Harissa - Tunisian Hot Sauce

Page update - Mar 5, 2023

The national harissa sauce leads among Tunisian gifts in terms of color/price ratio. The product is interesting, hardly ever found outside Tunisia, and you can buy the 135 gram jar for just 1-2 dinars (prices in 2023). See the current exchange rates in our review "Tunisian dinar".

Harissa is an important part of Tunisian culture and one of the country's important export products. Time magazine named it one of the 50 healthiest foods known to mankind. On this page, let's talk about harissa in detail, its importance to Tunisia and visitors to the country, how to choose and where to buy it.

What is harissa?

It is a spicy sauce common in the Maghreb countries: Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco. In the 20th century, harissa appeared in Israel, where it was brought by Jewish immigrants from Tunisia, and is now popular in Israel as a sauce in shawarma. In the early 21st century, harissa began to be actively exported, and it is now used in various dishes by European and American chefs.

A classic Tunisian recipe consists of just 5 ingredients: hot chili pepper, garlic, cumin, coriander, and salt. The mixture is ground into a paste, and olive oil is added if necessary. The original mixture contains about 85% pepper. The sauce looks like this.

The name harissa itself comes from the Arabic verb "harasa", which translates to "crush" or "grind".

There are thousands of recipes for harissa in Tunisia. Even many families have their own unique recipes. They add saffron, rose petals, lemon juice and almost any vegetable to the mix. In the south, the peppers are dried and smoked so that the sauce has a slightly smoky taste.

Harissa and Tunisia

Algerians and Moroccans love harissa, but use it in a limited way - only in some dishes. Tunisians add it wherever possible. As a result, the world associates harissa with Tunisia rather than the Maghreb. In books and magazine pages, it is written, "Tunisia's main seasoning", or "Tunisia's national seasoning", or "The hallmark of Tunisian meat and fish dishes".

Harissa is rooted as part of Tunisian culture. For example, it is believed that if a wife starts adding less harissa to her husband's food, it means she has fallen out of love with him. The amount of harissa in food shows the guests how close they are considered to the host's family.

Tourists are told that harissa is believed to boost sexual potency. This is both true and false. The thing is that Tunisians find it beneficial in general, for all aspects of body and mind health. They don't eat it specifically for potency.

How to choose, where to buy and the price

You can buy harissa in Tunisia almost everywhere - in supermarkets, markets, grocery stores, and souvenir shops. There's not much variation in price, and the price of the product is low, so you can't save much from finding the "right" place to buy it. A good price can always be found in Carrefour and MG supermarkets.

Harissa is found as a dry mix (see photo), powder and sauce in tin cans (see the photo near or at the beginning of this page, click on the photos to enlarge). We highly recommend buying the canned sauce, as the mixture and powder still need to be diluted in oil and infused, which is not very convenient. For olive oil and other gifts from Tunisia, see the in-depth review "What to bring back from Tunisia".

The most popular format is small jars of 135 grams. The price ranges from 1 to 2 dinars. There are also larger jars (pictured above, click on the photo to enlarge) and tubes. For the current exchange rates, see our review "Tunisian dinar".

Among the brands, Le Phare du Cap Bon (Lighthouse of Cap Bon) is considered the best. The jar has a picture of a lighthouse, easy to recognise. Le Phare du Cap Bon has won several international awards. Production of this harissa is limited. It's rarely found in shops, and if you're lucky enough to come across it, don't hesitate to buy it, even if it costs more than 1.5 dinars.

The best brand in Tunisia is not named after the peninsula of Cap Bon for nothing. The area is called 'terre rouge', French for 'red land'. There is a theory that in honor of the reddish shade of the soil, but mainly for the red color of the fruit that is grown there. The Cap Bon Peninsula is the country's leader in the cultivation of tomatoes and peppers of all kinds.

In autumn, you can see huge clusters of peppers in the markets all over Tunisia. These peppers are dried for harissa. The photo on the right was taken in the medina of Monastir in late September, click on the photo to enlarge it.

Every year in October, Nabeul, the regional capital, hosts a three-day festival of hot peppers and harissa. During these days, the best producers from all over Tunisia come to Nabeul. Unfortunately, the festival has no exact date, watch the news if you want to attend.

Tunisians have made harissa a profitable export product, supplying more than 20,000 tonnes to the world market every year. There are now (note: article updated March 2023) exports to 27 countries, including Italy, Germany, France, Canada. If there is no harissa in your country, then this gift is twice as interesting.

If you do buy the mixture or powder, you will have to make the sauce. Dilute the mixture or powder in olive oil and leave it to infuse for 12 hours. The sauce can then be stored in the refrigerator for up to 6 weeks.

Uses and dishes

Tunisians use harissa in almost half of their dishes.

Especially the side dishes - spicy pasta, rice, couscous, potatoes, pulses. In case of side dishes, the seasoning or sauce is added to the dishes as they are being cooked. Tuna and harissa sandwiches are considered particularly tasty. They can be found in fast food outlets and are sometimes served in hotels. Harissa-flavored tuna is very popular as a filling for briks.

Meat and fish dishes are the main area of application. Sausages merguez are made from ground lamb and beef with the addition of harissa. The sauce is very interestingly used in egg dishes, which often amazes Europeans. How are eggs and spicy flavors compatible? Tunisians prepare spicy eggs, shakshuka and adja (aka ajja, aka ojja).

One can hardly come to Tunisia without trying harissa, unless one goes to Hard Rock Cafe every day. Below is a small gallery of photos of the dishes.

History of appearance

Most sources say that the Spaniards introduced chili pepper into Tunisia during the occupation of Tunisia in 1535-1574. This is probably true, but chili peppers would have ended up in Tunisia even without the occupation, as trade in the Mediterranean was well developed at the time.

Harissa in its present form had not yet appeared in those days. We have a description dated 1881 from the book "Our mission to the court of Morocco" by Philip Durham Trotter. He writes, "Harissa, a mixture of ground wheat, meat and courgettes". The 13th century book "Culinary of the Maghreb and Andalusia", by an unknown author, contains a similar description of it as wheat gruel with meat.

That is, in the late 19th century, it was a full-fledged meat dish, not a sauce. Perhaps a modern version of the sauce already existed at the time, but it was called something else. Most likely, harissa sauce is very young (by the standards of culinary history), only 100 years old.

Good to know

- Harissa is a vegetable product. According to sanitary regulations of some countries, it can be imported in a limited amount. Read more about restrictions at customs in our detailed review "What you can and can't take out of Tunisia".

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