It must have been in 2001. I was in Tunisia with my family and the waiter had placed a basket of bread and a red dip on the table. My father was hungry and helped himself to generous amount of both.
– Are you sure you want that much in one go? Could be strong stuff, that, I said.
I poked my fork into the dip, thinly coating each prong, though it was so little that no specks of red were visible. Then I put the fork to my tongue.
– Be careful with that one.
I think it was another couple of hours before I could no longer feel the four distinct strips the fork prongs had burnt onto my tongue. This was no tomato dip. It was harissa, the Tunisian chili paste common across much of northern Africa. And a pretty spice version of it, too. It is entirely plausible that my father could have avoided years of sinus problems if I hadn’t issued my warning, but I still feel it was perhaps for the better that those sort of things were left to doctors to sort out.
HarissaChili paste originating in Tunisia but widespread across northern Africa. A basic version can be made from 50 g dried chilies, deseeded and reconstituted in hot water, 4 garlic cloves, 1 tsp caraway seeds, 1 tsp coriander seeds, 1/2 tsp salt and 2-3 tbsp olive oil. Just blend it all to a rough paste
Fast-forward 15 years and harissa is among my favourite condiments. It doesn’t only add a certain level of spiciness to things, though it of course does that too. Spiced with caraway and coriander seeds, and sometimes cumin, it adds a wonderful depth of flavour, much more complex than many other chili pastes.
That also makes it great for a marinade. In fact, if you have harissa, you needn’t much more: a little yoghurt, for balance, and salt suffices. Perfect when you’re in the mood for chicken wings. Harissa chicken wings.
Chicken wings were one of my favourite foods growing up. But somewhere along the way, they fell out of favour. I didn’t eat them for years. Perhaps it was the effect of the anti-fat brigade that dominated much of the health debate until recently. Luckily, we now know better – sugar and processed foods are the main culprits of obesite, not fat. Of course, as with anything else moderation is a virtue. But for those of us who eat meat, there is definitely room for the occasional chicken wing bonanza. In an upgraded version from that of my youth.
I make my own harissa, based on Claudia Roden’s recipe in The New Book of Middle Eastern Food, the short-version recipe of which you can find in the box above, but feel free to use a commercial variety if you prefer. Different brands may vary quite considerably both in hotness and flavour (as do the harissa made of different families across Northern Africe), so adjust the amount to your own taste and heat tolerance levels if you need to. I cook the wings on a charcoal barbecue when I can and on a griddle pan when I can’t (in which case I finish them in the oven, lest the marinade may burn a little too much even for my liking). A normal frying pan or just roasting them in the oven also works.
I firmly believe there is nothing wrong with eating wings on their own. But if I feel like something on the side, I tend to go for a couple of mezes or salads with relatively mild flavours which are not too dominating – you don’t want anything competing too hard with the harissa. A simple chopped salad works well, as does a yoghurt based dip (perfect for those more sensitive to heat). Serves 3-6, depending on what else is on offer.
- 1 tbsp harissa, or to taste
- 1 tbsp yoghurt (preferrably greek style)
- 1 kg chicken wings
- 1 red chili, sliced thinly, to garnish (deseeded if you wish) (optional)
- Mix the harissa and yoghurt with 1/2 tsp salt. Coat the chicken wings well, cover and refridgerate for at least one hour, over night if you can.
- Cook the wings on a charcoal barbecue, or on medium heat in a griddle or frying pan, until cooked through and crispy on the outside. If using the pan, I would suggest cooking for 2-3 minutes on each side, until it has nice colouring without being burnt, then transferring to a tray and cooking in a 230 C oven until cooked through, 10-15 minutes. Garnish with sliced chilies and serve immediately.