Traditionally Harissa is most closely associated with The Mahgreb region, specifically Tunisia, the northern edge of Africa touching the Mediterranean Sea, made up of the modern countries Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria and Libya.
The name Harissa comes from the Arabic verb harasa, meaning ‘to pound’, or ‘break into pieces’. It’s thought to originate from Tunisia, where shoppers in spice souks watch it pounded out while-u-wait. The simplest versions are just the bare bones: chillies, salt and olive oil.
Most historians think chillies first landed in Africa as a result of the Spanish occupation of Tunisia in 1535-74, when chilli peppers first started turning up at the souks (it’s fun to imagine what Tunisian chefs would have made of these fiery new ingredients…what do you think?).
Over the next 500 years, chilli would go on to fire the taste buds and imaginations of cooks all over the globe, in just about every culture. In North Africa, they popped up as Harissa.
Harissa has literally hundreds of uses, adding depth and complexity to any dish. Chefs as diverse as Yotam Ottolenghi and Mary Berry all swear by it – and Nigella Lawson once said she’d like a years’ supply of our Rose Harissa for Christmas.
There’s an Arabic legend that all roses were originally white. Then a nightingale fell in love with one, and got a little too close… a thorn pierced the bird’s heart, spilling blood which coloured the rose red.
While chilli was setting sail to conquer the gastronomic world, roses were already part of the furniture.
Wild roses can be traced back for 35 million years. We’ve eaten flowers since we were cavemen and cavewomen, hunting and gathering (mainly gathering, hunting was far too tiring on a low carb diet).
The Chinese and the Persians were probably first to domesticate them, as early as 3000BC. In antiquity were mostly used as a garnish or candied (which are a delight, they taste exactly like a rose smells, with an added sweet crunch).
The Romans associated roses with Venus, Goddess of love. They’d drop them into their wine to curry favour with her. Everywhere their empire stretched, the Romans planted roses.
Persia was likely where Romans’ fascination with roses began. The Persians also used rose petals in jams, dried out them for use in sweetmeats, or added them to spice mixes for savoury dishes (as did Moroccans, with ras el-hanout).
Rosewater was produced from about 3AD, used both for flavour and medicinally in Ancient Greece, Rome, Persia and Egypt. It’s funny to think how many foods started out as health products, before going on to be more recognised more so for their outstanding flavour.
Incidentally, not all roses are edible, but the ones that are a decent source of vitamin C.
I love Rose Harissa. It's a cupboard essential for me.
With roses so revered, and chilli sweeping the world of its feet from the 16th century onwards, it seems inevitable that the two would be combined as cooks looked to innovate (chefs will be chefs!).
Adding rose petals to harissa gives a subtle sweetness and takes the shock and awe out of the chilli kick. Harissa is about balance. It’s not about throwing as many Scovilles at it as you can, it’s about finding the perfect blend of ingredients that’s spicy but not overpowering. It’s about tantalising and exciting the palate, not throwing down a daunting challenge.
The Belazu Ingredient company was let in on a secret recipe in the mid-90s, a traditional harissa that gives a slow burning heat from a careful blend of fourteen spices.
Rose Harissa quickly went on to be one of our bestselling ingredients, widely praised for its versatility in all sorts of places. You can use it as a rub, in marinades, adding full-bodied flavours to soups, stews, sauces, dips, dressings, chutney… you name it, Rose Harissa makes it all better.
Or why not try Green Verbena Harissa? It has a similar level of spice to its red cousin, but with a sparkly citrus note of Moroccan lemon verbena.
Why not try these, too?