Harissa – Spice of Life

A slight departure from some of my previous articles I wanted to write a short post about a wonderful, spicy condiment that can be used to liven up any food. Ubiquitous in North African cuisine, harissa is an astonishingly wonderful chilli-based condiment. Originating in Tunisia it is also found all over Morocco, Libya, Algeria as well as in the Middle East. Given the large North African influence on French food I also found it making its way into several Parisian eateries last time I was there.

This is one of those foods for which there are as many recipes as there are chefs. However, the principal ingredients are roasted (or dried) red peppers, chillies, garlic, assorted spices and herbs with oils (vegetable or olive) then as a preservative. It is found in jars, pots, tubes, jars and can be easily made at home. To say I used it with liberal abandon at home would be to underestimate just how often it sidles onto my plate to lift the flavour of whatever I may be eating. I am not partial to Heinz’s famed tomato gloop and gladly employ harissa in lieu.

279413011_0_640x640There are 2 excellent, though quite different, shop bought harissas which I heartily recommend. The first is by the excellent mediterranean ingredient company Belazu and is available from Sainsburys, Waitrose and Ocado. It’s got a bit of a kick but is more aromatic than hot thanks to the inclusion of rose petals and paprika. I am also a huge fan of the version by Bracken Hills Fine Foods. It is paler than the Belazu version which makes me think it makes greater use of fresh peppers and chillis and it kicks like a mule – so use sparingly if you are not used to spicy foods. As well as being spicier it is a little more tangy. I love both of these but if you have not tried before and are a little wary around spice, I would probably recommend trying the Belazu first – this is where I started – but if you are amore seasoned Spice Merchant or you are looking to add a little more oomph to a tagine than the Bracken Hill is superb.

There are other brands which I have seen in delis and Harissa-Paste-206x300such shops and I believe that some of the supermarkets stock their own brand of harissa paste but in my experience these don’t cut the mustard. Far better to purchase one of the 2 brands I have mentioned or experiment making your own. There are 100s of recipes that are easily found online and include variations such as green and verbena harissa (Belazu do a version though I have never seen this in a shop).

As I allude to above I implore you to use it often and widely! Whether bringing a spicier dimension to a salad dressing, adding some heat and aroma to a tagine, being stirred through some new potatoes, dolloped on some yoghurt or served by the spoonful as a condiment it is sublime!

One final word, given this is primarily a healthy eating blog, about harissa. Chillies are often considered a “superfood” and contain a compound called capsaicinoids which are thought to have anti-inflammatory, analgesic, anti-cancer and heart-healthy effects. In addition to capsaicin, chilies are high in antioxidant carotenes and flavonoids, and contain about 2x the amount of vitamin C found in citrus fruits. For those who choose to eat in this way harissa gets a thumbs up from the Paleo community.

Further Reading

The internet is a hive of information about harissa but I did come across a great piece on the marvellous Bon Appetit blog which recommends 13 recipes featuring this cracking condiment. Click here for the article.

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