The True Story of Harissa

The True Story of Harissa

In France, people know that when you are talking about harissa, you are talking about Tunisia, and the reason behind this is multilayered but easy to understand. First of all, Tunisia became a protectorate of France after the corrupt Ottoman leader Sadik Bey sold off Tunisia in 1881 to the French, who were aggressively eager to incorporate the small North African country as theirs. Tunisia was thence a French protectorate for 75 years, and during that time, was set up to satisfy the interests of France. Our railroad system (Société Nationale des Chemins de Fers Tunisiens named exactly like its French counterpart, S.N.C.F.) and even education system (Tunisian Baccalaureate) are products of French dominance in Tunisia. This also means that French inevitably became the second language learned and spoken by Tunisians at home and abroad. This, combined with the geographical proximity of both countries, explains why France is home to the highest population of Tunisians outside of Tunisia. In fact, the population of Tunisians there is so high it would be hard for anybody to get away with saying that harissa is anything but Tunisian without raising more than a few eyebrows. Even Moroccans, Libyans, and Algerians, who enjoy the condiment (the latter two far more than Moroccans) acknowledge its Tunisian origins. 

Let me elaborate with some history. The term harissa originally comes from the Arabic verb ‘harassa’ which literally means ‘to pound’ or ‘to crush’ and was initially used to describe a porridge of pounded wheat, butter, meat, and certain spices that dates back to the 7th century. Later on, starting around the end of the 15th century, many Andalusian Muslims and Jews were brutally expulsed from Spain because they refused to convert to Christianity. The final exodus wave of these people was in 1609 and it did not come without harassment, looting, and bloodshed from Christian Spain. Uthman Dey, the Ottoman ruler of the Tunisian Province who participated in claiming Tunis from the Spanish in 1574 used his power and took it upon himself to accept up to 80,000 of these Andalusians to the Tunisian province with open arms by ordering boats to be sent over to Spain. These Andalusians were thence able to escape Spanish brutality and sail across the sea to the Ottoman province of Tunisia. Many of the newly integrated Muslims and Jews had made Tunisian cities such as Nabeul, in the Cap Bon region, their new home as they were drawn to the same microclimate they were forced to leave behind in Andalusian Spain. Indeed, Capsicum annuum, brought along with them from the New World via the Columbus exchange adapted extremely well to the Tunisian Cap Bon, which was and still is one of the most fertile agricultural regions in the country due to its shape, geography, microclimate, and soil composition.

They also brought along with them a new way of life through their arts, crafts, and ingredients. The Muslims and Jews peacefully lived and worked together as Tunisian cousins and bonded over their shared struggle. Through close social interconnectedness combined with their skilled intergenerational know-how, they would sun-dry and process these spicy Tunisian-adapted fruits before pounding them into a paste using a large mortar and pestle. This practice continued in Nabeul and eventually the term harissa hara, literally ‘hot harissa’ in reference to the spiciness of the pounded paste in Tunisian vernacular, became the defining expression for it. Although the process of making the paste may have slightly evolved over time to include what looks like a manual meat grinder, the core ingredients and final product characteristics have not changed. 

The city of Nabeul, which became and still is the harissa capital of the world, has been home to one of the largest Jewish populations in the country for a long time. To this day, Tunisian Jews are often credited as significant contributors to the city’s development as many were hard working business owners and artisans. 

Woman smelling sun-dried chili peppers

In front of a spice shop in Nabeul with my mother, who is checking the quality of the displayed chilis by touch and smell. The chili’s aroma and texture are important parameters in determining the final harissa’s quality and flavor (Summer 2014)

Nabeul is also where the country’s iconic souk el felfel (summer pepper market) came about in the 1920’s in the Marché El Mahfar. By the 1970’s, Tunisians would travel to Nabeul from distant cities like Béja (180km west), Gabès (380km south), and Sfax (230km south) to bring the precious spicy peppers, fresh and sun-dried, back home to their kitchens. People then started to grow their own peppers and unique local Tunisian varieties developed over time such as Mangoua, Maamouri, Kalii, and Baklouti, although sadly today many unique and rustic varieties have been diluted to European hybrids to satisfy local and international market demands. Harissa production thrived in the Cap Bon and beyond. The versatility of the paste made adding spiciness and depth of flavor extremely easy and an undeniable contributor to the shift to what was before a rather acidic grain-based cuisine towards what we see today as an overall spicy cuisine in Tunisia.

Nowadays, the Cap Bon is home to many ‘harissa style’ sauce factories that supply both the Tunisian population as well as established and growing international markets. The very first harissa style sauce and canning factory came about in 1948. We call this harissa style sauce harissa souri alluding to the fact that it is a non-traditional and industrially massed produced version of the real traditional harissa paste found in homes. Therefore, harissa souri is not technically harissa, but instead a harissa style sauce because it is made from fresh red chilis instead of sun-dried chilis and is watery like a purée or sauce as opposed to the traditional version, which is a thick paste. 

Most people abroad are familiar with harissa souri, easily identified by the iconic yellow can or tube and an ubiquitous part of modern Tunisian cooking and eating. With that being said, real harissa is the traditional one found in homes called harissa diari (or arbi), a thick paste made from ground sun-dried chilis, garlic, and salt; although the classic version, also known as harissa nablia, meaning from Nabeul, calls for coriander and caraway in proportions that vary from household to household based on personal taste. Harissa diari is made with peppers that are harvested right after the point they turn red during the summer. After harvest, they are consecutively punctured from the top (near where the stem is) with a string, tied together in bunches that look very similar to ristras, and left to hang and dry in the sunlight. The sun drying process is several months long and occurs anywhere at home where there is enough sunlight exposure throughout the day. Significant flavor development of the peppers will occur from this sun drying process; fruity smokiness and umami in particular. The dried peppers are then moved to hang in a cool and dry place until they are cleaned, de-stemmed, de-seeded and then briefly soaked in room temperature water prior to being ground up into a paste with peeled garlic cloves and salt. That is the very basic version of harissa but olive oil and spices are often mixed into the paste afterwards to make the final product.

harissa souri harissa diari (or arbi)

On top, harissa souri (harissa style sauce), and on the bottom, traditional harissa diari. Note the large difference in water content, color, texture, richness, and consistency    

Harissa is so rich and thick that it cannot be drizzled, it’s physically impossible, and instead gets scooped with a spoon. It is also quite potent and a little goes a long way. Although primarily used as a condiment, it is also an integral component of many Tunisian dishes as it adds spiciness and depth of flavor. When served as a condiment today, olive oil is typically poured over it prior to consumption. It can be thinned out with vinegar or lemon juice and is typically accompanied by a side of Tunisian canned tuna, pickled olives, capers, and a small basket of pre-cut pieces of baguette or traditional tabouna (bread cooked by sticking rounded dough pieces to the inside of an outdoor charcoal oven until they are baked to a nice light gold color).

 Tunisian tabouna

harissa diari drizzled with extra virgin olive oil, served with olives, capers, and Tunisian canned tuna 

On top,  tabouna bread from a local bakery in Nabeul; on the bottom, harissa diari drizzled with extra virgin olive oil, served with olives, capers, and Tunisian canned tuna.

Beyond Nabeul and across the country, various regional and household interpretations may call for different spice blends in their harissa. Although I have never seen it myself, I have heard from several Tunisian friends who have travelled a lot within the country that some homes include other ingredients like tomato paste, onions, and even olives in their harissa. Of course, these would be added in minimal amounts and could not in any way be the principle ingredient of the paste. However, Imed Attig, a Tunisian food historian and artisanal harissa producer in the Tunisian city of Maamoura, asserted that these are interpretations that drift away from traditional, true-to-origins harissa. Nevertheless, I believe the world of harissa and its derivatives is probably under-explored and one could likely write an entire book on the history, regional, and family-to-family interpretations of the Tunisian paste.

Mansour Arem