A Chile Paste So Good, It’s Protected by the U.N.

Last year, UNESCO officially deemed harissa, the brick red, aromatic chile paste, “an integral part of domestic provisions and the daily culinary and food traditions of Tunisian society.” Keyword: Tunisian.

As first-generation Tunisian Americans, Mansour and Karim Arem, brothers and the founders of the Tunisian food company Zwïta, didn’t see their cuisine widely represented in the United States — and felt that the lack of representation extended to harissa. Though used across North Africa, and especially in the central and western region known as the Maghreb, harissa originated in Tunisia. But the Arems have long wondered: How many people actually know that?

Recipe: Sticky Harissa Chicken Wings

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.

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.

You could say the stew connects Mansour to his Tunisian roots, but it’s even more the harissa across his family dishes, whether as a smear or as a flavor base, that anchors him to the motherland no matter where he is in the world. That’s because in Tunisia, everything relies on a little harissa: a savory triangular pastry pocket, brik; a fried sandwich, fricassée, stuffed with tuna and boiled eggs; a spicy stew traditionally made with liver and meat, kamounia (but in their home, it was sometimes lovingly made with octopus).

As I spent time with harissa, corresponding regularly with Mansour over the past year, I’ve gotten to know it beyond the ways it was always marketed to me. I’ve cooked his mother’s merguez stew and marinated salmon with the brothers’ smoky harissa, which comes in a jar. But it was Mansour’s simple recipe for chicken wings that taught me the most about how to underscore (without weighing it down) a taste as bright, beautiful and specific as harissa.

In that way, this recipe is quietly surprising, like the best lessons in life. First, dry-roasting the wings ensures a thin skin that’s at once crispy and airy under the fire-bright sauce. The sauce, you don’t even have to cook. Just stir together pantry staples: soy sauce for savoriness and depth, balsamic glaze for sweetness and tartness and extra-virgin olive oil to accentuate the fruity flavors of the Tunisian chile paste.

As you attempt this recipe, know that you must use harissa. There is no substitute. And if you swap it out for another chile paste, delicious though that recipe will be, you won’t have made harissa wings — you’ll have made gochujang wings, chile crisp wings, Buffalo wings.

“Obviously, this combination of ingredients isn’t by any means innovative,” Mansour said with modesty. But I would argue that it’s the careful calibration of them, and the way they play up the harissa, that makes this sauce a life-changing addition to my cooking repertoire, a treasure worth keeping.

Recipe: Sticky Harissa Chicken Wings

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