That’s why the UNESCO designation felt like such a win. But for the brothers, it’s not a contest. It’s not about authenticity, either. It’s about connecting the dots for consumers who want to cook with actual Tunisian harissa.
Over the years, online and in stores, I have bought sweet jarred versions labeled “sauce,” dried spice blends and smooth pastes that come in a tube. But none of these tasted like the thick, Tunisian-style harissa that the Arem brothers were raised on — with its bold sundried-chile flavor and, in Mansour’s words, “vibrant, Bordeaux red” color. It is, for them, more than a business venture: It’s culinary diplomacy, the passing on of living knowledge.
As you attempt this recipe, know that you must use harissa. There is no substitute.
The most traditional chile used is the baklouti, Mansour says, a mild pepper named after the city Bekalta, “but other less popular varieties are also used.” Once harvested, the chiles are sometimes garlanded with string and left to dry in the sun, an essential process that can take as long as a month, depending on the weather. Cleaned and deseeded, they are then soaked in water, drained and ground into a paste with salt and whole cloves of garlic. Extra-virgin olive oil, coriander and caraway join the chiles, and sometimes lemon juice or vinegar as well, for brightness and preservation.
This year, Mansour visited Tunisia because his grandmother Béchira died. As he was flipping through old photographs, he remembered the last meal she made for him: a meaty merguez stew ablaze with harissa (called markat merguez, tajine merguez or markat kaaber, depending on whom you ask). It was fine-tuned, the dish at its maximum potential: pickled olives and red peppers swimming in a deep-crimson pool of olive oil, with headily spiced meatballs bobbing like floats. Still, it retained all the makings of his mother’s version, run through with memories of her watching “The Real Housewives of Atlanta,” one of her favorite shows, in her pajamas as he and his brother played their Nintendo 64, all waiting for the stew to finish simmering.