Harissa, Blood, Sweat and Tears

September 11, 2016


I am currently finishing my PhD – a hangover from my life before food. People that know me in real life are sick of hearing about this, and will have stopped reading after that first sentence (if they bother reading this site at all). It is a horrendous experience, the PhD, even as a writer. The sheer scale of the workload is terrifying, overwhelming, and it makes me break down into a wobbly fit every time I think about how much I haven’t done yet.

It’s very weird, too, swapping constantly between academic and creative writing. The former is all about clearly stating facts and results, but my PhD is also quite theoretical, so it’s mind bending and headache-inducing too. Then I have to stop doing it for a while and write something about a lunch I had in Azerbaijan at the home of a little Russian lady, recreating the atmosphere, describing the scene, conjuring memories of the food. My brain is doing some serious acrobatics and you know what? I’m KNACKERED. Thank heavens for this blog where I can just let the words spew out of me (sorry).

Still, it’s my fault, because I chose to do the PhD in the first place. The point of me telling you this is that I am cutting out all non-essential activities, like having fun in the kitchen. Usually, I might spend an hour or so making something nice for lunch – now I scuffle back and forth to the fridge in my pyjamas, grab whatever is inside and eat it. I barely have time to slap together a sandwich. Gasp! As if I ever just ‘slap together’ a sandwich… I can’t believe you would think that.


Clockwise from top: Guajillo, Chilli de Arbol, Pasilla, Mulato.

The problem is, the no cooking thing is not sustainable. Not for me, anyway. Food is my life. I will become depressed. So, I am stockpiling brilliant things that I can stick in the fridge and sort of blob on top of bowls of rice with chicken and veg or whatever. Hello, then, to harissa.

It’s a mongrel recipe because we basically just dug around in the cupboard – the bit right at the back where you can feel the spiders’ webs – until we found the rustling packets of dried chillies. Hands came back clutching smoke-laced Ancho, spiky Chilli de Arbol, fruity Guajillo and the curious, squat Mulato. We also roasted some good old regular fresh chillies and a pepper and mixed the lot with cumin seeds, coriander seeds, caraway and garlic… it’s punchy.

You could use any mixture of chillies you like I suppose, as long as what you have at the end is something so full of flavour you can just stir small amounts into other dishes, spread it on a sandwich, mix with yoghurt or mayo, use it to coat chicken wings… whatever. Would it be easier to go and buy a jar of harissa? Sure, but where’s the therapy in that? This way, I enjoyed the scent of smoky chillies curling around the kitchen; I roasted peppers until sweet and blackened, then slipped off their skins; I dry-toasted spices, sucking up the citrusy scent of coriander seeds, then I whizzed it all together and I felt better. I felt better before any of it had even passed my lips.

Harissa Recipe

This fills a 350g jar.

1 dried Ancho chilli
1 dried Mulato chilli
3 Chilli de Arbol
2 dried Guajillo chillies
1 dried Pasilla chilli
1 red pepper
5 regular mild fresh chillies (not cayenne but the ones you get in supermarkets. What are these called, please?)
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
1/2 teaspoon caraway seeds
5 cloves garlic, peeled
Juice of 1 lemon
1 tablespoon olive oil, 1 tablespoon rapeseed oil (yeah this was a bit random, so you could just use 2 tablespoons of flavourless oil, like groundnut)
2 teaspoons good sea salt

Soak the chillies in boiling water for at least half an hour. It’s easiest if you weigh them down with something like a plate or bowl, to stop them bobbing to the surface. Once soaked, remove the stalks and seeds.

Char the peppers and fresh chillies over an open flame until blackened all over. I did this on my hob (watch them and turn frequently) but you could do it under the grill. If you roast them in the oven, the flavour of the red pepper would be stronger and might overwhelm everything else. Once they’re blackened, wrap them in cling film for five minutes (this makes the skin easy to peel) then, peel and discard the stalks and seeds. It’s easiest if you run them under the tap while you’re doing it.

Add the chillies to a blender with all the other ingredients and whizz to a paste. Keep in a sterilised jar in the fridge.

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  • Avatar
    Reply Alicia (foodycat) September 11, 2016 at 8:44 am

    Good luck with the final run on the phd!

  • Avatar
    Reply Niamh September 11, 2016 at 8:26 pm

    Chin up, Helen! I look forward to calling you Dr Graves and proclaiming that there is a dr in the house in all situations.

    • Avatar
      Reply Helen Graves September 12, 2016 at 6:02 am


  • Avatar
    Reply Mark September 12, 2016 at 4:04 am

    My friends were sick of me talking about my PhD but now they call me Doctor. I feel the PhD pain – what’s the topic?

    • Avatar
      Reply Helen Graves September 12, 2016 at 6:03 am

      It’s in psychological medicine – a new therapy to motivate people with type 2 diabetes to change their behaviour. I’ll stop there unless you fall asleep. What was yours?

  • Avatar
    Reply Mark September 12, 2016 at 7:26 pm

    Very interesting. With so many diseases being lifestyle-related, changing behaviour is critical.

    Mine was “Synthetic Routes to Beta-Lactams” – basically making new antibiotics in the lab (organic chemistry).

    Now, time for my habitual bottle of red…unless you can stop me…

    • Avatar
      Reply Helen Graves September 13, 2016 at 12:54 pm

      I wouldn’t even attempt to modify *that* behaviour, Mark. I couldn’t get through my Phd without it.

  • Avatar
    Reply Deborah September 13, 2016 at 7:46 pm

    Congratulations on the Phd, Helen—The subject matter is really interesting too, I hope you’ll tell us more about it. I’ve never heard of psychological med. but I’ll bet it’s not what I thought I was doing in the 70’s.
    Anaheims are the green fresh mild chilis that I’m familiar with. Our store also call a similar spicier one “Pacilla” but that is the dried version of a “chilaca” chili. Or so my Google Phd tells me. 🙂

    • Avatar
      Reply Helen Graves September 14, 2016 at 7:09 am

      Hehe thanks Deborah! Although, don’t congratulate me yet! It’s a slog, that’s for sure. Anaheim could be the one! It’s weird how they never specify that type of chilli here, it just appears everywhere.

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