What Is Harissa (And Is It Spicier Than Sriracha)?

If you have a penchant for dishes that make your nose drip, you've probably come across the famous chili paste harissa. It's synonymous with the cuisines of the North African region and is eaten in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt. Each country adds its own spice to the paste, but the most common base for the sauce is hot African chilies pounded with lots of good olive oil and garlic. Adding spices such as cumin, coriander, and mint gives harissa a distinctive regional flavor. Harissa is also often prepared with crushed peppers, which gives it extra body.

Spaniards and Portuguese brought the chili craze to Africa during colonial times. Today, harissa is so popular on the continent that it ends up on everything from fresh bread to meat stews to couscous, of course. But what makes harissa so interesting (and addictive) that chefs like Nigella Lawson and Yotam Ottolenghi swear by it?

How spicy is the harissa?

Harissa, also known as African ketchup due to its popularity, is anything but a gentle condiment: the paste made from freshly ground chilies can easily make your eyes water if you're not careful. But how spicy is harissa really?

To answer that question, it helps us compare it to a well-known alternative; in this case, sriracha fits the bill perfectly. Both sauces have similar characteristics, sharing the same chili garlic base and heat. The difference in flavor is mostly in the other ingredients: sriracha is much sweeter and more acidic, while harissa is very earthy and smoky tasting. Is harissa spicier than sriracha? Technically not, although it may seem like a hotter sauce because of the natural flavor of the crushed peppers and chilies. Is harissa spicy? If you get a chance to taste a freshly made local harissa in Tunisia, you'll quickly be begging for your napkin.

Adding harissa to your recipes

Due to its versatility in cooking, it's very easy to fall in love with harissa: it can be served as an authentic appetizer with fresh bread or as a secret sauce ingredient. As with any condiment, the quality varies greatly and depends on the origin and the original recipe. In Africa, there are countless variations of harissa recipes, so finding your favorite brand or making your own is a must.

Harissa's intense smoky flavor makes it a wonderful meat rub for your barbecue: you can make grilled chicken with harissa, or something more fancy, like grilled Mediterranean chickpea burgers with creamy harissa. It's also great with fish: in Africa, harissa is often served with tuna or sardines as a savory snack. Need just a hint of spice? Try using dry harissa spice mix in your recipes, as well; it's usually milder than fresh harissa — a great alternative if you're just getting started.