Saturday, February 12, 2011

Arabian Heat

Arabs love their spice and I love them for it. Blending spices with peppers is one of the ways that the Arab world has been able to inject great flavours into their foods. In Tunisia, I have witnessed truck loads of hot peppers being transported here and there, ultimately to be used in culinary preparations.

One of the ways Tunisians and Algerians enjoy spice blends is in a preparation called harissa. Harissa it's basically a hot chilli or pepper sauce created by combining different peppers with spices and olive oil.

Before serving, the mixture is added to even more olive oil and is usually consumed as an appetizer. People in Tunisia swear by their family recipes and often boast that their own concoctions are better than any others. During my visit, our driver even brought his own homemade harissa to a restaurant, as the restaurant's version just wouldn't do.

You won't have to go all the way to North Africa to find this food product. It is available at supermarkets and grocery stores, in the Greater Toronto Area, catering to the Arab market.
(Photo courtesy of A.V. Thank you.)

I have been able to use harissa in other culinary applications including:
- adding some to marinades
- giving a kick to curries
- as an accompaniment to meat, such as lamb, beef or goat
- providing a boost of flavour to salsas and dips

Another type of Arab spice blend is called zaatar. Zaatar is a mixture of herbs, spices and sesame seeds that is used as both spice and a condiment. There are many recipes available, all including different measurements and mixtures of spices and herbs. This is also another combination that people tend to base on their own family recipes.

You also don't need to have an Arab family member in order to enjoy zaatar. You may purchase premixed blends, like this one by Cedar Phoenicia.

You can use the zaatar in many ways, including:
- combining it with olive oil to make a spread
- sprinkling it over fresh yoghurt cheese called labneh (To learn how to make your own yoghurt cheese, click here.)
- using it to create spiced breads
- spicing up bland vegetables
- giving a kick to hummus and other dips

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