All About The North African Harissa
Image Credit: iStock, Harissa

Harissa, a red chilli pepper paste, is as omnipresent in North Africa as ketchup is in the US. The word ‘harissa’ has been derived from the Arabic verb ‘harasa’, which means ‘to pound’, or ‘break into pieces’. It is believed that harissa originated in Tunisia, a country in the Maghreb region, where shopkeepers in spice souks pound chillies, garlic, olive oil and salt into a paste while customers wait. 

People in Mexico ate chillies thousands of years ago. The Aztecs and the Mayans cultivated them. However, it was only after the arrival of Christopher Columbus that the chilli really became popular. Historians believe that chillies first reached Africa because of the Spanish occupation of Tunisia in 1535-74. This is when chilli peppers first appeared in the souks. Over time, chillies became a part of nearly every country’s food culture and took the form of harissa in North Africa. 

Initially, harissa was considered to be a porridge from the 7th century, made with pounded wheat, meat, butter and spices. Near the end of the 15th century, Andalusian Muslims and Jews were violently driven out of Spain as they refused to convert to Christianity. Uthman Dey, the Ottoman ruler of the Tunisian province, made good use of the power he had and decided to accept up to 80,000 of these Andalusian Muslims and Jews to the Tunisian province. He even sent boats to Spain to bring them to his land. These Andalusians made Tunisian cities like Nabeul their home as it had a microclimate similar to that of Southern Spain. With them, they brought Capsicum annuum, which adapted very well to the agriculturally fertile region.

A new lifestyle shaped by arts, crafts, and ingredients also came with the Andalusian Muslims and Jews. They sun-dried and processed the spicy Tunisian-adapted fruits, then pounding them into a paste using a large mortar and pestle. The practice of making the paste took off in Nabeul and it eventually came to be known as ‘harissa hara’, meaning ‘hot harissa’. With evolution in technology, machinery began to be used to make the paste but the primary ingredients have remained the same.  

Nabeul, deemed the harissa capital of the world, became home to one of the largest Jewish populations in Africa. Even today, Tunisian Jews are credited with the development of the city. Now, the region boasts harissa-style sauce factories that fulfil the demands of both the Tunisian people and also global markets. The first harissa-style sauce and canning factory was established in 1948. The harissa-style sauce is called ‘harissa souri’ because it is an industrialised version of the real deal found in North African homes. Harissa souri is not exactly harissa, but rather a harissa-style sauce. It uses fresh red chilis instead of sun-dried ones and is more watery than the original version.

Over time, different ingredients have been blended into traditional harissa. Some cooks add tomato paste, onions, and even olives. Food historians have expressed their displeasure at this tinkering with ingredients. However, every household has its own version of the paste that it chooses to be identified by.