Guest Essays | Guest Post

Spice to Meet You! My Name’s Harissa.

Please welcome Elizabeth Packer as the latest ex-pat contributor to Good. Food. Stories. A recent college grad currently living in France, where she teaches English, Elizabeth shares her adventures in spice-hunting with us today.

“What is it with you North Americans and spicy things?” my Scottish roommate asked, as I bemoaned yet again the lack of heat in my diet to our sympathetic Canadian neighbor, who was also experiencing chili withdrawal.

Two months ago I moved to France, a country renowned for its rich cuisine. The wine, the bread, the pastries, the cheese… what’s not to love? Everyone knows the French eat well, and on top of that, amongst all their pastries and patés, they somehow manage to stay rather trim. Moreover, I am lucky enough to live in the Franche-Comté region, nestled close to the Swiss border, full of farms that produce some of the country’s best cheese and restaurants that proudly serve fondue à la Franc-Comtois. After sampling the local fondue, I’m hard pressed to think of something more delicious than a bubbling pot of melted cheese, splashed with wine, accompanied by crusty chunks of baguette.

And believe me, I am content to gorge on croissants and Comté (the local fromage of choice)—my roommate and I go through about half a kilo of cheese a week. Startling, I know. Yet I find myself missing spice. I’m from Washington, D.C., where ethnic eateries abound, and I find myself drawn to dishes with a healthy heat—curries that make you sweat, stir-fries flecked with hot chili and Thai basil, berbere-laced stews. I went to college in Los Angeles, where a meal wasn’t complete until it was drizzled with Tapatio hot sauce and weekends were often spent in search of the best tacos and the brightest, zippiest salsas.

Spicy food is exciting. It’s sexy. Why do you think Latin lovers are always posing with bright red chilies? Penelope Cruz, I’m looking at you. I love feeling the tinge of heat that carefully walks the line between flavor and pain, the anticipation of the slow burn that spreads along your palate. Bold bursts of chili bring out a dish’s complexity, the heat allowing you to pick up other, more subtle, tastes and flavors. Spicy food awakens your taste buds; it makes you sweat, sometimes even brings tears to your eyes, but it always makes you feel alive.

After weeks of the Franc-Comtois diet—cheese, quiche, potatoes, smoked pork sausage, more cheese—I realized I desperately needed to put some spice, quite literally, back into my life. I called my parents and asked them to send hot sauce, either Tapatio or Sriracha, as soon as possible. In the meantime, I browsed the “ethnic” food section at my local grocery store. Boxes of Old El Paso Taco Kits weren’t going to cut it. The same for the “Mexican Sauce” sitting at the end of the shelf—it looked like tomato sauce, and sugar was a main ingredient.

That’s when I noticed the harissa. Plopped next to bags of couscous and cans of sardines were little plastic pots of harissa, a North African chili paste. I’d heard of it before, but never sampled it. The ingredient list seemed to fit what I was looking for: a whopping 70 percent chili peppers. I was surprised to see that despite its Arabic labeling and its Mahgrebian roots, this particular harissa was made in France.

So I took my harissa home and eagerly began spicing up my food—stirring it into soups, spreading it on baguettes, mixing it into roasted veggies—happily giving me the burn I craved. Harissa has garlicky, smoky undertones that I appreciate, and a gentle heat. I’m eager to try other brands of harissa, as I’ve heard some blends contain coriander, one of my favorite herbs. I still miss my Tapatio and Thai take-out for heating up cold winter nights, but for now, harissa is just the right spice. Merci for that.

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  1. I enjoyed this post about your search for spice and discovery of Harissa. French women stay svelte because 1. ) of their body type, 2.) no snacking outside meals 3.) small portions. 4.) skipping fatty foods. (I lived in France for 25 years.)

  2. Argh, just can’t do hot/spicy; it physically hurts my tongue! But both my ex-husband and current partner are from Texas, and they love their chiles and hot sauce! I always have to make a mild version for myself. I read somewhere once that there are actual physical differences in how some tongues/taste buds handle hotness. Would be interesting to know.

  3. I have never heard of this harissa – but I must ask my brother and sister-in-law who lived in France full time for 10 years and now go in sprint-summer. I tend toward mild-little-bit-of-spice taste, but love learning about flavors nonetheless.

  4. I have never had this, but have definitely heard about it. I need to make an effort to find some and try it.

  5. well told story, and a good description of the flavors of harissa, too. having spent a good bit of time in northern Europe, I can appreciate the need to seek out heat filled spice after a while.

  6. I got introduced to harissa when I first started traveling in the mideast. Love it. Really good post on this spice that enlivens a variety of different foods.

  7. I’m not sure why, but it wasn’t until the past decade or so that I developed a taste for spicy things. Maybe my life needs spicing up or something. Haven’t heard of Harissa, so will scope it out.

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