Harissa, when the spiciness becomes greedy

A customer explains that he does not digest harissa. Any other than that gives him heartburn. A third that he hates the spicy… Habib Bahri does not have much success with the first curious people who approach the tasting stand temporarily installed in the Berrie delicatessen, not far from the Saint-Lazare train station, at Paris. On a board, the founder of the Baba Bahri brand, specializing in Tunisian products, has placed slices of bread and sweet potatoes spread with his artisanal harissa.

This (very) big guy of 40 with a gentle look, who cut his teeth at Danone, working in particular on the multinational’s mineral waters and organic dairy products, tries with a reassuring smile: “I swear this one is different! » Finally, a young woman grabs a slice of bread. “I come from Haute-Savoie, my culinary culture is rather a lot of cream and sweetness, warns Anne Girard, an amateur gourmet. But I started using harissa in recipes from Yotam Ottolenghi [chef anglo-israélien à la tête de sept restaurants à Londres, auteur du best-seller Simple (Hachette, 2018)]. I took the yellow tube that everyone knows, Le Phare du Cap Bon, but I put too much on, and it was inedible. » She marks a time of mental preparation, bites into the bread, widens her eyes. “Ah yes, there, it’s more subtle. » Habib Bahri’s smile widened.

1er December 2022, the harissa was listed by Unesco as a World Heritage Site. The information went a little unnoticed in France, especially since the tricolor baguette had been honored the day before with the same distinction in a hubbub of croaking. In Tunisia, where the harissa even has its festival (in the coastal town of Nabeul, on the Cap Bon peninsula), the inscription has taken on the proportions of a national victory. Everyone was super happy testifies Habib Bahri, born in Tunis, and part of the family still lives in the country. In Tunisia, everyone has a story about chili paste, it’s part of our identity, our land, our culture. It’s like feta for the Greeks! It is prepared everywhere and mostly by women. I’m still discovering new recipes with anise, thyme or lemon in tiny towns. »

Read also: Harissa, national condiment in Tunisia, classified as intangible heritage of humanity

The harissa (from the verb harassed, “to grind”), it is first of all a puree of fresh or sun-dried red peppers, usually hung in long scarlet rosaries from the roofs or doors of houses. Salt, garlic, coriander, caraway seeds, and of course olive oil are most often added to the preparation – allowing both to preserve and reduce the spiciness of the chilli – before grinding everything in a mortar with a wooden pestle or using a manual meat grinder. The dough obtained is not completely uniform, at least in the traditional version which has titillated the palaces of Tunisians since the 16th century.e century.

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