Harissa: It’s Moroccan, It’s Red, and It’s Hot!

Some like it hot–and some not.

I like stuff hot, and as longtime readers of this blog should have figured by now, I will put chilies into anything, including chocolate truffles and brownies.

So, of course, since I am learning about and cooking Moroccan foods these days, it only stands to reason that I would feel the need to make my own jar of harissa to put up in the fridge. I mean, if I am going to be making my own preserved lemons because they taste fresher than the ones you buy in the store (and they very much do taste fresher), then it only stands to reason that I should give harissa a shot, too.

I am glad that I did.

I have eaten harissa from the store before, and while it is kind of hot and tasty, it is mostly hot and salty, though it tends to have a weird bitter edge. I suspect that this is from some of the preservatives and the vinegar they put in it in preference to the lemon juice that the cookbooks say to use in it. To be honest, most of the commercial harissa I have tasted has left me rather cold, and gave me a less than stellar impression of the beautiful, flavorful and fragrant foods of Morocco.

Homemade harissa, on the other hand, is a scarlet sauce that is filled with the heat of chilies, the sweetness of roasted bell peppers, the bite of garlic the smooth fruitiness of good olive oil, the tang of fresh lemon juice and the musky aroma of cumin. Oh, yeah, and there is salt in there, too–but it isn’t as overpowering a flavor as it is in the commercial kind.

I am a convert.

The other cool thing about making your own harissa is that you can make it as hot or mild as you like by either adding more roasted red bell pepper or by using milder or hotter red chilies. For mine, I used my last harvest of Kung Pao chilies from the garden on my deck–they are about the same in heat level as a cayenne, and I used a fairly small roasted red bell pepper.

It turned out wonderfully tangy-hot, with a lovely scarlet macaw color that looks quite vibrant in the jar or on a plate.

Once you have made harissa, what do you do with it?

Well, anything you would do with any other hot sauce. Put it in soups, stews or sauces to perk them up. Add it to any sort of egg dish, but especially scrambled eggs. Use it in a marinade for meats, use it in cooking or as a table sauce. (If you make that white bean and greens soup from Tangier I wrote about yesterday, you can put some harissa in it for a little extra kick. It’s really good that way.)

If you keep it tightly covered and keep the top covered with a layer of olive oil, your homemade harissa will stay fresh for six months in the fridge.

You can’t beat that, really.

Besides, with the holidays coming, homemade harissa would make a great gift for any hot-sauce heads among your family and friends.


20 fresh red cayenne chilies
1 roasted red bell pepper, skinned and seeded
10 cloves garlic, peeled
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil, plus about a tablespoon to go on top of the sauce for storage
1 teaspoon or more of salt
freshly ground roasted cumin seeds, to taste (I used about 2 1/2 teaspoons)
pinch ground cinnamon

Cut the stem ends off the chilies, and cut them roughly into smallish pieces. Cut up the bell pepper into chunks, and the garlic cloves into several pieces.

Put these all in the bowl of a food processor, food grinder or chopper, and puree or mince very finely. Add the lemon juice, olive oil, salt, cumin and cinnamon and process until a sauce that is fairly liquid, but still with good body, is formed.

Put into a clean jar just large enough to fit the sauce without leaving a lot of air space. Cover the top of the sauce with a thin layer of olive oil, close tightly and store in the refrigerator, where it will keep safely for six months.


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  1. That sounds really good. There are so many things that you can do with a hot sauce.


    Comment by Ben — November 28, 2007 #

  2. Now that I’m getting into Moroccan and Tunisian cooking with my handmade (not by me!) tagines, I’m going through harissa really quickly. Every now and then I make my own, just for fun. Thanks for sharing your recipe.

    Comment by Lydia — November 28, 2007 #

  3. Sounds yummy, but after this evenings dinner, I might have to cut back on the cayennes with something milder. I had a little General Tsao Chicken tonight from the buffet, and decided to eat half a chili with my bite of chicken, instead of a 1/8″ piece of chili. I had to force myself not to make noises afterwards! Rangoons and tea saved me, whew! Of course hubby was chuckling.

    Comment by Sherri — November 29, 2007 #

  4. I’ve recently started making my own salsa fresh. What a difference! And hey, Moroccan food is tasty. This one is going on my “to cook” list.

    Comment by Michael Leuchtenburg — November 29, 2007 #

  5. Thanks for this! I’ve always been really disappointed with canned harissa – the stuff I’ve had just seems to taste of salt, capsaicin and caraway (not even cumin!) and it was definitely the real deal from Morocco.

    Comment by Fernmonkey — November 29, 2007 #

  6. I’m trying this one! We love hot sauces at our house.

    Comment by valereee — November 29, 2007 #

  7. Hooray for Harisa- I found this on Clifford Wright’s site on Mediterranean Food. His is very good and is the one that I make but I’m going to try your recipe as well. You can’t have too much harisa in the house. I have even mixed it with a tiny bit of cream and served it as a “quick” sauce for pasta and found it totally yummy.

    Harisa (also spelled, incorrectly, as harissa) is the most important condiment used in Algerian and Tunisian cooking, and, in fact, you need to make this recipe and keep it in the refrigerator before attempting any other recipe from those cuisines. It’s hard to believe that so essential a condiment could evolve only after the introduction of New World capsicums. Harisa comes from the Arabic word for “to break into pieces,” which is done by pounding hot chiles in a mortar, although today a food processor can be used. This famous hot chile paste is also found in the cooking of Libya, and even in western Sicily where cùscusu is made. In Algeria and Tunisia it would be prepared fresh in a spice shop. The simplest recipe is simply a paste of red chiles and salt that is covered in olive oil and stored. Harisa is sold in tubes by both Tunisian and French firms. The Tunisian one is better, but neither can compare to your own freshly made from this recipe. Be very careful when handling hot chiles, making sure that you do not put your fingers near your eyes, nose, or mouth or you will live to regret it. Wash your hands well with soap and water after handling chili peppers. After you make you first harisa, with all the modern conveniences, I hope you can appreciate what exacting women’s work this was, making it in the traditional mortar.

    Yield: Makes 1 cup
    Preparation Time: 1:15 hours in all

    2 ounces dried Guajillo chiles

    2 ounces dried de arbol chiles or any dried finger-type chile

    5 large garlic cloves

    2 tablespoons water

    2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil and more for topping off

    1/2 teaspoon freshly ground caraway seeds

    1/4 teaspoon freshly ground coriander seeds

    1 1/2 teaspoons salt

    1. Soak the peppers in tepid water to cover until softened, about 45 minutes to 1 hour . Drain and remove the stems and seeds. Place in a blender or food processor with the garlic, water, and olive oil and process until smooth, stopping occasionally to scrape down the sides.

    2. Transfer the mixture to a small bowl and stir in the caraway, coriander, and salt. Store in a jar and top off, covering the surface of the paste with a layer of olive oil. Whenever the paste is used you must always top off with olive oil making sure no paste is exposed to air otherwise it will spoil.

    Note: To make salsa al-harisa, that is, harisa sauce, used as an accompaniment to grilled meats, stir together 2 teaspoons harisa, 3 tablespoons olive oil, 2 tablespoons water and 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh parsley leaves.

    Posted: 01/08/2007

    Comment by Nancy — November 29, 2007 #

  8. I really like the harisa spice mix sold by the Savory Spice Shop here in Denver (which you can order online). It’s extremely fresh, and uses the traditional chilies used in the North African kitchen. It’s also very flavorful and hot, so a little goes a long way. I make my harisa by blending this spice mix with olive oil, grated lemon zest and lemon juice. I use it a lot to marinate beef and lamb before stewing.

    I once tried to make this from fresh chilies about a year or so ago, and I couldn’t handle that many fresh chilies at once (I’m highly sensitive to them, more than 3 will burn my eyes and any exposed skin just from oils released by chopping them up), so I’ve decided to make harisa using this dry spice mix, and I think it is just as good as the fresh (I also can’t find the traditional chilies used, fresh, around here) I store the unblended mix in my refrigerator to keep it fresh.

    Comment by Roxanne — November 29, 2007 #

  9. My Tunisian friends eat this. It’s very similar to the Yemenite schug, which is also very very good stuff.

    Comment by Hadar — November 29, 2007 #

  10. Thank you so mcuh for the recipe. I am making mine right away…

    Comment by Suganya — November 29, 2007 #

  11. This sounds wonderful – and like an elusive sauce I had in the Marais in Paris, at a wonderful little restaurant, along with Turkish salad and Felafel stuffied into Pitas. I’ve gotta try this.

    Meanwhile, if you want something more violent, check out the South Indian chilli sauce on my blog 🙂

    Comment by Bird's eye View — November 30, 2007 #

  12. Ooo … I love harissa! Never thought of making it, but now I want to try it out. Thanks for the recipe!

    Comment by Kaykat — November 30, 2007 #

  13. How big of a jar would you want for this? My brother-in-law is getting a tagine for Christmas from another family member, and I’ve got his stocking this year, so I was thinking to make preserved lemons and harisa for him — I just don’t know what size jar I need.

    Comment by Elizabeth — December 5, 2007 #

  14. I’d say probably a four or five ounce glass jar would do, Elizabeth.

    Comment by Barbara — December 6, 2007 #

  15. I was thinking about making a table sauce your suggestion sounds perfect.I can keep it for six months with olive oil on its top ..perfect! perfect! .You made my cooking day!

    Comment by Cruelty-free vegetarian store — December 6, 2007 #

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