Many of my travel memories revolve around food, and what I ate during a month in Morocco lingers years later. My diet then was as it is today (mostly vegetarian with some fish thrown in), meaning I spent most of my time in country disappointing well-intentioned Moroccan women who wanted to celebrate my presence at their table with the rare treat of meat. Once they were convinced no one was being rude, we could all enjoy their everyday, mostly meatless meals. These simple dishes let the spices shine, and I soon learned to look for my favorite flavors at market stalls while I traveled from city to desert and back. One of my favorite snacks became a bag of olives heavily coated in a chili-and-spice blend known as harissa.
I discovered harissa in Morocco, but Tunisia often claims origination rights. Regardless, this spicy North African paste is served on everything from couscous to soup to toast, for the daring. I’ve tossed it with vegetables before roasting or, instead of Chermoula, with shrimp before skewering them for the grill. Harissa resembles sambal oelek, an Indonesian chili paste, but it can be harder to find in American stores. Fortunately, it’s so simple to make that you’ll stop seeking it out in specialty markets. You can make it any time of year, using fresh peppers in season and dried or even smoked ones the rest of the year—which is also fortunate, because you’ll never want to be without a jar.
Traditionally, harissa is preserved by an olive oil “seal” that is replaced each time you dip into the paste. I still store such sealed harissa in an airtight jar in the fridge to ensure it doesn’t spoil. It will keep that way for a couple of months, so I make it regularly in small batches.