sure the oil is well incorporated. Sprinkle with salt, and bake in the oven for 20 minutes. Take the bell pepper and hot pepper while hot, transfer to a plate and cover with a glass bowl for about 15 minutes. The condensation will make it easy to peel the pepper. Then you can peel and remove the seeds from the peppers, use gloves to avoid burning. Take all of the vegetables and add them to the food processor. Add the rest of the ingredients and pulse until you get a chunky paste-like consistency.


Blanche Shaheen is a journalist, food writer, and host of the cooking show called Feast in the Middle East. She specializes in Arab cuisine of the Levant and beyond  You can check out her cooking video tutorials and cultural commentary on growing up Arab American at    Her recipes can also be found at: