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What on EARTH is 'Moroccan Harissa'?

What on EARTH is 'Moroccan Harissa'?

These days, many seem to be raving about harissa, which should theoretically fill any Tunisian with pride given that most people tend to not be familiar with the Tunisian part of the world. Indeed, harissa is an integral part of Tunisian cooking and everyday life making it a strong symbol of Tunisian identity. One could say harissa is to Tunisians what gochujang is to Koreans. With that being said, if you were to google the word harissa on the internet, you’d see how differently harissa is depicted. In fact, countless blogs, recipe pages, and products describe it as ‘Morocco's national condiment’, a ‘staple of North African cooking’, or even the ‘ketchup of the Middle East’. This cultural co-opting is a western phenomenon that has always frustrated us as Tunisian-Americans who grew up in the United States and also lived a significant portion of our childhood in Tunisia. I mean, since when was harissa anything other than Tunisian? Is calling harissa ‘North African’ even accurate? If you want to get geographically technical, maybe... However, is it representative of harissa’s origins and where it has almost exclusively culturally thrived given how massive, widespread, and nuanced North Africa is?

Harissa isn’t ‘North African’, it’s Tunisian

First, we must acknowledge that although harissa originated in the northern Tunisian region of the ‘Cape Bon’, its usage in the local cuisines of Tunisia spread north, south, east, and west reaching as far as western Libya and eastern Algeria. In fact, the Algerian town of Biskra, 300 km west of the Tunisian border, is home to a dish called doubara, a spiced soup-like ragout of beans that calls for harissa suspiciously reminiscent of Tunisian lablabi. In Aïn Beïda, 80km west of the Tunisian border there is a thick and spicy semolina soup that calls for harissa. There is also an Algerian paste of garlic, olive oil, chili powder, and spices called dersa reminiscent of harissa. The Libyan capital Tripoli, 170km east of the Tunisian border, is home to felfelshuma, a garlicky chili paste with spices, also reminiscent of harissa and used in local versions of shakshuka, as is done in Tunisia. Therefore the degree to which harissa, or at the very least spiciness, from chili powders to pastes, seems to be regional in importance with Tunisia at the core of this culinary importance. Indeed, harissa has been intertwined with Tunisian cuisine, culture, and identity for centuries now. To this day you will easily find it everywhere in Tunisia; at the table on its own, in sandwiches, pastas, soups, couscous broths, stews, salads…you get the point.

We are not ‘all the same

Despite the cultural reality of harissa, I can confidently say that most in the US who believe they know what harissa is vaguely associate it with a very Aladdin-like painting of the Orient. ‘Moroccan’, ‘North African’, ‘Middle Eastern’, and even ‘Indian’ come to mind as if all brown people were part of this single monolithic culture. This cultural reduction, mostly rooted in fantasy and ignorance, also perpetuates the western myth that anything associated with cultures of color is spicy. Unfortunately, many pseudo-harissa brands and products continue to play into these preconceptions in an attempt to capitalize on America’s ever-growing, multibillion dollar “ethnic food” and hot sauce markets. That’s why you may often hear harissa being touted as ‘the next sriracha'.

North Africa isn’t a small village

If you were to travel 1200 km west of the Tunisian border through Algeria, the largest country in Africa, you would see, even at a superficial level, how different Moroccan food looks in comparison to Tunisia’s; a lot less red and a lot less spicy. Actually, Morocco’s dishes lean way more towards sweet and savory flavors with a heavier emphasis on sweeter spices and ingredients like saffron, ginger, cinnamon, star anise, dried fruit, and powdered sugar; a beautifully unique and distinct cuisine. Moreover, harissa is not embedded in Morocco’s culture the way it is in Tunisia’s even though you will occasionally find versions of it served at some tables and restaurants as a condiment. To be very clear, I am not saying anything controversial or groundbreaking; this is a fact that all North Africans have acknowledged for a long time. Don’t believe me? I challenge you to ask any Moroccan about harissa; they may tell you they enjoy it but they will also tell you it’s Tunisian. If you’re still skeptical, UNESCO inscribed harissa to Tunisia’s intangible cultural heritage list as of December 1st 2022 (also my birthday!) which recognizes harissa as ‘an integral part of domestic provisions and the daily culinary and food traditions of Tunisian society’.

So what's with the ‘Moroccan harissa’ everywhere?

Despite this cultural reality, watery ‘Moroccan harissa’ products are the standard in the western world; likely because Morocco is the main North African country most westerners are vaguely culturally familiar with. Indeed, Morocco is more popular in western media and has unquestionably been the most successful of the Maghrebi countries to attract and maintain western tourism; think the 1943 box office hit Casablanca or the world famous Yves Saint Laurent museum in Marrakech. Not to mention it is by far the strongest economy of the Maghreb and among the strongest of the entire African continent. As was beautifully put by comedian Mo Amer about Palestinian food and culture in the US, in his Netflix series Mo: ‘It’s a branding issue’. This is why Tunisian food is often dumped under the ‘Morocco’ umbrella; it’s a culturally reducing marketing gimmick to jump on trends and appeal to the masses unfamiliar with any North African country other than Morocco. This phenomenon is perpetuated by restaurants, chefs, bloggers, and the short attention spanned nature of social media. A quick google search is all you need to see how much the internet is flooded with recipes that call for harissa as a way to give a dish a ‘Moroccan twist’. Part of the issue is that most of these products and recipes are shared by non-Tunisians which means that it is partly being done out of lack of due diligence; underscoring the importance of representation when sharing or describing food tied to a specific culture. In a world with very little Tunisian representation, branding harissa as ‘Moroccan’ or ‘North African’ blows out of proportion Morocco’s marginal cultural association with harissa while downplaying, and borderline erasing, the very real importance of harissa as a ubiquitous and iconic part of Tunisian culture.

Let's celebrate true North African regionality

If we want to make real progress in protecting our beautifully unique cultural heritage as Tunisians, we need to be able to call out the fallacies that erase it just to fit in with what is expected or ‘what works’. In an ideal world, we wouldn't need to prefix ‘Harissa’ with Tunisian in the same way that we never prefix ‘sushi’ with ‘Japanese’, ‘pizza’ with ‘Italian’, or ‘feta’ with ‘Greek’. Obviously, we’re not there…yet!

Look, it’s 2023 and about time we looked at the Maghreb with more depth and nuance. Realize that the “Moroccan harissa” phenomenon isn’t about Moroccan food, it’s deeper than that. It’s about the role of representation, or the lack thereof, in how a culture can be distorted, perceived, and erased. It’s about the power of marketing and how it plays into fantasies, the familiar, and long-held beliefs. It’s about thinking you know something just because you googled it or saw it on TikTok. It’s about prioritizing posting fresh culinary content over doing your due diligence under the guise of culinary fusion and creativity. Finally, let us emphasize that we have nothing but love for our Moroccan brothers and sisters whose culture is as beautiful, rich, unique and distinct as ours! This is why the issue at hand is as relevant to Tunisians as it is to Moroccans… and everybody else who enjoys our beloved harissa. In fact this is NOT about gate-keeping our foods, Tunisian nationalism, or creating barriers between North Africans…quite the opposite. It’s about acknowledging and celebrating true North African regionality.

If you are talking about harissa, you are talking about Tunisia, period.

Mansour Arem

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