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African, Tunisian, mediterranean

Photo by: Joseph De Leo
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On a recent trip to Tunisia, I saw a cooking demonstration in which harissa was prepared in several different ways. Frankly, I came away in a state of confusion and have since done my best to decipher the ingredients in versions I’ve tasted in New York, and have consulted the works of my favorite North African food experts, Paula Wolfert (Mediterranean Grains and Greens), Kitty Morse (North Africa: The Vegetarian Table), and Habeeb Salloum and James Peters (From the Lands of Figs and Olives). Like so many recipes, nobody seems to agree on everything, but certain ingredients appear with sufficient frequency that I feel confident they’re authentic. Most surprising are caraway seeds (something I associate with rye bread and aquavit), but the other ingredients are typical of cooking throughout the Mediterranean. Lest I lead you to think that making harissa is an entirely straightforward process, I must warn you that another spice mixture—tabil—enters into its preparation and that, in order to grind the tabil in the blender (although if you use a coffee grinder, you can make less), you’ll need to make enough to last you a rather long time. You may, however, find yourself an harissa addict—I smear it on toast and dollop it on just about any stewlike dish of meat or fish.

Yield: Make 1 2/3 cups


The Tabil

  • 2 tablespoons caraway seeds
  • 2 tablespoons coriander seeds
  • 1½ teaspoons good quality curry powder

The Harissa

  • 6 ancho chilies, dust wiped off with a damp towel
  • 2 garlic cloves, peeled, finely chopped and crushed to a paste with the side of a chef's knife
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 ripe tomato, peeled, halved crosswise, seeds squeezed out, and coarsely chopped
  • 1/4 cup pure  olive oil (not extra virgin) or vegetable oil

  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil


First the tabil (To make 1/3 cup): Combine the caraway seeds, coriander seeds, and good quality curry powder in a coffee grinder (if you’re using a blender, you’ll need to double these quantities) and puree to a powder, about 2 minutes. (Most recipes for tabil call for red pepper, but since we add it later to the harissa, there’s no need to use it here.) The tabil will keep in a small jar in the freezer for up to a year.

Now the harissa: Cut the stems off the chilies and then cut the chilies lengthwise in half. Brush out the seeds. Put the chilies in a bowl and pour over 2 cups of boiling water. Let the chilies soak until they become pliable and leathery, about 30 minutes. Drain, squeeze out the excess water, and discard the soaking liquid. Coarsely chop the chilies.

Combine the chilies and the rest of the ingredients except the extra virgin olive oil in a blender and puree until smooth. Spoon the mixture into a bowl and work in the extra virgin olive oil a tablespoon at a time. (I don't put the extra virgin olive oil in the blender with the rest of the ingredients because it sometimes turns bitter.)

© 2001 James Peterson

Nutritional Information

Nutrients per serving (% daily value)

Nutritional information is based on 26 servings.

42kcal (2%)
8mg (1%)
1mg (2%)
4mcg RAE (0%)
0mg (0%)
90mg (4%)
0g (2%)
4g (7%)
0mg (1%)

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