There's More to Harissa Than Just Heat

I went straight to the world's best harissa source to find out why this natural aphrodisiac is becoming one of the most popular condiments in the world.

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Oct 14 2016, 8:00pm

In her bright turquoise dress, Hayat Benfraj passes red peppers through the spiral screw mincer. The peppers have been dried under the sun and soaked in water overnight. She then adds some fresh garlic, salt, caraway, cumin, and olive oil. She has been making the fiery, orangey-red paste at home for twenty years, and sells it to shops and people in her neighborhood. "Of course, I make the best harissa in Tunisia," she laughs. "Even in the whole world." Her secret? "We just have the best fresh ingredients here and know exactly how much we need per ingredient."

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Hayat Benfraj making harissa. All photos by the author.

Tunisians eat the hot chili pepper paste with sandwiches, seafood, meat, eggs, vegetables, soup, couscous, bread, pastas, and pizzas. Almost everything, actually. They are so proud and fond of it that they organized a three-day Festival of Harissa and Chili last weekend, dedicated to their favorite condiment. The event took place in the small city of Nabeul by the Mediterranean Sea, which even calls itself the World Capital of Harissa. Most of the chilies grow at the nearby Cap Bon Peninsula.

"The festival is organized to protect the heritage of harissa, and to promote the culinary heritage of the region," says Walid Gaddas from the festival. He explains that the word "harissa" comes from the Arabic word harasa, which means "to squash." "Muslims and Jews who were expelled from Spain in the 16th century took the condiment with them when they settled in Tunisia," he says. Spanish explorers, he continues, brought red peppers from South America to Spain. Archeological research shows that chilies were already eaten in Mexico and Peru thousands of years ago.

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A group of Hungarian, Croatian, and Tunisian journalists and chefs are taken around in two buses to visit some of the chili pepper fields. Although it's October, the sun is still hot. Red and green chilies grow in the fields next to olive trees and cactuses.

Next, there is a parade from the center to the old town to inaugurate the festival. Horses and colorful carriages adorned with dried red peppers carry children dressed in traditional clothes. Musicians playing loud traditional music walk behind them towards the cultural house, a building decorated with tiles, where small harissa producers put up their stalls.

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Harissa samples from the festival.

Ismahen Ben Barka, a researcher at the National Heritage Institute in Tunis, dips a piece of bread in some harissa on a small plate. "We are trying to put the condiment on UNESCO's World Heritage List, just like, for example, Turkish coffee," she says.

A little further away, TV chef Wafik Belaid is standing in his white uniform. He remembers how he once tried to make harissa in Angola, where he was to work as a cook for the national football team. "I didn't know that the peppers they have there, gindungo, are much more piquant than here. The people who tried it immediately started running in search of water." Tunisian chilies on the other hand are relatively mild, scoring a 40,000-50,000 on the Scoville scale, a measurement of the pungency of chili peppers.

"Milk helps better than water," Daouda Ben Salam claims, who is selling her homemade harissa at the festival. She learned to make it from her mother, who learned it from her mother. Her hands often hurt from touching the peppers while making harissa, she laughs. "I use olive oil and salt for it. It works better than water and soap."

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Chef Belaid says that while all Tunisians love harissa, they should not add such large quantities to their dishes. "Otherwise you don't taste the rest of the food anymore. You need to find the right balance. The great thing about harissa is that you find a different type of it on every street." Some people use fresh spices and others dried; some like to add coriander, rosemary, thyme, mint, tomatoes, onions, or bell peppers. Belaid's personal favorite is smoked harissa, made of peppers smoked over a fire.

Harissa can also be bought in cans and tubes: a standardized product. Most Tunisians, however, prefer to make it at home, which they call harissa arabi, berber, or traditional harissa. The same goes for Rafram Chaddad Boaz, an artist who is working on a book about Tunisian cuisine. "Home-made harissa has a completely different taste," he says. "It is darker red and spicier." Personally, he prefers harissa made with squeezed lemon instead of olive oil, a less common way of making it. "I tasted it for the first time on the island of Djerba, where I'm from."

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Chahida Nablie and her husband, who also came to the festival to sell their harissa, are going to export harissa to Algeria soon and are looking for markets in Europe as well. While harissa is also made in Libya, Algeria, and Morocco, Tunisia is the biggest exporter, to a total of 30 countries. Libya, Algeria, and France are the largest buyers. In 2015, more than 16,000 tons of pre-made harissa has been exported, worth $22.6 million, or 53 percent of the national production. "Harissa is becoming internationally more known," Walid Gaddas from the festival says. "It helps that famous cooks, such as Jamie Oliver and Daniel Humm, have starting to use it."

According to many harissa enthusiasts, the condiment is not only delicious and enhances the taste of other food, but is also healthy. TIME Magazine even called it 'one of the 50 healthiest foods of all time'. Nablie's children–the youngest is 5 years old–love to eat it too. "They eat it like marmalade," their mother smiles. "It is only for old people with stomach problems not really good."

Gaddas from the festival says: "During the winter, dishes with harissa protect you from catching a cold because of the vitamins. Its aphrodisiac properties make it also appreciated by the consumers."