I’ve been looking for good harissa in Brixton for some time. Having dabbled in the hot-but-nothing-more Le Phare du Cap Bon brand, I’ve always been disappointed with its lack of depth and flavour. It adds nothing to a pot of meatballs, and gives little when stirred into yogurt and olives to be mopped up with herb-baked breads. To me, the beauty of its retro graphic packaging is totally let down by its one note contents: it tastes starkly of paprika spiced tomato paste and then disappears altogether. Such a shame when the tube looks this good.
I’ve always relied instead on the little purple-lidded pots of Al Fez harissa. The problem is, they’re really hard to find where I live; even a reluctant trip to Brixton’s enormous Tesco came up with nothing. The lovely thing about Al Fez is that all the imagined elemental qualities of Lebanon exist in the pot – flavours from the earth and fire are found in cumin, coriander and aniseed. I haven’t even been to Lebanon to know if this is authentic, but I do know that I like it. In any case, since I couldn’t find it, and I had a glut of red chillies in the fridge, I decided to blend it myself. My recipe is judged by my own taste for heat and pokiness in a flaming red sauce: do amend the quantities of chilli seeds and spices. This is a versatile paste, too – stir into stews, tagines or cous cous, or mix with oil to dress salads, bread or halloumi.
Makes 1 regular jam jar, which will keep for a few days in your fridge. Cover the top with olive oil to prevent mould.
Plunge 5 or 6 dried whole red chillies in a small bowl of hot water for up to an hour. While they’re soaking, add 1 1/2 tsp dried cumin, 1 1/2 tsp dried coriander seeds and 1tsp dried aniseed to a skillet on a low hob. Allow to toast for a couple of minutes, shaking every now and then, until they turn a couple of shades darker and have released their heady scent.
To prevent the inevitable pain of rubbing your eyes after handling chillies, work a dash of olive oil into your hands. Then cut 2 handfuls of fresh red chillies lengthways (a mix of long and thin, or short and fat is fine, but use whatever’s available – markets are especially cheap for making these kinds of easy recipes), and cut away and set aside the majority of the seeds. Chop the chillies roughly and add to the hand blender or magimix and pour in a long glug of your best olive oil. Add 6 peeled garlic cloves, the toasted seeds, the soaked dried chillies and a pinch of salt. Blend to a coarse paste. Add more oil to loosen if necessary, and any of the discarded seeds if you want to turn the heat up. Transfer to a sterilised jam jar and refrigerate.