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Harissa is a spicy North African condiment of Tunisian origins. (It’s not to be confused with sweet Algerian harissa cookies which are like a revani or a basboussa). Harrisa chili paste is always sold alongside olives in our markets. Harissa can vary from mild to extremely hot, so you need to be aware of what you are buying in order not to be disappointed.
The reason why some harissa pastes are milder than others comes down to the use of sweet peppers in the mix. The more you add, if at all, the milder it will be.
Making your own harissa is rewarding on many levels. You can adjust the heat, and you can be sure that no chemicals added, such as that nasty red color usually found in commercially produced harissa.
Types of Harissa in Morocco
There are many harissa recipes. Some use fresh dried red chili pepper while others use fresh chili peppers—red or green—leading to a red or a green harissa. Some add sweet pepper to balance the heat.
Harissa made from dried chili peppers lasts longer since the paste is topped with olive oil in its container. The version using fresh pepper needs to be kept in the fridge or ideally frozen to last for months.
My family makes both kinds—one using hot dried chili peppers and another with a mix of hot and fresh sweet pointy peppers. The recipe below is for the fresh pepper harissa.
Mild Homemade Harissa Chili Paste
I’m sharing a family recipe of a mild harissa we use to lift sauces and to give them a red tone. I even use it a spread.
Since we cook with this harissa as well as serve it as a side condiment, we tend to make it mild by using more sweet red peppers than the hot ones. If you want a hot harissa, add more hot chili peppers or use less sweet pepper.
The recipe is open to more adaptation. For example, you can omit sweet peppers altogether and use only fresh hot peppers. In that case you can choose to make a red or green harissa.
If are feeling more adventurous and like fiery condiments, maybe my dried chili pepper harissa is for you.
Moroccan Harissa Chili Paste Recipe with Fresh Peppers
The recipe is fairly versatile. Each family adjusts the heat to their liking according to intended use. In Morocco, we like to add preserved lemons to the mix.
- 2.2 lbs pointy long sweet red peppers
- 8.8 oz fresh cayenne pepper, - more or less
- 4 to 5 cloves of garlic, - peeled
- 1 whole preserved lemon, - seeded and chopped
- 1 tbsp salt
- 2 bay leaves
- 1/2 cup olive oil
- Wash both kinds of peppers. Discard all the seeds and white membrane inside the sweet red pepper and most of the seeds in the hot chili.
- Coarsely chop the sweet red peppers. Use gloves while chopping the hot chili peppers.
- Place all ingredients, except the oil, in a deep heavy-bottomed pot and add about 1 cup of water. Cover and let simmer for 15- 20 minutes.
- Blend all ingredients to a paste and transfer to a saucepan or frying pan. Place over medium heat and add the oil.
- Keep stirring until all the water has evaporated and the sauce looks like a thick paste. Set aside to cool completely.
- Place the harissa sauce/paste in sterilized jars and keep in the fridge for up to a few weeks.
- You could also freeze all or some of the harissa. Pour it into a Ziploc and flatten it so portions can be broken off. Or use ice cube silicone trays; when frozen, transfer the cubes to a plastic bag.
- Instead of tenderizing the peppers by simmering, they can be steamed instead then blended with the rest of the ingredients. Some people also like to concentrate flavors by cooking the peppers in the oven. Roasting helps makes it easy to skin the peppers, which gives a smoother harissa.
- Harissa is served with fish and other dishes. We also use it to spice up some salads and stews.
Nutrition information is provided as a courtesy and is only an estimate obtained from online calculators. Optional ingredients may not be included in the nutritional information.
About the Author
Nada Kiffa is Contributing Editor at Taste of Maroc. A native of Casablanca with strong Fassi roots, she writes about Moroccan and international cuisine at Ainek Mizanek.
Wednesday 31st of May 2023
QUERY ; What happens to the BAY leaves? Do they come out at some point or do you blend them with the rest? Thank you for your answer. J' aim the authenticity of taste of Moroc
Friday 2nd of June 2023
@Christine Benlafquih, Hi Christine, Thank you for your reply. It is good to know the detail about the bay leaves. I look forward to making the harissa. The same variety of peppers might be different where I shop but I'm sure to find something similar. It is great to be able to have your Authentic recipes; the Khobz & Harira which I 1st had in Fez 51 years ago are memorable. Thanks again, Antony
Wednesday 31st of May 2023
I recommend removing removing the bay leaves before blending, then returning them to the pan while the harissa reduces to a paste.
Sunday 23rd of October 2022
This sounds delicious. I've made harissa a couple of times and used it for cooking potatoes and chicken. I'd love to try your version. I actually have an abundance of cayennes from my garden this year, so it's perfect timing that I discovered your website. What type of peppers are the pointy, sweet long peppers? I'm not sure what to look for a the store... Your website is amazing, btw! Looking forward to trying many of your recipes. Thank you!
Sunday 23rd of October 2022
Hi Dawn. You can use your garden cayennes to make harissa or try any other chili or hot pepper. Keep in mind that some peppers have a lot more heat than others! If you want to try making harissa by rehydrating dried peppers, whole dried de Arbol are fairly easy to find and I believe they have a heat factor similar to cayennes.
Monday 31st of August 2020
I tried a Harissa style BBQ sauce made by Private Select that was great. I can't find it anymore so I want to make my own Harissa style BBQ sauce. This recipe sounds great