If you were to tell me that ketchup – or catsup – is an exotic food, I'd probably offer that one-eye-squinted cocked-head-tilted posture that signifies disbelief, or at least that you're yanking my ankle. Familiarity breeds boredom. Travel a continent away and suddenly the most common condiment around does indeed offer something invigorating. Such is the case with harissa, often dubbed North Africa's ketchup.
Maybe we've grown so drearily accustomed to the dull, bland tomato paste that we slather onto burgers, potatoes and eggs that we assume harissa is like ketchup. I see little reason for the comparison. Yes, it happens to permanently live on tables in Tunisia and Morocco, as dependable as the Heinz diner bottle. In terms of ingredients, texture and taste, however, the two addendums are worlds apart.
Originating in Tunisia, my experiences have been purely Maroc. On my four visits, I was not able to use it often – Moroccan cuisine is meat heavy; I defaulted to the delicious vegetable couscous or tajine dishes on display, which would not require harissa. One day at a fish restaurant my only choice was French fries and scrambled eggs. The smoky harissa at this Rabat dive was brilliant. I've found quite acceptable varieties in the States, which add life to omelets and avocado sandwiches, not to mention grilled tempeh.
Ingredients vary; harissa can be as diverse a condiment as curry is a spice blend. Usual chili suspects are piri piri (African pepper) or Serrano, with garlic paste, red chili powder, coriander, cumin and caraway all making appearances when desired. The base is vegetable or olive oil, giving it a Cholula texture. In Morocco, you buy it in bottles, jars and even plastic bags, reminding me of water sellers in rural Mexico trying to turn a peso on long bus trips.
Speaking of which, you immediately know the worth of a Mexican restaurant based on the pre-meal salsa (and hope the tortilla chips aren't soggy). Ditto harissa. I recommend the smokier, spicier versions, which, being an imported food, you have to play around with to find. If you enjoy a mild-to-spicy hot sauce that is nowhere near habanero, give it a shot, and clear out all those useless condiments that never see the light outside of your refrigerator.
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Image: little blue hen