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I am counting the days until my first batch of preserved lemons will be ready. I've read several tagine and couscous recipes, I'm excited, this is uncharted territory for me.

In addition to my preserved lemons, a couple of exotic (for me) ingredients seem to be in order and I have found possible choices on Amazon.

Looking at the reviews, harissa is a product for which there is no clear frontrunner brand. The recipes I've looked at don't even specify harissa paste or powder, yet they are both about equally available. Are there quantifiable pros and cons to one type or the other? Is one type more traditionally seen in Moroccan and/or and other North African cuisines? Is there a difference in shelf life? (mine can live in the pantry or fridge, it makes no difference) I realize quality is subjective, but is any one particular brand more popular or more commonly seen in the region(s)? For what it is worth, I like heat, so I won't be easily scared off by mouth burn.

Another issue is Ras El Hanout and saffron. I have found saffron to be a lovely addition to otherwise bland dishes, but in these applications, is it really worth the expense? How likely am I to even perceive it against olives, capers, dried fruit, preserved lemons, Ras El Hanout and harissa all playing a part in the same meal? Is there something amazingly indescrible/not to be missed about the combination? Or can I wait for the saffron until my next batch of preserved lemons?

Of course I'd apprecite any comments on any subject I've touched upon.

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I haven't voted to close, but this question does have hints of several iffy characteristics. Brand recommendations aren't our favorite (see for example Q&A is Hard, Let’s Go Shopping!). Asking for general comments or recommendations on a topic is very broad (one of the standard close reasons). And asking many questions in one often leads to worse answers to each individual question. The one specific question (harissa paste vs powder) isn't even in the title. –  Jefromi Sep 26 '13 at 16:27
    
Edited for specificity –  Jolenealaska Oct 1 '13 at 8:54

1 Answer 1

up vote 6 down vote accepted
  • Harissa - I have only ever bought/used harissa paste. I have a tube in the pantry (brand: Le Phare du Cap Bon) that I bought in a Tunisian store and it can last on the shelf for years.

    When I discussed the powder vs. paste matter with the guy in the store, he said that they always use the paste at home, which I got confirmed also from many other people. Anyway, I guess from the amount you usually add to a dish, powder shouldn't make an enormous difference as most ingredients in most harissas are dry (chilies, cumin, coriander, salt, ...) and you can always reconstitute it into harissa paste.

    The paste I have is alright to add some heat, but it is not particularly fancy ... there are definitely some more artisan products available. However, for really tasty results I recommend making your own at home - it will be so much tastier ... there are tons of good recipes online (I personally like to add some more cumin) - depending on the ingredients this might need to live in the fridge, but in general harissa should be fine on the shelf.

  • Ras El Hanout mixes - they will have mostly the same ingredients (from the meaning "head of the shop" you can already guess that it will include probably most of the spices from an arab spice shop ;-), but there can be quite big variations in proportions of ingredients - which might make them taste quite different. If you walk along a arab market you find that Ras El Hanout varies quite a a bit from shop to shop, and then between different towns, countries you get again bigger regional variations ... and at the end it depends on your taste buds which one you prefer.

    But to start with - my guess would be that no matter which one you get they will all add a similarly nice North African/Middle Eastern touch to your dishes - if you feel adventurous enough you can get a couple different ones for comparison (you can always give them away as presents if you end up hating them ;-)

  • Saffron has a very specific flavor that you will very likely pick out, no matter how many other spices/flavors you add. But is it really necessary to have it? - No, but it will certainly add to the dish. And I guarantee that you will be able to find a ton of great totally authentic North African recipes that have no saffron. And about the expense - it really is not so expensive considering how little is required for flavoring a dish and it will last for a long time (stored dry in an airtight container).

Just an idea (in case you end up liking this cuisine) - make bigger batches of preserved lemons, so you won't need to wait for another batch to be ready. I make mine in a 5 liter spring top jar - so they last me for about a year (and a month or so before they run out I transfer them and start a new batch in the big jar).


Now the rest is just some hints - trying to answer your (broader) question before your edit:

Some spices that are quite traditional North African/Moroccan/East-Mediterranean (and are already often included in the available spice mixes) would be:

  • cumin
  • turmeric
  • paprika
  • chili
  • sumac
  • coriander
  • saffron
  • sesame seeds
  • cinnamon
  • cardamom

some spice mixes will also include:

  • cloves
  • caraway
  • fenugreek

Some herbs that come to mind:

  • mint
  • cilantro
  • parsley

With this spices and herbs often some fruits and vegetables like lemons, olives, garlic, onion, fresh chilies and eggplants (often roasted or toasted to some extend) are the ones that add to the authentic flavors.

The savory dishes are often balanced out with some sweeter elements like raisins, dates and honey.

Some good condiments would be:

  • Dukkah ... it is super nice sprinkled on couscous.
  • Zahtar ... eaten with olive oil and bread.

Another nice ingredient is tahini - sesame paste that is often used in arab countries (important ingredient in hummus and baba ghanoush).

There are some popular signature dishes that can be found in different subsets of the North African/East-Mediterranean countries: tajine, falafel, hummus, baba ganoush, ful, kibbe, shakshouka, kebab - meat skewers, tabouleh, mujadra and others.

Food is often eaten with different kinds of flat bread, couscous, sometimes bulgur or rice.

This is just some stuff that you can start with and slowly build on - and use in addition to your super exciting preserved lemons =D

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There's also zahtar, a mix of sumac, thyme, sesame seeds and salt. –  ElendilTheTall Sep 26 '13 at 13:37
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@ElendilTheTall Thanks! How could I have forgotten zahtar ... I have a whole selection of different kinds of zahtar in my pantry. –  Martin Turjak Sep 26 '13 at 13:52
    
Both the Dukkah and zahtar seem simple enough to make at home the first time. I'm sure you're right, Martin, that if I end up loving the cuisine I'll end up wanting to make my own harissa. The first time though, I think I'm going to get a commercial one, although I may "tweak" once I have tasted it. The recipes I've seen aren't complicated (at all) but they're hugely variable (especially the varieties of chiles). Even following a recommended recipe, I think I would end up with something that tastes Mexican, just because I'd gravitate towards flavors I know. That would defeat the purpose. –  Jolenealaska Sep 26 '13 at 14:35
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@Jolenealaska you are right. I think having a tube of harissa is good for a start and especially for lazy times to make some garbanzos with harissa. The homemade harissa is a suggestion for further adventures =) Of course I recommend to visit a North African or Middle Eastern restaurant to try some stuff that is hopefully authentic and gives you a reference point. But then if you follow some good recipes - follow the instructions well and keep the right proportions of spices - you should get (in most cases) a decent approximation of the dishes ;-) –  Martin Turjak Sep 26 '13 at 15:02

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