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.
Harissa paste is a North African chili paste with different spices from family to another. Originally Tunisian, you will find it used and sold across the Maghreb countries.
This version of harissa is made using fresh cayenne peppers for heat but also fresh sweet pepper (pointy ones) for body and sweetness.
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.