Hot Chili Paste
Makes 1 cup
Harisa is the most important condiment used in Turnsian cooking, and, in fact, you need to make this recipe and keep is in the refrigerator before attempting any other Tunisian recipe. It's hard to believe that so essential a condiment could evolve only after the introduction of the New World capsicum. Harisa comes from the Arabic word for "to break into pieces," which is done by pounding hot peppers in a mortar although today a food processor can be used. This famous hot chili paste is also found in the cooking of Algeria, Libya, and even in western Sicily, where cùscusu is made. In Tunisia it would be prepared fresh in a spice shop. The simplest recipe is merely a paste of red chili peppers 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.
I first became intrigued with making harisa from a preparation made by Mouldi Hadiji my Arabic teacher of twenty years ago. I concocted this version, based on a Berber-style one I had in Djerba, from a recipe description given to me by a merchant in the market in Tunis, who unfortunately provided measurements that could last me a century (calling for fifty pounds of chilies). Some cooks also use mint, onions, or olive oil in their harisa. I modified the recipe after much consultation with an illustrious group of opinionated people, including Chef Moncef Meddeb, Mohammed Kouki, the doyen of Tunisian food experts, and cookbook authors Paula Wolfert, Kitty Morse, Nancy Harmon Jenkins, and Deborah Madison.
Be very careful when handling hot chili peppers, 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 your 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.
2 ounces mildly hot dried guajillo chili peppers
2 ounces mild dried Anaheim chili peppers
5 garlic cloves, peeled
2 tablespoons water
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground caraway seeds
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground coriander seeds
1-1/2 teaspoons salt
Extra virgin olive oil for topping off
1. Soak the chili peppers in tepid water to cover until softened, 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.
To make a hot harisa, use 4 ounces dried guajillo chili peppers and 1/2 ounce dried de Arbol peppers.
To make salsat al-harisa, 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.
A Mediterranean Feast
The Story of the Birth of the Celebrated Cuisines
of the Mediterranean, from the Merchants of
Venice to the Barbary Corsairs,
with More Than 500 Recipes
By Clifford A. Wright
William Morrow & Co., November, 1999
Recipe reprinted by permission.
Visit the Global Gourmet's Tunisia page.
Modified August 2007
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