The Spice of Life: harira

by Isha Karim (’22) | March 1, 2021

There’s nothing better to close off winter than a nostalgic meal that takes us back to the crisp mornings and long nights of late November. As we enter the springtime, change is challenging, and I’m seeking comfort food to fall back on.

Soups are something that I love because they require little preparation and yield high satisfaction. The silken, rich feeling of soup that almost burns the back of my throat is a sensation that takes me right back to the wintertime. I love a hearty bowl of anything, and soups are the perfect medium to express that love. So I’m undertaking a North African recipe: harira, a Moroccan chickpea-based soup. For a vegetarian twist, I substituted out the meat and eggs with a few ingredients of my choice. Harira is a traditional Moroccan and Algerian soup served during Ramadan or Yom Kippur to break fast. The base recipe for harira is rooted in tomatoes, lentils, chickpeas, fava beans, and rice, all excellent ingredients to nourish the body (and soul) after a day of fasting. Typically, harira is served with chicken, lamb, or beef, but variations include vegan and vegetarian substitutes.

For my harira base, I added pureed tomatoes, celery, and chickpeas with several cups of water to a pressure cooker (or an Instant Pot). Along with them, I added turmeric, saffron, cinnamon, kosher salt, and pepper to flavor the vegetables. Feeling emboldened with this soup, I also added coriander seeds and roasted and fresh garlic to the mixture. Traditional harira calls for lamb at this point, but I substituted the meat with an extra helping of lentils. I found that the tomatoes and celery create a silky base for the soup, while the whole chickpeas provide an excellent break in texture. For those desiring strong tomato taste, you can add in tomato paste or substitute canned tomatoes for the celery.

After preparing the base in the pressure cooker, I found myself faced with an age-old question: what lentil to use? Fortunately, I have access to a variety of lentils at hand, but any of these should be readily available at your local grocery store. While brown and green lentils have a stronger, earthier taste, the flavor profile of red lentils is more muted, nutty, and sweet. Knowing this may inform your decision based on your palate, but I decided to add two types of lentils, red and green lentils, with the latter effectively substituting for the meat I left out before. Although rice is optional, I chose to add it in for a starchy complement to the lentils. By adding in the rice, my soup became much thicker, so I opted out of adding a thickener with flour and water. After cooking off any excess flour, a rich orange color comes through in the soup that looks delectable.

After taking the soup off the stove, you’ll want to add a dash of lemon juice and a more than necessary helping of fresh cilantro and parsley. The acid and freshness of the greens help cut through the thick, starchy tomato base. Traditionally, harira is served with hard-boiled eggs rolled in salt and cumin or alongside dried fruits. As someone who leans on the savory side, I served my harira with quickly tossed quinoa salad with pomegranate seeds, cucumber, and green olives with a little lemon. The flavor contrast between the starchy soup and the acidic salad will certainly take you to the Mediterranean in just a few bites.

Harira is definitely one of my new dinner time favorites because the flavor and mouthfeel are reminiscent of heavy comfort foods, yet it leaves an incredibly light, fresh feeling when finished. The soup surprised me in the wildest ways: not only do you leave all the cooking to your InstantPot, but you also have a meal that stays fresh for a few days in the fridge and even longer frozen. As we’re transitioning into warmer weather, harira is the perfect dish to remind us of cozy winter nights while embracing a lighter, fresh palate cleanser in this perfect marriage of lentils and lemon.

Despite whatever you define as comfort food, I highly encourage you to step out of your bubble and experiment with shiro. Arguably, the memories and the experience you have while cooking it are far greater in importance and fun. Each step from toasting spices to thinly chopping garlic will be made with extreme care and thought; it’s what makes great food. It only takes one bite to fall in love with shiro, and I guarantee you’ll be licking the ladle for seconds. 

Categories: Column, Food

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