Sweat the small stuff by making your own fiery hot chili sauces

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North African and Yemenite Jews like the hot stuff, drizzling or dabbing a bit of their signature chili pastes on foods ranging from soups and stews to flatbreads and couscous. These fiery sauces also have become part of Israeli cuisine, used with falafel and spit-roasted meats.

Both Moroccan and Tunisian Jews make harissa from dried, hot red chilies. According to Gil Marks’ “Encyclopedia of Jewish Food” (Wiley), harissa originated in Tunisia in the 16th century when the country was occupied by the Spanish, who imported the New World chili to its new territory. After the Ottoman Turks regained control of Tunisia, the condiment spread throughout North Africa. Tunisians traditionally season their paste with caraway; Moroccans are more likely to use cumin.

Z’hug, the Yemenite hot sauce, originated in the 17th century after the chili pepper was introduced in Yemen. It combines fresh green hot peppers with cilantro and the flavorful spices favored in the local cuisine — black pepper, cumin and cardamom. The resulting condiment is sometimes mixed with crushed tomatoes, sesame seed paste or yogurt to temper the heat.

Since the traditional peppers used for these sauces can be hard to come by, these versions rely on more readily available Mexican chilies. Also, because these Old World hot sauces depended on the introduction of a New World food, it seems appropriate to include a recipe for my American-style hot sauce. My son calls it Below the Belt Hot Sauce.

You can tone down the heat by choosing milder chilies and removing the seeds. Use caution when handling chilies and be careful to cover any cuts on your hands and avoid touching your eyes. The sauces will get hotter and more intense over time.


Makes about 1.5 cups

This is my distillation of several recipes, including one from Gil Marks. I used 12 New Mexican, six pasilla and two guajillo chilies. The guajillo chilies boost the heat. If they are not available, try árbol or pequín chilies. The dried chilies are available in some supermarkets and in Latino grocery stores.

  • 5 oz. dried, whole, hot red chili peppers or 4 oz. dried red chili flakes
  • 5 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1⁄2 tsp. salt
  • 2 Tbs. lemon zest
  • 1 Tbs. lemon juice
  • 1⁄4 tsp. ground cumin
  • 1⁄8 tsp. caraway seeds, crushed (optional)
  • 1 cup olive oil

If using the whole dried chilies, stem and seed. Cover with boiling water until soft, about a half-hour. If using the chili flakes, cover with boiling water and soak for 5 minutes, until softened. Drain.

Put softened chilies or chili flakes into food processor with garlic, salt, zest, juice, cumin and caraway (if using). Purée until smooth and thick. Add olive oil, process until combined. Store in covered glass jar in the refrigerator for up to 1-2 months.


Makes about 2 cups

This is adapted slightly from Marks’ recipe from the “Encyclopedia of Jewish Food.”

  • 9 oz. fresh green chilies (jalapeño, serrano and/or New Mexico), stemmed and roughly chopped
  • 2 Tbs. olive oil
  • 1 cup chopped fresh cilantro
  • 4 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 1 tsp. ground cumin
  • 1⁄4 tsp. ground cardamom
  • 1 tsp. ground black pepper
  • 1 tsp. salt

Put 1⁄4 of the chilies and 1⁄4 of the oil in blender and process until ground. Add remaining chilies and oil in 3 more batches until the chilies are ground fine. Add 1⁄4 of the cilantro and grind and repeat until all the cilantro is ground. Add garlic and process until smooth. Add cumin, cardamom, pepper and salt and blend until mixed. Store in refrigerator in covered container for up to 2 months.

Faith Kramer
Faith Kramer

Faith Kramer is a Bay Area food writer and the author of “52 Shabbats: Friday Night Dinners Inspired by a Global Jewish Kitchen.” Her website is faithkramer.com. Contact her at [email protected].