Harissa (hah-REE-suh)

What it means

Harissa is sometimes likened to ketchup, a comparison that makes sense to Westerners: The chile paste is brick red and sold by the bottle (in its native North Africa, it also comes in jars, cans, tubes and plastic bags.) But harissa is used so broadly by its fans that it functions more like salt than a mere condiment.

In Tunisia, Libya and Algeria, harissa is stirred into soups, spread on breakfast rolls, strewn over sandwiches and slapped atop pizza. It's served in fast-food restaurants and at elegant dinners.

"The heady potent paste can be used for flavoring meat and fish, finishing stews, mixing with grilled vegetables - go with it wherever your culinary imagination takes you," Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi write in "Ottolenghi: The Cookbook."

Recipes for harissa vary, but the central elements are dried chiles, garlic, olive oil and spices: cumin, caraway and coriander are popular additions. Depending on the peppers, the complex sauce can be fruity, smoky, earthy or sweet, but harissa should register first as spicy. According to Tunisian folklore, a husband can measure the strength of his wife's love for him by the spiciness of her harissa.

Where we saw it

Muse (Merguez sausage with red peppers, fennel, radish, tzatziki, harissa and flatbread, $12)

Where else you can try it

Butcher & Bee is the Charleston restaurant most fluent in harissa; the paste is a standard component of its sabich, an Israeli fried eggplant sandwich. Harissa has appeared at The Grocery, Fast & French and Heart Kitchen.

Where to buy it

Southern Season sells canned harissa, and it's also usually on the shelf at Whole Foods.

"There are some great brands on the market, especially Pereg Gourmet," cookbook author Joan Nathan told The Washington Post.