The best harissa ever

by Jessie K on November 2, 2012

Confession: I salt everything. It’s a terrible habit, one I’ve been trying to break for about, oh, twenty-five years. I’ve discovered one way to shake my salt habit (pun intended — har, har!) is by eating high spice food.

Eating spicy food with a toddler is tricky, so Jake and I have been making a lot of harissa — a spicy North African chili paste — that we add to dishes that need an extra kick while the wee one sticks to toddler friendly alternatives.

I’ve made many different versions, but my favorite is from Nancy Harmon Jenkins’ fantastic  The New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook. Warning: Her recipe as written is a teensy bit time consuming (she makes hers using a mortar and pestle) but it does make for fabulous chili paste. I’ve taken a few liberties with it to make for easier, faster preparation.


  • 12 medium hot dried chilies (I used guajillo, but you can also use New Mexico or Anaheim)
  • 2 hot dried chilies (pasilla or ancho)
  • 1 very hot dried chili (arbol)
  • 2 tablespoons coriander seeds
  • 1 tablespoon cumin seeds
  • 1 teaspoon caraway seeds
  • sea salt
  • 4 or 5 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
  • 1/4 cup good quality olive oil

Break off the tops of the chilies and shake out the loose seeds. Set the chilies in a bowl and cover with very hot water and allow to soak and soften for at least 30 minutes (you can keep them submerged by weighing the chilies down with a heavy plate or bowl).

Meanwhile, add the coriander, cumin, caraway and sea salt  to a coffee grinder and pulse until powdery (if you don’t have a coffee grinder, use a mortar and pestle) . Add the chopped garlic and pulse a couple of times. Transfer contents to a small container or bowl (or keep in the grinder if the blade isn’t in your way!) and stir it up until it’s a nice herby, garlic-y paste. Set aside.

Drain the chilies and discard most of the seeds and membranes. Add the rehydrated chilies to a food processor. Add the olive oil, the herby garlic paste and process until the consistency is thick but spreadable. If it’s dry, add more olive oil a tablespoon at a time until it’s the consistency you want. Transfer to a lidded container and refrigerate. It should keep for 2 to 3 weeks.

Up next: 3 great recipes calling for harissa!

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Kathryn November 3, 2012 at 11:42 am


I LOVE this stuff!! Thanks for the reminder to make it…i knew something was missing in my life :)

Jessie K November 5, 2012 at 9:25 am


As a fellow salt addict, you should also keep a container of harissa in your fridge at all times!

JennNY November 4, 2012 at 3:07 pm


Sounds a little too spicey for me, but looks wonderful! Saw your article in LHJ on Solha! Nice article! :)

Jessie K November 5, 2012 at 9:25 am


Thank you!

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