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Harissa: The Hot Chili Paste from North Africa You Should Be Cooking With

A healthy shortcut to adding flavor and heat to marinades, sauces, and stews.

Harissa paste, a spicy condiment of Middle Eastern cuisine, is especially associated with Tunisia in Northern Africa. Each region has its own version of the chili paste, whether smoky, zesty from lemon, or tart from tomatoes. The countries in the area all widely use the complex spice much like a hot sauce—to bring heat and flavor to their foods. It consists of spices like toasted coriander, cumin, and caraway seeds (which add an aromatic depth), and chilis, usually red chili peppers (which add the heat).

Flavor, not fat

"Spice is used to impart flavor. It doesn't have to be fat," says John Sorial, the founder of TaDah Foods, a plant-based, globally-inspired food brand that aims to introduce a convenient way to eat harissa.

In fact, adding spice can impart flavor with little carbohydrate or fat content, so harissa is a sure bet to help with a healthy diet. The red peppers are full of vitamin C, vitamin E, iron, manganese, copper, vitamin B6, and vitamin K. Harissa's particular form of vitamin E is a potent antioxidant. The capsaicin that gives the paste its signature spiciness has been proven to reduce blood pressure and inflammation.

How to use harissa

Harissa has a multitude of uses in cooking. You can add it to stews or soups, use it in meat marinades, or mix it in with other condiments for extra heat.

It's delicious swirled into hummus with sweet carrots to counteract the spice or mixed in to kick up ketchup. It's also great for vegetable dishes. Simply adding a little olive oil to thin out the paste makes a tasty drizzle to slather on vegetables before roasting. And adding it to Greek yogurt or labneh makes a wonderful last-minute dip.

By making harissa at home, there's more control over the amount of heat in your harissa. The flavor profile can also slightly change. Blending in a little roasted peppers makes the paste smoky, and tomato paste adds extra acid. Sorial loves the flexibility of the paste, but suggests that a few ingredients stay standard, "Every region or house has their own version. The basics are fresh or dry peppers, aromatic spices cumin, coriander, caraway, fresh garlic, lemon for brightness, and extra virgin olive oil. Everywhere you want to add some spice or bold flavor, I would suggest using it."

Where to buy harissa

If there is no time for the homemade version, you can find these top brands of store-bought harissa:

Jessica Farthing
Jessica Farthing is a freelance writer lucky enough to live on the coast of Georgia. Read more about Jessica