The Tunisian chile sauce called harissa comes in many forms, but the most traditional contains just dried chiles, garlic, olive oil, spices, and salt. The term harissa originally comes from the Arabic verb “harassa” which literally means “to pound” or “to crush” and was initially used to describe a porridge of pounded wheat, butter, meat, and certain spices that dates back to the 7th century.
Chiles came to North Africa from the New World after the Columbian exchange of the 1500s, and they flourished in the fertile soils of Tunisia’s Cap Bon, the peninsula jutting into the Mediterranean southwest of Sicily. The area still produces most commercial versions of harissa, called harissa souri since it’s made with fresh chiles instead of the dried peppers. Home cooks prefer to dry their own chiles, then grind them with garlic, olive oil, coriander, and caraway into a thick paste.
We take a shortcut and blend NY Shuk’s Herby Harissa spice blend with garlic and olive oil. It provides the same fruity, smoky flavor that pairs well with briny green olives in this simple chicken dish. We used a whole, cut up chicken, but the same approach works with pieces like thighs. The chicken gets rubbed with the harissa, then slowly cooked on the stovetop in a tomato sauce flavored with cilantro and olives.
If you’re here in Portland, you can get the Giarraffa cracked green olives from Sicily for this dish. They’re not only geographically appropriate, they’re very easy to pit.