Harissa is made by blending garlic, olive oil, spices and chillies; harissa is used as either a condiment or to season soups and stews.
My first interaction with it was during a stay in Tanzania. The family I was living with would put it on the table alongside the rice and beans. It took me a few days to work out what to do with it, and when I did I was sorry I hadn’t tried it sooner. It took what was originally a bland meal that was simply for sustenance and gave it a personality. It lodged itself into my memory.
Like most traditional dishes, there is no set way to make it. While it is agreed that there are key ingredients, my hosts would often substitute ingredients where available. I recall a time that they used a mixture of chilli and sundried tomato. They really didn’t understand why I suddenly seemed to like it more, and they were downright concerned when I started eating it out of the jar with a spoon. I made wraps with it and fresh avocado. I invited friends round to try it. I nearly wept when they told me there were no more tomatoes.
That being said, there is a sting in the tail (or mouth in my case) to the fact that each family makes a different style of harissa.
A family further along the road from where I was staying would often invite me for food, but it was always when I was walking after having eaten.
Quick back story, I once ate, what I thought was, a normal sized amount of food and they offered to call the doctor because I clearly wasn’t eating. Since that point I was required to eat at least 2 bowls of food, finish off whatever fresh fruit was on the table (not that much of a punishment) and drink at least 3 cups of tea that were so sweet I’m surprised the spoon didn’t stand up on its own. So I felt a post-meal constitutional was always necessary.
Anyway, they managed to catch up to my hosts one day and demand that I not be fed so that I could eat at theirs. My hosts obliged and I proceeded to sit down to a meal of African eggplant (it tasted like peanut butter and I’m devastated they wouldn’t give me the recipe), goat curry and sugared spaghetti. Yep, go cook some spaghetti, sprinkle some sugar on and eat it with curry, that is pretty normal there.
I looked around for some harissa and to my delight there was a pot of it on the table. I gleefully spooned my normal amount onto my plate, not noticing that the entire table had gone quiet. Put the lid back on and tucked into my fairly odd meal.
It was a pain like I had never felt before. It was so hot that I was scared to breathe. I was instantly pouring with sweat and I’m not ashamed to say I think I may have cried for a minute. Of course, everyone laughed.
I later found out that my hosts, with whom I was staying, cared enough that they made sure they only picked the chilies that weren’t quite so potent. It just never occurred to either party to warn them I just wasn’t psychologically or physiologically prepared for their traditional condiment.
The point of this story is that there has always been a long tradition and care in the creation of harissa. It has a history and backstory that is far too long to get into right now. Suffice it to say that the harissa that is used in our Tuscan Chicken & Orzo has clearly been carefully made to instill a vigorous taste with notes of warmth.
The light heat took me right back to the sofa as night was falling and we would struggle through conversations as I tried to learn Swahili. Eventually, I learned to just stick to saying asante sana kwa chakula and rubbing my stomach, hopeful that I was thanking them for the food.