Harissa paste is a spicy chili pepper paste and a typical staple food in Northwest Africa.
Over recent years, harissa has become increasingly popular internationally.
This article explains harissa paste’s characteristics and examines its ingredient profile and nutritional values.
We’ll also look at some good ways to use it in the kitchen.
What is harissa paste?
Harissa is a popular condiment and ingredient that frequently features in Maghrebi cuisine.
‘Maghreb’ refers to the region of Northwest Africa that encompasses Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, and Tunisia (1).
Harissa is a thick paste that is full of flavorful ingredients and provides a spicy kick.
The paste features in everything from curries and marinades to soups and stews and can even be used simply as a dip or spread.
In addition to its main paste form, harissa spices, rubs, and sauces are available. They come in jars, powder packets, sauce bottles, squeezy tubes, and spice shakers.
What is harissa made of?
As with many traditional foods, the recipe for harissa will change from area to area.
However, its key primary ingredients are roasted peppers, olive oil, and seasonings like garlic and coriander (2).
It is important to note that there are many different branded harissa products, and the ingredients profile of each one may vary.
For this reason, it is worth checking their product labels to see what they contain.
That said, a traditional harissa ingredient profile should look something like this (3):
- Roasted peppers (baklouti cultivar)
- Caraway seeds
- Lemon juice
- Olive oil
What does harissa taste like?
Harissa has a strong flavor, and it is smoky and slightly spicy.
Alongside these flavor characteristics, it has strong garlic flavors and hints of citrus and is slightly salty.
In other words, harissa is a very flavorful paste that can enhance the taste of numerous foods and dishes.
However, there are many harissa products, so the taste can vary depending on the ingredients profile.
How spicy is it?
There are different varieties of harissa with varying levels of heat.
For example, it is possible to buy ‘hot’ or ‘mild’ harissa paste products.
According to the Scoville scale, the baklouti chili peppers traditionally used to make harissa have a rating of 5000 heat units (4).
For people who enjoy jalapeño, a ‘hot’ variety of harissa should be fine. In contrast, those who find jalapeño a bit spicy may prefer a ‘mild’ harissa product.
Nutritional values of harissa paste
Based on nutritional data from Nutritionix, here are the nutritional values for harissa per 14-gram tablespoon serving (7):
|Name||Amount||% Daily Value|
As the data shows, harissa contains equal amounts of carbohydrates and fat and has low protein content.
It is relatively high in sodium, with a single serving providing 228 mg, 10% of the daily value.
Is there any scientific research on harissa paste’s health effects?
Firstly, there is very little scientific research on harissa besides a few studies on traditional Maghreb (Northwest African) diets.
A 2001 case-control study aimed to identify dietary risk factors for nasopharyngeal cancer, which is common in the Maghreb region, in the Setif area of Algeria.
This study found that an increased incidence of disease was associated with consuming traditionally preserved foods such as harissa, pickled fruit and vegetables, and dried and salted meat (8).
Additionally, a further 2013 case-control study found a higher incidence of nasopharyngeal cancer in people with higher consumption of Harissa, Smen, and black pepper and less frequent consumption of fruits and vegetables (9).
It is worth noting that these are just associations, and the overall diet quality of people eating this way may be more important than specific foods.
Also, harissa is a staple food in the Maghreb region, and some local people may eat it multiple times daily. Thus, this consumption pattern is very different from using harissa occasionally.
Therefore, these ‘habitual diet’ studies have less relevance for people in other countries with entirely different diets.
However, there is also a fair amount of research on two ingredients in harissa; sodium and chili peppers (and their capsaicin content).
Harissa contains a relatively high amount of salt, giving the paste a high sodium content.
As shown in the nutritional values section, a tablespoon serving of harissa provides 10% of the daily value for sodium.
This potential increased blood pressure from sodium is particularly relevant to individuals with salt-sensitive hypertension. For these individuals, higher salt intake can have a more pronounced impact on blood pressure (12).
As with all sodium-rich products, it is a good idea to be aware of intake levels and to consume harissa in moderation.
Capsaicin is a chemical compound found within chili peppers, so harissa will contain some.
To learn more about capsaicin and the potential benefits and downsides of chili peppers in general, see this guide to cayenne pepper:
How To Use Harissa Paste
There are many ways to use harissa paste, which is a versatile ingredient.
Here are some ways in which people can use it:
- Stir a tablespoon of harissa into a curry, soup, or stew for added flavor.
- Add a serving of harissa to a stir-fry or pasta dish to give it a spicy kick.
- Marinate meat, poultry, seafood, or tofu in harissa before cooking.
- Make some harissa-roasted vegetables: add harissa paste and a bit of olive oil (or cooking fat of choice) to a bowl, toss some potatoes and vegetables of choice in it, and then roast.
- Harissa on toast. A recipe idea could be harissa, guacamole, and poached egg.
- Harissa and cheese omelet: add a small amount of harissa and cheese to an omelet with vegetables of choice.
As we can see, harissa can add flavor to many dishes, and it’s a great cooking ingredient for those who like things a little spicy.
Where to buy harissa
There should be at least one harissa option in most large grocery stores.
Aside from this, imported food stores may potentially sell more traditional harissa products.
Amazon also has a range of harissa paste products (disclosure: affiliate link), including options with traditional ingredients.
Here are some answers to common questions about harissa.
A typical serving size for harissa is one tablespoon. Doubling the serving size will provide a fuller flavor if making a large dish for several people.
It is hard to provide an accurate answer as this depends on the specific ingredients and how long it has been stored. However, as with most packaged condiments, it should last at least a month in the refrigerator. The product label should provide more information on storage time.
There are no exact like-for-like substitutes for harissa as it has a unique taste and texture. However, other spicy pastes like ‘nduja and gochujang can provide a similar flavor-enhancing, spicy kick to recipes.
Yes, harissa contains a relatively high amount of salt. One tablespoon of the paste has a sodium content equal to approximately 10% of the daily value.
Providing it isn’t over-consumed, and total sodium intake is within recommended levels, harissa can fit into a healthy dietary pattern. However, it is not a food to seek out for nutritional benefits.
Harissa is a delicious, slightly spicy ingredient that adds flavor to food.
In this regard, it can help to enhance the taste of numerous home-cooked dishes.
Harissa is moderately high in sodium, but the paste can fit into a healthy dietary pattern in suitable portion sizes.