Harissa: What is it and where is it from?

The hot pepper has taken many forms when used in cuisine especially when it comes to hot sauce. New sauce creations are being made every day and some newly discovered sauces have been around for a while. Harissa is an example of a hot sauce or paste that has been available on store shelves for decades but recently has become more popular for its medium heat, Moroccan flavor, and variety of uses. The consumers’ desire to try these new flavors has fueled its popularity and has had others inquiring about what it is.

Harissa is a hot and spicy paste or spread made with the baklouti pepper. It originated from Tunisia and is commonly used in the region of North Africa and enjoyed throughout the Middle Eastern region of the world. Harissa is also referred to as a chili paste and is gaining popularity for its use with pasta, roasted vegetables, and couscous.

Where does Harissa come from?

Harissa comes from Tunisia and the Middle Eastern parts of the globe. Like many spicy foods harissa has been around for centuries around North Africa and Tunisia before it was introduced into the mainstream population. The contemporary version of the mass-produced sauce originated in 1948 but was a harissa-style sauce slightly different from what was being made in homes. It is the contemporary version that we consume today although there many recipes available that try to authenticate the original.

What is Harissa made with?

Traditional harissa is made with the baklouti pepper that has thrived in the Middle Eastern and North African climate. The baklouti pepper that harissa is made from was once known to be exclusive of that region but is grown elsewhere in the US that can duplicate the growing conditions.

E-commerce has made sales of harissa and other exotic hot sauce available to consumers across the globe. However, many imitation brands that produce their version do not include the baklouti pepper but use one similar in flavor and color. This alters the flavor slightly from manufacturer to manufacturer but that’s a good way to get a great variation of a sauce. Garlic and salt, like many hot sauces, are also evident in many harissa recipes as well as different types of oils. Olive oil is one of the more common ones.

The baklouti pepper

All hot sauces, pastes, or chili oils begin with the pepper that the sauce is made with. Some sauces will have water, vinegar, or other liquid substances as one of the first ingredients, but the flavor of the pepper should prevail. A paste, like harissa, will almost always have the peppers as the first ingredient to give it the thick paste-like texture that it is known for.

How hot is a baklouti pepper?

The baklouti pepper or Tunisian baklouti pepper is not very hot compared to some peppers of extreme heat used in hot sauces nowadays. A baklouti is below 5,000 SHU (Scoville Heat Unit) and like many hot peppers fluctuates on the scale. It will often be listed between 1,500 and 5,000 SHU. The peppers are also dried and used to make a harissa powder which can then be reconstituted into a sauce or used as a spice. Compare the baklouti to other peppers like the bell, poblano, jalapeno, or habanero to get an idea of the SHU.

Where is a baklouti grown?

The baklouti pepper is native to the Northwestern region of Africa called the Maghreb, which includes Tunisia where harissa is said to come from. This is considered a Mediterranean climate with mild winters and dry summers.  Although not as common as some other hot peppers baklouti are grown in the southern region of the US.

What does a baklouti taste like?

Aside from a little heat toward the end the baklouti taste sweet and with a mild fruity flavor like many varieties of hot peppers. The pepper skin is tough which is why it was probably ground into a paste and not a sauce. The heat level of the pepper will vary greatly depending on the growing conditions but overall are considered mild.

Alternate peppers used in harissa

Many ingredients of harissa change from product to product including the peppers they are made with. Often the ingredient label will state red chili peppers without knowing what the species may be. The red japone pepper can be used in harissa replacing the baklouti but it is much hotter on the Scoville scale. Some commercial harissa recipes use a guajillo pepper in combination with others. These will give a sauce a smoky flavor but will reduce the heat significantly.

Other ingredients in harissa

Aside from the base of the sauce, there are other ingredients common to harissa. This varies from manufacturer to manufacturer but some will try to keep the recipes true to the original form. Oil is another common ingredient in harissa. Many varieties of it will use olive oil although sunflower and soybean oil are also commonly used. Garlic, salt, and coriander are other spices you will find in commercial harissa products.

Sun-dried peppers

Harissa was originally made with sun-dried peppers. Sun-drying peppers gives a much more unique and rich flavor to the pepper. This deep and sometimes smoky flavoring is also evident throughout the paste.

How is harissa different from hot sauces?

One difference harissa has from a traditional, classic, or gourmet hot sauce is the consistency. A classic hot sauce like Tabasco® will have a consistency very close to water but harissa is much thicker due to the way it was originally made. According to zwitafoods.com the literal word harissa comes from the Arabic verb harassa meaning to crush. This is how the sauce was originally made which is why is still a thick textured paste.

What does it taste like?

Like hot sauces, there are many variations to the flavors of harissa. Most manufacturers focus on the flavor of the baklouti pepper as being at the forefront of flavor. Because of the sun-dried peppers, harissa can have a smoky rich flavor that concentrates on the pepper.

What is harissa used for?

Traditionally harissa was served with bread or eaten with couscous, but it is not used as a traditional hot sauce. Now harissa is used as a topping for roasted vegetables or mixed with hummus. It is also used to brighten the flavor of soups and stews. The strong pepper flavor allows it to pair well with meat like grilled pork or roasted chicken thighs.

Why is harissa popular?

Harissa has become popular because it is a “hot sauce” that expounds into the realm of being a new and different sauce flavor. In addition, it is considered an ethnic sauce and this has become appealing to the demographics interested in consuming hot sauce. Its ethnicity and mild heat have introduced harissa into the culinary world with acceptance.

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