Dust on my face and my cape,
Me and Magdalena on the run
I think this time we shall escape (Romance in Durango)
This Bob Dylan song was going through my head while I was preparing a tub full of dried hot chili peppers to make harissa, the ultimate Tunisian hot sauce. Although chili pepper originated from South America, they were being grown in Mexico from a very early time and it was what Columbus really discovered when he found the New World. Spanish trade and exploration quickly spread the chili pepper to North Africa and from there the Ottoman Turks introduced them to the Balkan. Meanwhile Vasco da Gama, the famous Portuguese explorer, brought this fiery fruit to India, where it became synonymous with Indian cooking. This song conjures up Mexican deserts and but it can easily fit into the North African landscape or even as background music for Israel’s sweltering summer days, a summer that lasts for six months.
Instead of relying on a cookbook or internet for the recipe I called my Tunisian neighbor, Evelyne, and she gave me her mother’s number.
Evelyne’s mother has such a dainty air about her, more appropriate for pouring cups of tea in delicate flower patterned china then making harissa, a peppery mind blowing condiment which is used ubiquitously in Tunisian cooking (an in lesser amounts in Algeria and Morocco). She looks so fragile and old that her rambunctious reaction when I ask for a recipe was completely unexpected. She began like mortar fire:
“Take 3 kg of dried chilies split them open remove the seeds discard remove the tops discard soak them for about one hour make sure you throw out all the blemished peppers now rinse the peppers and let them drain completely this is important did you write this down ok next step peel the garlic fresh garlic only….”
You have to understand that she is telling me this in a sweet French* accent better suited to explain how to make a perfect crème brule. Who would have thought that such a soft spoken melodious voice, with the flowing French accent could eat such wild sauce.
She is the harissa master, camouflaged in her floral dress and makes enough for herself, her children and for the entire town, it seems. She told me to start with 3 kg of dried peppers! That’s an entire sack! That’s a ridiculous amount, an industrial amount. Since I don’t intend to start exporting harissa (if you see the Food Bridge brand then I changed my mind) I reduced it to 400 grams but it was still so much.
Chili peppers contain capsaicin, a molecule that binds to pain receptors and causes a burning sensation. Some people are not only addicted to hot sauce, they need an ever hotter dose to get their “fix”. It is believed, although not proven, that the reason some people enjoy hot food is because it releases endorphins, a feel good chemical and why chili eaters are so happy! Capsaicin has been used in an incredible number of ways including for pain relief, the treatment of diabetes, for riot control and pest control (although not for birds because they do not have the capsaicin receptor) and to liven up a humdrum recipe.
I used a mixture of cayenne and sweet dried peppers for this recipe. There are many variations including the addition of coriander or caraway seeds, cumin and dried tomatoes.
400 grams dried peppers
4 heads fresh garlic, cloves, skin removed
1/4 cup olive oil
Wash the peppers. Remove the top, split the peppers and remove the seeds. Soak the peppers in water to soften them for 30-60 minutes. Peel the garlic. Drain the peppers completely. In a food processor add the peppers, garlic, salt and olive oil and process until smooth. This may be done in batches. Store the paste in jars and cover with oil to inhibit contamination. Harissa also freezes well.
*The reason she doesn’t have a Tunisian accent but is because Tunisia was colonized by France from 1881-1951. Most of the Jews immigrated to Israel and now the Jewish population which existed in Tunisia for two thousand years is almost nonexistent.