Sauces Uncategorized

All About Harissa, History, Origin, and Variants

It is the national sauce of Tunisia, this famous chili puree, embellished with garlic and spices that raises the oriental cuisine and that is diluted in the broth of couscous. Harissa comes from the Arabic verb harasa which literally means “to crush”, “to grind”.

It is a real red gold for this Maghreb country that exports 15,000 tons of harissa every year. 

What is harissa 

The word “harissa” comes from Arabic (الهريسة) which means “to crush”, “to grind or to puree”. It is native to North Africa, especially Tunisia. This country has been growing chili pepper for more than 4 centuries.

Harissa is a sauce made from strong red peppers, garlic and olive oil. Depending on the region of North Africa from which it comes, the spices vary: cumin, coriander, caraway. Used as a condiment or ingredient, it enhances dishes thanks to its pungent taste.

In Tunisia, harissa sauce is used on a daily basis, raising each of the dishes, even at lunch in a soup made from chickpeas. Generally, it is used to enhance couscous, meat and fish dishes, a sauce, mayonnaise or salad. It can also replace hot pepper to put a little spiciness in some preparations.

Since the main ingredient is hot pepper, harissa can appropriate its virtues. Indeed, the flesh of the hot pepper as well as its seeds and membranes contain vitamin E, vitamin C, iron, manganese, copper, vitamin B6 and vitamin K.

That said, it should be consumed in moderation and especially avoid rubbing your eyes, once the fingers have touched it!

The origin of harissa

Harissa sauce is one of the most common condiments of Maghrebi cuisine, especially Tunisian, which stands out for being spicy and used as a complement to typical meat dishes of the region such as couscous. It can also be used with fish.

Harissa sauce has crossed borders by pairing very well with all kinds of dishes

Red peppers, hot peppers, garlic, cumin, coriander and olive oil. This list of products give shape, once crushed, to harissa sauce, one of the most common in Tunisian cuisine and which has spread to the entire planet.

But how has this sauce come to become one of the main food exports of the African country? According to the history books, it was during the colonization by Spain, in the mid-sixteenth century, when red peppers were imported to Tunisia.

From there, a recipe was created, which varies slightly according to the regions, which has served to complement native meat dishes such as couscous, fish or simply to spread on bread, and whose fame has crossed borders.

The best way to get a good harissa sauce is to crush the ingredients we have mentioned, bathe them with olive oil and let the mixture rest for about 12 hours so that it gains in consistency and the flavors are enhanced.

Harissa sauce can be purchased in large supermarkets although the simplicity of its recipe opens the doors for the most skilled to try on their own to make it in their kitchens. This own initiative allows to calibrate the degree of spicy that you want to apply to the sauce.

The national condiment of Tunisia

Harissa is sometimes described as “the main condiment of Tunisia”, or even “the national condiment of Tunisia”.

It is important to note that it is first consumed as an aperitif (usually in a small plate topped with harissa, olive oil, olives and a few slices of tuna). Harissa is therefore also a condiment for seasoning and enhancing dishes, sauces, broths, stews and soups.

From Cap Bon to Djerba, the country now produces about 30,000 tons of harissa per year and, according to data from the Gica (Groupement des industries de Cannes alimentaires) for 2017, it exports nearly 12,000 tons to more than 40 countries (a third of which are in France) It is, therefore, a historical culinary art, which today extends over a large part of the territory and concerns 15,000 producers in Tunisia.

Since 2014, Gica has set up a quality label to promote harissa produced in Tunisia, which has helped to raise awareness of this culinary food and its promotion in culinary fairs and exhibitions around the world.

The next step today, therefore, is the inscription of the Tunisian Harissa on the list of the intangible cultural heritage of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)…


There are regional varieties depending on the type of peppers (Beldi, Maamouri, Meski, Baklouti or Mserreh), taste and preparation. Thus, Tunisian harissa is prepared with dried chili, garlic, oil, salt and some spices. In Saharan regions, harissa can have a smoky flavor that is due to sun drying.

Harissa is therefore a complex product and is much more than just a puree of peppers. Its flavor is as much derived from the quality of the ingredients (variety of chili, olive oil, variety of garlic, spices) as from its manufacturing process. Tunisian harissa is often made with peppers grown around Nabeul (Cap Bon), Gabès, or Kairouan which are relatively sweet, with notes of 40,000 to 50,000 on the Scoville scale, a scale invented in 1912 by pharmacologist Wilbur Scoville and up to 15,000,000,000.

This scale determines the strength of peppers and peppers based on the capsaicin content. Harissa is usually sold in cans, but it is also found in jars, cans, bottles, tubes, plastic bags and other containers.

Each region has its own recipe!

This basic recipe has given rise, over time and independently of regional diversity, to several variations with varied but equally tasty tastes. The typical harissa of Nabeul, for example, is embellished only with salt, garlic and oil. The peppers and peppers are cooked in water, for about ten minutes, before being pureed. As for the harissa of Djerba, it is among the spiciest. It should also be emphasized that the preparation of harissa obeys several techniques. Some housewives opt for cooking peppers and chilies in water while others prefer steaming. Another important point: the taste of harissa prepared from sun-dried red pepper is considered to be significantly better than that prepared from oven-dried red pepper. In addition to the harissa prepared from the dried pepper, there is the one prepared from the fresh red pepper. The latter is mainly consumed as typical Tunisian hors d’oeuvre, presented with olive oil – another local product – olives and tuna.

Harissa: The Recipe

Harissa is a fiery sauce, capable of lighting a fire in your mouth and returning fantastic flavors to your palate!

With this sauce you can accompany your favorite dishes. In the Maghreb, the area from which this delicacy originates, it is often used to season typical dishes including couscous, kebab, soups, pasta or salads. In addition, in North African homes it is prepared without difficulty almost habitually and is stored in containers to always have it available when you feel like it.

Are you ready to fasten your apron and prepare a spicy and tasty Harissa? Follow our instructions step by step, success is guaranteed!

To make your Harissa first you will need to have fresh red peppers. On the type of chili pepper you will have to decide according to your tastes, and the degree of spiciness that your dish must have, following your tastes. Feel free then to range among the many varieties that we offer you here on Doctor Chili!

The ingredients to prepare your Harissa are:

  • fresh red peppers 250 gr
  • 2 cloves of garlic (but you can also use 4 if you prefer a stronger taste)
  • EVO oil to taste
  • Salt to taste
  • Fresh coriander leaves 1 tablespoon
  • Dried mint 1 tablespoon

Before starting to prepare the Harissa, in addition to fastening your fantastic apron that we imagine is really beautiful and professional, we advise you to use gloves to be sure not to grease your hands and not to let your eyes go on fire in case you have to touch them during the preparation.

To prepare the Harissa you will first have to wash the chili peppers after removing their petioles. After that, engrave the chili peppers for their length, remove the seeds that you will find inside and let them rest in a basin with a little water for about an hour. Next, drain and dry the chilies that have been soaked in the water, and crush them along with all the other ingredients to get the Harissa.

If you prefer, you can also put all the ingredients in the blender or mixer and add a lot of oil to make a cream that has a rather dense consistency.

In case you are a lover of spices or a lover of them, we recommend that you also add a tablespoon of cumin to make your Harissa more intriguing and tasty.

When your Harissa is ready, remember to store it in glass jars completely covered with oil to the brim, so that the Harissa does not go bad.

Whenever you take a quantity of Harissa from the jar, remember to pour oil in such a way that the sauce never remains uncovered and always has a layer of extra virgin olive oil on its surface.

Finally, we recommend that you let your sauce rest for a night or 12 hours so that the flavors contained in the Harissa bind to the best merging and then release all their aromas and aromas.

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