Harissa Substitutes

Harissa, a fiery blend of chili peppers, garlic, spices, and olive oil, has become increasingly popular as an ingredient to spice up dishes in both traditional Middle Eastern cuisine and globally. While its mouthwatering flavor has won the hearts of many food enthusiasts, there may be times when harissa is not available or its heat level is just too intense for certain palates.

In these situations, finding the right substitute for harissa can make all the difference in the success of your dish. This article will discuss some of the characteristics of harissa that make it such a celebrated ingredient and provide you with a range of both homemade and store-bought harissa substitute options to suit your individual preferences and needs.

Key Takeaways

  • Harissa substitutes offer alternative ways to add flavor and spice to your dishes without using traditional harissa paste.
  • Options for harissa substitutes range from homemade blends to store-bought alternatives, depending on your taste preferences and time constraints.
  • Choosing the right harissa substitute involves understanding its unique characteristics and experimenting with different ingredients to achieve the desired flavor profile.

What is Harissa?

Harissa is a staple ingredient in Tunisian and North African cuisine, originating from Tunisia. It’s a versatile and flavorful spice blend that adds depth and heat to your dishes. The blend typically includes Baklouti peppers, which are native to the region, combined with various spices to create either a paste or a powder.

You can easily find both harissa paste and harissa powder in stores, or you can make your own homemade harissa. This allows you to control the heat level and customize the flavors to your liking. Using harissa in your cooking is a fantastic way to add a fiery kick to your dishes and explore African cuisine in your own kitchen.

The primary ingredient in harissa is the Baklouti pepper, which provides most of the heat in this spice blend. These peppers are grown in the sunny landscapes of Tunisia and North Africa, and they’re an essential component of traditional harissa recipes. However, if you can’t find Baklouti peppers, feel free to substitute with other hot peppers such as cayenne or Fresno chilies.

In addition to the Baklouti peppers, harissa typically contains a combination of spices such as cumin, coriander, caraway, and garlic, resulting in a rich, complex flavor profile. This blend can be used in various recipes, from soups and stews to marinades and sauces, making it a versatile addition to your kitchen.

Just remember, when incorporating harissa into your recipes, make sure to start small and adjust the heat level to your personal preference. It’s always easier to add more heat than to take it away. Happy cooking!

Identifying the Characteristics of Harissa

Harissa is a popular condiment known for its unique combination of flavors and textures. To find the perfect substitute, it’s essential to understand its key characteristics. First, let’s focus on the heat. Harissa is often described as spicy and hot, with the heat level varying depending on the specific blend of peppers used in its preparation.

The flavor profile of harissa is a delightful balance of smoky, earthy, and tangy notes. This complexity is largely due to the mix of dried or fresh chili peppers, spices, garlic, and other ingredients such as lemon juice or vinegar. While the taste of harissa can be quite intense, the overall experience should be a harmonious blend of these flavors.

As for its consistency, harissa can range from a thick paste to a thinner sauce. The choice of chilies, and whether they’re fresh or dried, often influences harissa’s texture. Additional ingredients like oil, tomato paste, and water also contribute to the consistency. When searching for a substitute, consider these key elements – heat, flavor profile, and consistency – to ensure your alternative captures the essence of harissa.

Why Might You Need a Harissa Substitute

You might find yourself in a situation where you need a harissa substitute. Perhaps you’re in the middle of cooking a recipe that calls for harissa, but you’ve just discovered that you’ve run out of it. Or maybe you’re new to North African and Middle Eastern cuisine and want to experiment with its flavors, but you can’t find harissa at your local store or simply prefer a milder spice level.

Harissa is a spicy chili paste that originated in Tunisia and has gained popularity in cuisines around the world. It is a versatile ingredient used in various dishes like soups, stews, sauces, and marinades. Some people might be sensitive to its heat or have dietary restrictions that limit their use of chili-based products.

In any of these situations, finding a harissa substitute can save your dish and allow you to enjoy the unique flavors of this delicious paste. Even though it might be challenging to replicate the exact taste and spiciness of harissa, there are still plenty of options for creating a similar taste profile in your cooking.

Homemade Harissa Substitute Options

If you’re in need of a harissa substitute, don’t worry! There are several homemade harissa substitute options you can try. These alternatives can be made with ingredients you may already have in your pantry, and can be easily adjusted to match your desired heat level and flavor profile.

One option is to create a simple chili paste using red chili paste or red pepper flakes, olive oil, and garlic. Start by combining two tablespoons of red chili paste (or red pepper flakes) with two tablespoons of olive oil and two minced garlic cloves. Add a pinch of salt, and mix well. This will give you a basic base that you can adjust with additional spices such as ground coriander, cumin, and smoked paprika. Add water if needed to achieve your desired consistency.

Another homemade harissa substitute is a ras el hanout seasoning mix. Combine equal parts of the following ground spices:

  • Coriander seeds
  • Cumin
  • Caraway seeds
  • Paprika
  • Cayenne pepper
  • Ginger
  • Turmeric
  • Cardamom
  • Cloves
  • Peppercorn

Blend well and store in an airtight container. When needed, mix a tablespoon of the seasoning blend with equal parts olive oil, lemon juice, and minced garlic to create a paste. This mix can be added to soups, stews, marinades, or used as a dip.

For a smoky paprika dip, combine 1/4 cup of smoked paprika, 1 tablespoon of hot paprika, a pinch of salt, and three tablespoons of olive oil. Mix well and add a dash of vinegar or lemon juice for tang. If you prefer a thicker paste, stir in red chili powder or minced dried chilies to taste.

Lastly, if you’re looking for a refreshing and slightly milder option, give this mint and serrano pepper harissa substitute a try. Blend together one serrano pepper (seeded and chopped), 1/4 cup of fresh mint leaves, one tablespoon of ground coriander, 1/4 cup of olive oil, two teaspoons of lemon juice, a pinch of salt, and two tablespoons of honey. This may be used as a seasoning, marinade, or dip.

Remember, the key to making a successful harissa substitute is combining your choice of chili with flavorful spices and herbs. Don’t hesitate to experiment with various combinations to find the one that suits your taste buds best.

Store Bought Harissa Substitute Options

If you’re in need of a Harissa substitute, there are several store-bought options available that can provide a similar kick to your dishes. To help you choose the perfect alternative, here are some popular condiments and sauces that can be used in place of Harissa:

  • Sriracha: This popular Thai hot sauce is a versatile choice as it offers a great balance of spiciness, sweetness, and tanginess. It might not have the same smoky and earthy tones as Harissa, but it will still add a flavorful heat to your dish.
  • Gochujang: A staple in Korean cuisine, Gochujang is a sweet, spicy, and savory fermented chili paste. While its flavor profile is different from Harissa, its thick consistency makes it a suitable replacement when cooking dishes that require a bold, spicy kick.
  • Sambal Oelek: A raw Indonesian chili paste made from crushed red peppers, Sambal Oelek can be used as a more direct heat substitute for Harissa. Although it lacks the complexity of spices found in Harissa, you can try adding a bit cumin or smoked paprika to achieve a similar taste.
  • Tabasco: A widely available option, Tabasco is a hot sauce made from tabasco peppers, vinegar, and salt. While it’s thinner in consistency compared to Harissa, it can still be used to add a tangy spice to your dishes.
  • Berbere spice: An Ethiopian spice blend containing chilies, paprika, fenugreek, and a variety of other spices, berbere spice can be an exciting substitute for Harissa. This complex blend brings both heat and a unique flavor to your dishes.
  • Miso paste: While not spicy, miso paste is a fermented soybean product from Japan that can add depth and umami to your dishes. To create a well-rounded Harissa substitute, you can mix miso paste with a hot sauce such as Sriracha or Sambal Oelek.

Keep these substitute options in mind when you’re searching for that perfect alternative to Harissa. There’s no need to worry if you can’t find Harissa in your local store – with a bit of experimentation, you’re sure to find the perfect match for your needs.

Selecting the Right Harissa Substitute

When looking for a harissa substitute, consider the heat, flavor, and consistency you want in your dish. Harissa is a spicy chili paste that adds both heat and flavor to sauces, dips, and marinades. It’s important to find a substitute that can offer similar qualities.

One option is to use a hot sauce, such as sriracha or sambal oelek. These sauces have a spicy kick, similar to harissa, but may have a slightly different flavor profile. To get closer to harissa’s unique taste, you can also combine hot sauce with a bit of paprika and garlic paste, which will bring more depth to the overall flavor.

Another alternative is to use a blend of spices from your spice rack. This may require a bit more effort, but it’s a great way to customize the heat and flavor to your preferences. A simple mix of paprika, cayenne pepper, and garlic powder can work well as a harissa substitute. You can also add other spices like cumin, coriander, and caraway seeds if you want a more complex taste.

To achieve a similar consistency to harissa paste, you can mix your chosen substitute with a little water or oil. This will help create a smooth, thick paste that can be easily incorporated into your recipe.

Keep in mind that different harissa substitutes will have varying heat levels. If you’re unsure how spicy you want your dish to be, start with a smaller amount of the substitute and gradually add more until you reach the desired heat level. You should also consider the other ingredients in your recipe, as they can affect the overall spiciness of the dish.

In summary, when selecting the right harissa substitute for your dish, consider the heat, flavor, and consistency it will bring to your recipe. Experiment with different spices, hot sauces, and seasoning combinations to find the perfect match for your taste buds. Happy cooking!

Examples of Dishes Using Harissa Substitutes

There are several dishes you can try using Harissa substitutes, which give you the same burst of flavor without using the traditional Harissa paste. Let’s look into some of these dishes across various categories.

Chicken Dishes: Give your chicken dishes an extra kick by using Harissa substitutes in your marinades. A blend of red pepper flakes, cumin, garlic, and paprika can result in a flavorful mix. You can try this combination in dishes like grilled chicken or baked chicken with vegetables.

Spices in Soups and Stews: If you enjoy spicy soups and stews, the use of Harissa substitutes is a perfect match. Add a dash of smoked paprika, cayenne pepper, or chipotle powder to your soups or stews to add depth and warmth. This works well for dishes such as vegetable soup, chili, or beef stew.

Fish and Meat Dishes: Harissa substitutes also pair well with fish and meat dishes. For fish dishes like grilled salmon or fish tacos, use a mixture of spices like cumin, coriander, and a pinch of red pepper flakes. For meat dishes, such as lamb or beef skewers, a blend of Aleppo pepper, cumin, and garlic makes a great addition to your marinade.

Pizza and Vegetable Dishes: If you’re a fan of spicy pizza, replace Harissa with a sprinkle of crushed red pepper flakes on top. For your vegetable dishes, add some sambal oelek or Gochujang for heat and flavor. Sautéed greens, roasted cauliflower, or stir-fried veggies will certainly benefit from these substitutes.

Rice Dishes and Marinades: Infusing your rice dishes with Harissa substitutes can add warmth and depth. Consider adding spices like cumin, paprika, or crushed red pepper flakes to dishes like paella, jambalaya, or a simple rice and vegetable stir-fry. Additionally, you can use these spices in your marinades for tofu, meat, or fish to enhance flavor.

Remember to be mindful of your spice tolerance and adjust according to your taste preferences. Enjoy discovering new flavors with these Harissa substitutes in your dishes!


In your quest for the perfect harissa substitute, remember that your spice rack can be an excellent resource. By blending various spicy and smoky ingredients, you can craft a mixture that will closely mimic the complex flavors of harissa.

To start, consider using ingredients like red pepper flakes, paprika, cumin, and caraway seeds. Experiment with different ratios to find the perfect balance that suits your tastes. You can also try incorporating some tomato paste, garlic, and even a touch of citrus for an added depth of flavor.

Don’t be afraid to think outside the box when seeking a harissa substitute. Your own creativity can be a powerful tool in the kitchen. Oftentimes, the dishes you create with these substitutes can lead to new, delicious, and unique flavors that complement your culinary endeavors.

Remember, when trying to find a harissa substitute, the goal is to achieve a similar flavor profile that will elevate your dish. By exploring different options and combinations, you’ll be well on your way to a tasty solution that fits seamlessly into your recipe. Happy cooking!

Homemade Harissa Paste

Simple harissa paste
5 from 1 vote
Prep Time 5 minutes
Cook Time 5 minutes
Total Time 9 minutes
Course Seasoning
Cuisine American
Servings 4
Calories 88 kcal


  • 10-15 dried red chili peppers
  • 3 cloves garlic minced
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 cup olive oil


  • Remove the stems and seeds from the dried red chili peppers and place them in a bowl.
  • Cover the chili peppers with boiling water and let them soak for 30 minutes.
  • Drain the chili peppers and place them in a food processor or blender.
  • Add the minced garlic, ground cumin, ground coriander, and salt to the food processor or blender.
  • Pulse the mixture until it becomes a coarse paste.
  • With the food processor or blender running, slowly pour in the olive oil until the harissa becomes smooth and well combined.
  • Taste and adjust the seasoning, adding more salt or spices as needed.
  • Store the harissa in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.


Calories: 88kcal
Keyword harissa paste
Tried this recipe?Let us know how it was!

Frequently Asked Questions

What can I use as an alternative to harissa paste?

You can use a mixture of red pepper flakes, smoked paprika, ground cumin, and garlic powder as an alternative to harissa paste. Also, you can experiment with different chili pastes like sriracha or sambal oelek as a substitute.

Is there a milder option to replace harissa?

Yes, there are milder options to replace harissa. You can try using tomato paste mixed with mild chili powder, cumin, and garlic powder to reduce the heat level. Adjust the spice blend to your taste preference, and don’t forget to experiment!

Can I use chipotle as a harissa paste substitute?

You certainly can! Chipotle paste or powder can be used as a substitute for harissa, adding a smoky flavor to your dish. Keep in mind that chipotle might be slightly less spicy, so you may need to adjust the spice level according to your preference.

How does chili paste compare to harissa?

Chili pastes like sriracha or sambal oelek are inspired by different cuisines and have distinct flavors, but they can work as a substitute for harissa. While they lack the unique blend of spices found in harissa, they still offer heat and a touch of depth to your recipes.

Is ras el hanout a suitable replacement for harissa?

Ras el hanout is a North African spice blend that can be used as a substitute for harissa in a pinch. However, it’s worth noting that ras el hanout is a dry spice mix, while harissa is a paste. You may want to mix ras el hanout with a little oil or water to create a paste-like consistency before using it as a substitute.

Can Moroccan spice be used instead of harissa?

Moroccan spice blends, such as ras el hanout or chermoula, can be used as a substitute for harissa in some recipes. However, be aware that the flavor profile may differ slightly. It’s always a good idea to taste the blend first and adjust the amount used to suit your preferences.

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Cassie brings decades of experience to the Kitchen Community. She is a noted chef and avid gardener. Her new book "Healthy Eating Through the Garden" will be released shortly. When not writing or speaking about food and gardens Cassie can be found puttering around farmer's markets and greenhouses looking for the next great idea.
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