Harissa powder is a staple spice blend in North African cuisine that originates from Tunisia. It has a fiery and complex flavor with a blend of hot chili peppers, garlic, spices like cumin and caraway seeds, and sometimes tomatoes.
The powder can range from mild to spicy depending on the type of chili peppers used. Harissa powder is commonly used to add flavor and heat to stews, soups, and rubs for meat, vegetables, and other dishes. It also frequently serves as the base for harissa paste.
Outside of North Africa, harissa powder may not be as readily available in supermarkets. When you run out or can't find it, there are several flavorful spice substitutes to recreate the heat and depth of harissa powder.
A simple chili powder or chile powder can work as a substitute for harissa powder, especially in dishes that require just a touch of heat and don't rely on harissa as the dominant flavor. Chili powder is made from a blend of ground-dried chili peppers and often contains spices like cumin, garlic powder, and oregano.
While it won't have the exact Tunisian flavor as harissa powder, it mimics some of the core ingredients like dried chilies and cumin. Use an equal amount of chili powder as the harissa powder is called for in the recipe. You can add a pinch of cayenne pepper or red pepper flakes to increase the heat closer to a spicy harissa.
Chili powder is readily available, making it an easy pantry substitution when you're out of harissa powder. Start with a small amount and adjust the quantity to your taste preference.
Spicy Smoked Paprika
Smoked paprika on its own has a distinct smoky flavor but not much heat. By combining it with a dried chili pepper, you can create a harissa powder substitute with both a touch of smokiness and spice.
Mix two parts of smoked paprika with one part ancho chili powder or chipotle chili powder. The ancho chilies have a mild heat and fruity flavor that complements the smokiness, while the chipotle chilies add a deeper heat and flavor.
You can also include a pinch of caraway or cumin seeds to get closer to the flavor profile of harissa powder. Use the same amount of this smoked paprika and chili powder blend as you would harissa powder in any recipe.
Ras El Hanout
Ras el hanout is a North African spice blend that translates to "top of the shop" and contains a complex mix of up to 20 spices. While recipes vary, ras el hanout typically contains warm spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger, along with chili peppers for heat.
The flavor profile is not exactly the same as harissa powder, but it has a similar heat level and complexity. Ras el hanout makes an easy 1:1 substitution when you are out of harissa powder.
You may want to add extra cumin or garlic powder to bring the flavor slightly closer to a traditional harissa blend. Ras el hanout can be found at specialty spice stores or online.
Berbere Spice Blend
Berbere spice hails from Ethiopian cuisine and contains a mix of chili peppers, paprika, garlic, ginger, fenugreek, rue seeds, ajwain seeds, basil, korarima, and more. It has a complex flavor that is both spicy and earthy from its blend of spices.
While berbere spice originates in a different region than harissa, it makes a great substitute with its similarities like chili peppers and paprika. Use the same amount of berbere spice as you would harissa powder. The composition can vary slightly by brand, but it should add a comparable heat and depth of flavor.
You may want to add extra cumin if a particular berbere spice blend is low on cumin compared to harissa. Berbere spice can be found at specialty stores or online spice retailers.
Homemade Harissa Spice Blend
If you want an exact match to harissa powder's traditional Tunisian flavors, you can easily recreate it at home with spices you likely have.
To make your own harissa spice blend combine:
- 2 tablespoons paprika
- 1 tablespoon ground cumin
- 1 tablespoon ground coriander
- 1 teaspoon ground caraway seeds
- 1⁄2 tablespoon garlic powder
- 1⁄2 tablespoon dried oregano
- 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper or red pepper flakes
Mix the spices together and store in an airtight jar. You can adjust the quantities to your taste - add more cayenne pepper for extra heat or more cumin and coriander for a stronger earthiness.
Use this homemade blend in place of harissa powder in any recipe. Customize it to match the flavor profile you want.
Indian Tandoori Masala
Tandoori masala is a popular Indian spice blend used to marinate meats for tandoori-style cooking. The spices in tandoori masala vary but often contain garlic, ginger, cumin, coriander, Kashmiri chilies, or paprika for color and mild heat. These similarities to harissa powder ingredients make it a good substitute.
Since brands can differ in composition, examine the ingredients when purchasing tandoori masala. Look for ones with warmer spices like cumin, garlic, paprika, or chili powder rather than lots of cooler spices like cardamom or cloves.
Use the same quantity of tandoori masala to replace harissa powder. You may want to add a pinch of cayenne or chili powder to increase the heat level to what you would expect from a harissa spice blend.
Rose harissa is another North African spice blend that typically contains the addition of rose petals or rose water to create a floral aroma and subtle sweetness. It became popular more recently thanks to famous chefs featuring it in their recipes.
If you have rose harissa but need regular harissa powder, you can easily use them interchangeably in recipes since they have such similar compositions. When substituting regular harissa powder for rose harissa, start with 3⁄4 of the amount needed, as rose harissa is often slightly milder in heat.
You can also make rose harissa by adding a small amount of rose water to regular harissa powder or paste. Add it sparingly, a teaspoon at a time, until you achieve the subtle floral aroma you desire without overwhelming the other spice flavors.
What's the difference between harissa powder and harissa paste?
Harissa powder is a dried spice blend made from ground chilies, spices, and herbs. Harissa paste has a similar flavor profile but contains additional ingredients like olive oil, garlic, and sometimes tomatoes or rose petals. The paste has a thicker, spreadable texture compared to the dry loose powder form. Both can be used interchangeably in small quantities in recipes depending on the texture needed.
Can I make rose harissa at home?
Yes, you can make homemade rose harissa by starting with regular harissa powder or paste and adding rose water a small amount at a time. Use a light hand, around 1 teaspoon of rose water at first. Then taste and slowly add more rose water until you achieve the subtle floral aroma you desire without overwhelming the other spices.
What are some uses for harissa powder beyond North African cuisine?
The complexity of harissa powder makes it a versatile ingredient beyond traditional North African dishes. You can use it to add heat and flavor to eggs, pizza, chili, and sandwiches, rubbed on vegetables and meats before roasting or grilling, blended into dips and sauces, or sprinkled over popcorn. Any dish that could use a kick of chili pepper flavors will benefit from harissa powder.
Harissa powder is an essential spice for North African cooking that can sometimes be hard to source.
Thankfully, with options like smoky paprika and chili blends, Indian tandoori masala, or homemade harissa spice mixes, you can recreate the heat and depth of harissa powder no matter where you live.
The next time your pantry runs dry, use one of these tasty substitutes to craft flavorful North African-inspired dishes.
With a touch of spice and creativity, you can bring the aromas of this beloved regional cuisine to your very own kitchen.