Let's Get Spicy: Five-Chile Harissa Spice Blend

Updated: Nov 24, 2020

Welcome to the Let's Get Spicy series! Through this series, I will introduce you to each of my small batch, hand-crafted spice blends, giving you a little bit of the history behind each blend, a story or two of how I first discovered them or what inspired them, some non-recipe-recipes for when you don't have the time or interest to get too involved in cooking, and some full-blown recipes for when you really want to dig in. First up, Five-Chile Harissa Spice Blend!

Originally from North Africa, harissa is usually found in paste form and, at its most basic, is a simple combination of ground chiles, salt, and olive oil. It is ubiquitous in North Africa, served on or alongside basically everything, not unlike, some would say, ketchup in the United States. But make no mistake, harissa is decidedly NOT ketchup (no offense to the ketchup lovers out there).

I first learned about harissa in culinary school, when we were handed a list of ingredients in my International Cuisines class and instructed to whip up a batch of this condiment I'd never previously heard of. (It was an odd class, to be sure, where we were often asked to produce dishes without knowing what the final product was supposed to look or taste like, sometimes without even measurements for the ingredients.) I did as instructed, producing a fiery red puree tinged with a slight lemon tang and a surprising depth of flavor. It soon became a go-to flavor for me, as I loved the way the spicy chiles interacted with the tang of the lemon and olive oil, and I was not surprised when I started seeing jars of it in places like Trader Joe's and Whole Foods. I tried many of the versions I found in stores but always kind of felt like they could be better, more... interesting.

Growing up in Southern California, dried chiles are available everywhere, and there are LOTS of different kinds from which to choose, depending on the flavor and spice level you're looking for. So, in my quest for the perfect harissa, I started experimenting with different types of chiles in my recipe. I soon found that using just one type of chile (as most of the store-bought brands do) just didn't give the depth of flavor I really wanted, so I started combining multiple types of chiles, layering them into my blend in different quantities to obtain what I thought was the best combination of spice, flavor, and smokiness.

But I still wasn't satisfied. Having started exploring North A