Ha(i)rissa

You come across all kinds of weird things when googling. I made a typo while googling harissa, and I go this result: Hair Frizz forecast for Harissa, Lebanon. I’m not kidding. Check out that link.

You know I just had to find out if Harissa is named after Harissa in Lebanon. Well, it seems that Harissa originated in Tunisia. Harissa includes chilis, which weren’t indigenous to the region and were brought back from the Americas by the Spanish. Harissa itself is derived from the Arabic and Hebrew word harasa, which means to pound. The name for the other Harissa, in Lebanon, seems to drive from the word haras which means sharp edge, knife, but also sheer edge. Which seems to correspond with the location of the mountain village. Huh. The things you learn.

North African foods and spices are pretty unfamiliar to me. I mean, there are parallels to Indian cooking, with cumin, chilis and so on, and that part I get, but I haven’t experimented with the flavor profile. I also haven’t been to North Africa which, I’m sure, would have given me a great appreciation for the food of that region. Preserved lemons, ras el hanout, Za’atar, and argan oil are all new-to-me ingredients. Especially argan oil, which is supposed to be a great ingredient.

Argan oil is one of those North African ingredients that seems to be ubiquitous these days. You can find it almost anywhere, in the oil section of your grocery store, in health food stores, but also in all kinds of body lotions and so on. It’s supposed to be great for you since it contains Vitamin E, essential fatty acids, carotenes and squalene; plus it’s supposed to be good for your skin and hair. (Please, this is not medical advice – inform yourself!)

Did you know that goats used to climb around the argan trees and eat the argan fruit? The berber people would then collect undigested pits from the droppings of their goats, thus saving the step of cracking the very very hard fruit themselves. Nowadays the oil is gained through press extraction or solvent extraction. The argan trees are endangered and protected by the UNESCO, and the argan oil is produced through women cooperatives, affecting their socio-economic positions.

Anyway, it seems like you could get a whole variety of uses from Harissa. I’m sure you could use it as a substitute to other chili sauces – how about harissa in Mexican food? It would also be an interesting condiment in Asian cooking. I bet harissa would be an interesting pesto substitute, depending on the spice level of course. 101 cookbooks has this really interesting pasta recipe with harissa, kale, and olives. I bet the harissa is a great complement to the stronger flavors of the kale and olives. Smitten Kitchen uses it in a carrot salad with feta and mint. And you know how I love my salads.

I’d love to hear if you’ve used Harissa before, and how you liked it. Do you have any favorite recipes that you use Harissa for? I’m still a bit scared of getting a whole thing of Harissa and finding that I don’t like it, or that I don’t know what to do with it and the Harissa ends up living in my fridge forever and ever. Help a girl out!

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2 Comments

  1. I must admit that I have had very little exposure to North African foods as a whole. The closest thing I can think of is my favorite food of all time Ethiopian food! I wish I knew more, sorry!

    Reply

    1. No problem! Sometimes it’s just so easy to stick with the flavor palette that you know. I think if I eat Harissa in a dish, then it’ll be easier to imagine how I can add it to my cooking repertoire…

      Reply

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