هريسة – Hurray for Harissa!

It’s Sunday, so I’m making sauces and condiments again – probably because I get all ‘in the kitchen mood’ whenever I listen to the ‘Food Programme’ on BBC Radio 4.

I got this recipe from my friend’s mum in Tunisia. Um Habib is possibly the hardest working woman I have ever met. She not only cares for a severally disabled daughter, cooks, cleans, washes laundry by hand etc etc for a family of six, she makes everything from scratch: her own rose water, orange flower water, jasmine water, even her own couscous from flour and semolina. This, she does two or three times a week. It’s a very smoothing process to watch, but it takes a lot of care and patience. She’s an absolutely amazing cook, making pot after pot of delicious food, the key ingredient being love.

Anyway, as with so many things, there are lots of different recipes for harissa, but two main styles; one using fresh peppers, both chilli and sweet, which is commonly known as Harissa Nablia, from Nabeul in Tunisia, and this one, based on dry chillies. As well as being an ingredient in other recipes, in Tunisia it is often served on a plate with extra olive oil, that you dip bread into, sometimes accompanied with olives and a salad, at the beginning of a meal – as a way to both get your gastric juices going, and fill you up before the more expensive main course.

100g dried chillies
4 cloves of garlic (use less if you like, I just love garlic, and the more you use, the more sauce-like it becomes)
½ tablespoon caraway seeds
½ tablespoon coriander seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
½ tablespoon dried mint – if I’ve run out of home dried mint, I’ve been known to use the contents of a peppermint tea tea bag
½ teaspoon salt
50ml olive oil

Break off any chilli stalks, and twizzle between your fingers to remove most of the chilli seeds – this sauce is quite fiery enough. As with the chilli bean paste recipe, you may want to wear gloves for this bit.
Cover in boiling water and leave to soak for 30 mintutes. Meanwhile, dry fry the spice seeds until fragrant – if you’re using a small pan, stir, so they heat evenly. In a coffee grinder or a pestle and mortar, coarsely grind the spices.
Strain the chillies, and roughly chop (I use scissors to snip them) and ditto the garlic. Add all the solid ingredients and ¼ of the oil in a whizzy machine and blitz on a pulse, adding the rest of the oil in splurts as it comes together.
To store, make sure it is always covered with a layer of oil.

It will probably not surprise you to hear that Um Habib does all this by hand.

I have heard lots of people,(including Nigella) state knowledgably that Harissa is a tomato and chilli paste, but I’ve never seen or tasted such a mix….it may well be nice, just not harissa. I have read such recipes, but usually on websites that use canned chickpeas for hummous and falafel. Miao. Zorry, zorry, zorry…I am such a foodsnob.


Pickled green chillies for noodle soup

In Malaysia, these chillies are served everywhere with noodle soup – even thinking about them takes me back to early morning breakfasts on Jalan Alor in KL…large sigh with tummy rumbles.
I got shown how to make them in Penang in the little kopishop that I took the ‘do not spit on the floor’ photo in – they are lovely people and I think they thought I was funny turning up at the crack of sparrowfart everyday for my fix- I can’t remember the name of the cafe, but it’s on Jalan Macallister (I think – it’s the street just off from Komtar that has all the undertakers and things for Chinese funerals on – yes, a whole street)

The green version of the long red chillies in the last post seem to be harder to find in the UK, but you do need a green slightly fleshy but still hot chilli for this – I have made it with red, but it’s not quite the same…I guess you’d only notice if you’d had the green ones first, though.

For me, there’s no point in making a big batch, because while they keep for ages, they lose their quintessential juicy crunch after a bit…you can scale up the recipe if you’re feeding a football team.


3-4 long green chillies, sliced into 3-4 mm rounds
Boiling water
100ml white rice vinegar
2 teaspoons of sugar – my man in Penang used grated palm sugar – but ordinary sugar will do
1/4-1/2 tsp salt – to taste

Mix vinegar, salt and sugar in a bowl until they dissolve. Taste.
Put chillies in a bowl or a cup and pour boiling water over them. Let it stand for 30-45 seconds, and then drain. Pour on the vinegar solution. The chillies need to be completely immersed, so top up with a little more vinegar if necessary.
Place in the fridge for a couple of hours, and the chillies will turn a khaki green…and they are ready.

Phew – that’s the last recipe from my sunday afternoon making sauces…they were much quicker to make than to write about.

Home-made Chilli bean paste with garlic

Most chilli-bean-garlic pastes/ sauces you can buy have way too much msg in them – totally unnecessary. I’ve got quite a laissez-faire attitude to a little bit of msg as a ‘umami’ flavour in pre bought food – but like all flavour/mood enhancers, less is undoubtedly more. 🙂
Too much msg makes my tongue feel burnt. Yuck.
This sauce is definitely a condiment, rather than something you use as a foundation in cooking, but I use it all the time – in fact, on toast, it’s kind of become my replacement for marmite/vegemite, so I tend to make it on a 1:1:1 ratio of chilli, black bean and garlic – however, Lottie and Special K, the two mates who I swap homemade stuff with most often, are both diehard chilliheads, so I make a 2:1:1 version for them – you can make it as hot as you like, but the method and the type of pan you use are pretty much set in stone.

Ingredients – makes 2 small jars – about 500 ml.
1-2 generous handfuls of regular dried chillies (red, about 5-6 cm long and 0.75-1 cm wide)
1 large or 2 small whole bulbs of garlic
1 handful fermented black soya beans
300 ml cooking oil – I use sunflower oil, but you could use canola or peanut – the main thing is it should be flavourless and be able to withstand high heat. Use 50-100 ml more oil if you’re using 2 or more handfuls of chilli.

I am hoping that if you’re making Chinese style condiments, you already own a wok, but you could also use a karahi or something similar – the main thing is, the pan should be considerably bigger than the volume of ingredients, as they fizzle and bubble up when you add them to the oil – and there should be a relatively large surface area in relation to the amount of oil you’re using, to allow moisture to escape, otherwise the flavour will be too broiled/boiled.

Break off any stalks on the chillies and twizzle between your fingers to remove most of the seeds – you won’t get rid of all of them, but as they don’t plump up when you soak the chillies in hot water, leaving them all in will make your sauce too crunchy – like deep fried granola, and get stuck between your teeth. If you want a hotter sauce, just use more chillies. CAUTION, if you think you might rub your eyes/nose/tender parts in the near future, you might want to wear rubber gloves for this bit.
Place chillies in a bowl and cover with boiling water – set aside for 30 minutes, then drain.
Peel all the garlic.
Rinse black beans – you can soak them in hot water to plump them up a little bit, but for no longer than a couple of minutes – I don’t bother. When drained, mash lightly to break them up a little.

If you haven’t got a machine, chop the chillies and the garlic quite finely – keeping them separate. Even if you’re going to blitz them, it is worth roughly chopping them before adding them to the machine, so that they end up being evenly finely minced not part puréed with some big chunks. Blitz in short bursts.
When you’ve got these 3 ingredients lined up in separate bowls, put your clean, dry pan on quite a high heat, until you see a heat haze coming off it, then turn heat down slightly and add oil – heat until you see a heat haze coming off the pan and the oil starts to gently shimmer – you have to pay attention because you don’t want it to get to a smoking point – turn off the heat immediately, and if you’re cooking on electric, remove from the hot ring. Straight away, add the chillies – they will fizzle up and spit a bit, so be careful. The oil will turn orange, and when it begins to calm down, but is still bubbling, add the garlic. Stir a couple of times and add the beans.
The addition of each cold ingredient brings down the heat of the oil, so this needs to be done in quite quick succession. Leave to cool, then bottle.
As long as the paste has a good layer (1 cm) of oil covering it, it doesn’t need refrigerating and will easily keep for 2-3months. If you find you have an excess of oil, you can scoop this off and keep it as plain chilli oil for cooking/dressings.
Black beans are available in small bags or cardboard tubs in Chinese stores – they’re dead cheap and last indefinitely. Once you’ve opened them, store in a screw top jar as they smell quite strong. One of the best brands is Pearl River preserved black beans with ginger, which seems to be available all over the world.

Baked Bean Soup

I don’t actually like british baked beans very much – they’re too sweet and bland – unless they get a serious make over. My ex’s blindingly good Jamaican style baked beans for a fry up (a recipe for another day) and this soup are the two recipes I use a lot…and you can use the cheapest beans going.

Ingredients makes two bowls (800 ml-1 l), 15-20 minutes

2 tablespoons oil
1 medium onion, chopped
3 cloves of garlic, chopped
2-3 slices of fresh red chilli – optional
2 medium tomatoes, chopped (or a quarter of a can, if you don’t have fresh)
1 can cheapest baked beans going
1-1 1/2 cans water
Salt to taste
2 sprigs sweet marjoram (other herbs are available 😉 )

To serve – dribble of olive oil (optional/only if you’ve got some)


In a pan big enough for the finished soup, soften the onion over a low to medium heat for 2-3 minutes, add garlic, and chilli if you’re using it, cook for a further minute, then the tomatoes and cook until the tomatoes soften and begin to release their juices. Add beans, bring up to heat, add a canful/ canful and a half of water. Add majoram leaves. Bring up to heat again and simmer for 5 minutes and then blitz. Taste for salt.

If you haven’t got a machine to blitz with, mash the bean mix before you add the water, then pass through a sieve with the back of a wooden spoon at the end…
I particularly like sweet marjoram and I’ve got some in my garden – fresh thyme, rosemary, basil or oregano would also work or dried oregano, herbes de Provence…you get the idea!
If you serve this to guests, I suggest you call it haricot bean soup – somehow makes it sound more grown up.

This was lunch last Wednesday week.