What Is Harissa and How Can You Use This Bright Red Chili Paste?
Learn more about what makes this red pepper paste so spicy and sooo delicious.
Move over Sriracha, you're about to be upstaged by a bigger, bolder-flavored cousin—harissa. Harissa can spice up everything from meat marinades to scrambled eggs, or be eaten as a dip or spread for crudités and bread. Learn more about this versatile ingredient, then try some hand-picked spicy harissa recipes.
What is harissa?
Harissa is a condiment that originated in Tunisia in North Africa but is now seen in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern, as well as North African cooking. The paste is made with a base of roasted red peppers, dried chili peppers, and a blend of garlic, cumin, lemon, salt, and olive oil. "The flavor profile of harissa is spicy and slightly smoky," says Israeli chef Efi Naon of Taboon and Taboonette in New York City. His restaurants combine Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisine that he calls Middleterranean. Fair warning: Harissa is meant to be hot, thanks to its healthy dose of chili peppers. You can adjust to your taste preferences by reducing the amount you use in at-home recipes or how much you use as a topping at restaurants.
What are the health benefits of harissa?
"Spicy food can increase your feelings of satiety, meaning harissa makes you feel full and happy," says Tori Martinet, registered dietitian and director of wellness and nutrition at Restaurant Associates (the company behind the cafes at The Smithsonian Institution and The Metropolitan Museum of Art). The main health benefit of harissa is that it contains capsaicin, the compound in chilis that makes them spicy, says Martinet. Capsaicin is an antioxidant that may be able to boost your metabolism, improve heart health, and reduce cancer-causing inflammation. (Bonus: One study found that spicy foods might be the secret to a longer life.)
Harissa is also lower in sodium than other hot sauces, which is great for people monitoring their blood pressure, or really anyone trying to watch their salt intake. A 2015 study published in The British Medical Journal found that people who ate spicy food six to seven days per week had a 14 percent lower mortality rate. So, it may be worth adding one of these healthy hot sauce recipes into your dinner rotation.
How do you use and cook with harissa?
Harissa is most often found in the form of a ready-to-eat paste that is sold at most grocery stores or can be made at home, but it's also available in a powder that is simply mixed with olive oil and lemon juice when you're ready to use it. Similar to chipotle or Sriracha, harissa can be used in a marinade, to season a dish while cooking, or as a final addition at the end. Swirl it into hummus, yogurt, dressings, and dips because the cool, creamy flavors balance the heat, says Martinet. A new way Naon uses the spice is with a harissa aioli or in Moroccan sauces like heryme, which is a blend of harissa with added olive oil, fish stock, cilantro, and peppers. "This sauce is incredible to poach fish and makes for a tasty dish," he says. At Taboonette, harissa is left on the table that customers can use to add more spice to their hummus bowl, kebab, or shawarma.
Recipes That Use Harissa You *Have* to Try
Grilled Lamb Kebabs with Harissa & Figs: If you haven't tried lamb outside of a restaurant, these kebabs will change your mind. A marinade made with yogurt, harissa, mint, orange juice, and honey imparts so much flavor to the grilled meat.
Sheet Pan Harissa Chicken and Sweet Potatoes with Lime Yogurt: Dinner honestly doesn't get much easier than this recipe with harissa. Chicken, sweet potatoes, onion, and harissa paste are baked, then topped with a simple yogurt sauce for a cooling effect.
Carrot Harissa Salad: The fresh kale, spinach, pomegranate arils, and olives balance the spiciness of the harissa.
Roasted Shawarma Cauliflower Steaks with Harissa Tahini: This recipe proves that plant-based cooking doesn't need animal protein for flavor. Coat your cauliflower steaks in olive oil and honey before roasting in the oven. Whip up the harissa-infused tahini dressing to drizzle on top while they cook.
Easy Shakshuka with Harissa: Give a spicy kick to this traditional baked eggs dish by adding harissa to the stewed tomatoes. Serve the one-pan meal to your friends to crush the ultimate #brunchgoals.
For even more cooking inspiration with wow-worthy flavor try one of these Moroccan recipes that will have you booking a flight to Marrakech.