Harissa, or a Middle Eastern Spicy Sauce


Harissa Spicy Middle Eastern Sauce

Today’s recipe is somewhat a surprise twist to what I thought would be my next post for a couple of different reasons.

The first is that I’ve always been somewhat ambivalent towards harissa. I love the idea of harissa. It’s spicy, bright red, and you can test the peppers in it. On the other hand, when I used to buy it in France, it would come in tubes, and it was always extremely salty. Given that most of my run-ins with this spicy, red condiment were on Turkish kebabs, salt was not something that needed to be added to my foods.

(If you’ve never eaten in a French kebab shop, you’re missing out on a typical French bar-hopping rite of passage. But a typical order includes some kind of wrap – the thick naans were always my favorite – freshly shaved kebab meat, lettuce, tomato, your sauce of choice, and fries. Like I said, salt was not one of the missing ingredients on those things.)

And I had no intention of marinating the meat for my salad in curry sauce today. Nor, did I think of dressing it in anything more fresh lemon juice.

But as soon as the chicken went skinny-dipping in its curry, the grapes roasting in the oven…and harissa came slinking into the edge of my brain.

Harissa Spicy Middle Eastern Sauce (3 of 4)

And there she was.

The biggest problem as I started researching this recipe was that many English-language versions of this recipe call for peppers you can find south of the border…but not necessarily far, far east of it. Guajillo, chipotle, and new mexico chilies cannot be found in China – I know this is true because one of the largest, Chinese virtual shopping malls turns up nothing when I type this into the search engine (and Google translate and one other Chinese-language dictionary turn up nothing when I search for the translation of these chilies).

But the bright side is that I know what cheap, mass-produced harissa tastes like. I know what I like about it and what I don’t like about it. And pictures speak a thousand words. Saveur’s harrisa recipe looked about the same consistency of the stuff I had seen in my kebabs. Half-baked Harvest’s recipe looked a little more watery, but had this gorgeous rust y red hue that just screamed pepper paste paradise.

But the only dried chili I can get my hands on here is a relative of the adobo chili, an import in China from Latin America via Spanish explorers. I happen to have them in abundance since I love them, but can’t use them everyday with an anti-heat-loving toddler in the house.

This recipe may not be the most traditional, but it is a worthy contender to be smothered on your homemade kebabs , mixed with yogurt and used for your fries, to top your pizzas, or whatever else your creative heart might desire.

Harissa Spicy Middle Eastern Sauce

A few tips:

  • If you have access to guajillo peppers or even chipotle, I can certainly see them adding a certain richness to your pepper paste. Just replace half of the adobo peppers.
  • Start by blending your red pepper, dried chillies, and spices. Slowly add the oil until you’ve reached your desired consistency.
  • Even if you like it hot, only add about 5 chilies to start. Add one or two more if you need more heat.
  • I only used a pinch of salt, like litterally pinched the salt and tossed it in – if you’re used to (and like) the tubed versions you may find yourself adding a few more pinches. The golden rule of thumb here would be: “you can always add more, but you can’t take it out!”

Stay tuned on Thursday, what I share a delicious warm salad recipe that uses this as part of the dressing.

5.0 from 2 reviews
Harissa, or a Middle Eastern Spicy Sauce
Prep time
Cook time
Total time
The mass-produced tube versions of this spicy middle eastern condiment are often harsh and salty. This recipe offers a vibrant, easy alternative to the paste and it can be used in yogurts to create dips or smothered almost anywhere you'd put ketchup.
Recipe type: Condiment
Cuisine: Middle Eastern
  • ¼ teaspoon whole cumin seeds
  • ¼ teaspoon whole caraway seeds
  • 1 large red bell pepper
  • 5-8 dried adobo peppers
  • Boiling water to submerge dried peppers in
  • A pinch of salt
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • ⅛ cup olive oil
  • A blender or food processor
  1. Boil about 1 cup of water.
  2. Toast the seeds for about 30 seconds, gently shaking the sauté pan back and forth. Remove from the pan immediately and set aside.
  3. Pour the boiling water over the dried chilies, cover with a small plate, and let sit for at least 20 minutes Alternatively, you can leave them sit for a few hours or until you get back from work.
  4. About ten minutes before you want to roast the red pepper, preheat your oven to 190°C or 425°F.
  5. Roast the red bell pepper on the top rack for about 10 minutes. (I like to multi-task and roast a few other vegetables such as brocoli, potatoes, or garlic so I don't waste energy.) until the skin has started to turn black. Turn carefully. (If roasting other veggies, you should also give them a stir) Roast for 10 more minutes or until skin has started to turn black. Then turn off the oven and let the built up heat in the oven soften your pepper, making it easy to peel the skin off.
  6. Remove from the oven, and once cool enough to touch, peel back as much of the pepper skin as you can.
  7. Toss the peppers, the chilies removed from the water, the seeds, and garlic into the blender. A word of advice: only add 5 chilies to start with. Then blend until smooth slowly adding the oil. Blend in more chilies as required. Season the paste with salt to taste.
  8. Store covered in your refrigerator for up to two weeks.


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  1. says

    Thanks for sharing this beautiful recipe! It’s really good to know that I can use adobo pepper to replace guajillo or chipotle. I never had those before and had no idea of their taste. The The chili sauce looks gorgeous. Will definitely try out with some roasted chicken next time :)
    Maggie recently posted…Matcha Cake + A BirthdayMy Profile

  2. says

    Oh my husband loves spicy food. It seems like every time I think something is really hot he thinks I could add more spice! He would love this. Thanks for the recipe.
    Deanna recently posted…The GravyMy Profile

    • sircserreb says

      Well this was a middle of the road spice for me…I’m going to try some fresh Thai chilies next time to up the ante a little:) That’s the beauty of this recipe, you can go in either direction!

  3. Jamie @ Love Bakes Good Cakes says

    I am so unfamiliar with Midle Eastern cuisine – but I would love to explore some more! This sounds like a wonderful place to start!

  4. says

    I miss a good kebab after a night of drinking. What I’d do for a nice large beef kebab with tons of garlic sauce and a huge side order of salty fries. Sure it’s like 1000000 calories, but when you are that drunk, you don’t care!

    I need to make your harissa sauce. I really do. Just so I can travel back to those care-free days
    Amanda @ Cookie Named Desire recently posted…Plum Spice DoughnutsMy Profile


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