Harissa is a spicy sauce that is a major feature in North African cuisine. It can be used like a condiment, and frequently the sauce appears on the table in a small dish as an accompaniment to traditional meals. It is also a major ingredient in many soups, stews, and curries. The piquant sauce is available in cans or tubes in markets which carry common North African or Middle Eastern ingredients, and it can also be made at home. Freshly made harissa is generally spicier, as the cook can control the ingredients and use fresh peppers.
Tunisian, Libyan, and Algerian cuisine all feature large amounts of harissa. The spicy sauce may be used to rub meats before roasting, or it can be mixed into the rich sauces used when stewing meats. It is often paired with couscous, since the starch of the couscous will help to cut the spice of the harissa. Some people use the sauce like sri racha or sambal olek, as an addition to foods that are not quite spicy enough.
When harissa is made, peppers are ground together with garlic, cumin, coriander, caraway seed, and olive oil. The types of peppers will determine how hot the sauce is. Some cooks used dried chili peppers, while others roast fresh chilies to lend a slightly smoky flavor to the finished product. In all cases, the sauce will take the form of a fiery red paste when it is finished. The paste can be pasteurized and canned, or used immediately.
There are some variants that are enjoyed in smaller regions of North Africa. Rose harissa, for example, incorporates rose petals. Tagines, kebabs, and meatballs in Tunisia may call for this variety, which has a complex flavor created by mixing as many as 40 spices. The addition of rose petals makes the harissa slightly less fiery, although it still packs a punch. Some cooks also add tomatoes to cut the spiciness and stretch the sauce.
When selecting harissa in the store, consumers always check the expiration date, as it will get progressively less hot the older it is. Once a can has been opened, the contents should be transferred to another container and refrigerated. The sauce should be used within a week for the best results. Harissa in a tube may be shelf stable at room temperature once it has been opened, but refrigeration will help to preserve the flavor.