The month of fasting – Ramadan – is upon us, and although I am not Muslim, I always feel inspired to whip up a pot of this amazing soup every time Ramadan comes along (in addition to several other times throughout the year!) Harira is a soup from North Africa, and I first discovered it about a decade ago, when a vegetarian version appeared in the Moosewood Low Fat Vegetarian Cookbook. I immediately fell in love with the intense palate of flavours. When I went to Morocco, I tasted a number of hariras, many of which were served with breakfast or as a very cheap street-side snack for workers nipping out to grab a hearty and filling meal. The finest harira I tasted was one evening in the Djemma-el-Fna, the wonderfully atmospheric central square in Marrakech. In the evening, all of Marrakech seems to emerge as the sun sets and the night air cools slightly. Amongst the snake charmers, henna artists, monkeys and musicians, hundreds of stalls are set out under the universe of stars to serve up any Moroccan specialty you might want. The stalls are named – conveniently – by number, and we were told that Stall No.1’s
Harira is to die for. The hype did not disappointed – to this day I dream of that night, slurping up a thick, aromatic harira with a wooden spoon under a starry sky awash with smoke from kebab stands and fire-eaters, and lit by the flood of lights illuminating the minaret above us.
Harira is traditionally eaten during Ramadan at iftar, the meal that breaks the fast at sunset. It’s hearty, wholesome and packed with nutrition, so it makes sense that it would be consumed after a long day of fasting. Often made with lamb, it is also quite commonly found in vegetarian form throughout Morocco. I was in France 10 days ago for the start of Ramadan, and got to taste my friend’s mother’s amazing Algerian harira, and it was this that inspired me to come home and make a big pot of it last night – experimenting with some of the subtle and not-so-subtle differences between Moroccan harira and Algerian harira. Of the subtle differences – a slightly different blend of spices (incorporating fennel seed or caraway in the Algerian version). Of the not so subtle differences: using bulgar wheat instead of pasta or barley.
So here is my own special vegetarian harira recipe. I can say it is my own because it’s been developed over 10 years by combining ideas from three different Moroccan cookbooks, the Moosewood Low-Fat cookbook, my own whims, and (most recently) Tima’s mom. Every time I make it, the flavours come out a bit different, but it’s always delicious. It is also packed with fibre and protein and makes a fantastic vegan or vegetarian all-in-one meal. I will include the variations in brackets, but honestly, you can’t really go wrong on this one. Enjoy!
15 mL olive oil (or less)
1 cooking onion, finely diced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 celery stalk, finely chopped (optional – sometimes I find this can add a harsh taste – use sparingly)
30 mL of tomato paste
1 1/2 tsp paprika
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp fennel seed (optional)
1 tsp ground cumin
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp turmeric OR 1/4 tsp saffron strands soaked in 1 Tbsp hot water (saffron is preferable)
500 mL fresh peeled and chopped tomatoes OR good quality chopped tomatoes (like Pomi brand)
1 L of vegetable soup stock
1-2 tsp harissa (optional – this is a North African paste made of hot peppers – deeeeeeelicious but spicy. I always add it!)
1/2 cup brown lentils
1 can chick peas (optional – this is more common in Moroccan harira)
3/4 cup chopped cilantro
1/4 cup chopped parsley (optional)
1/3 cup bulgar wheat (the Algerian way) or 1 cup angel hair or vermicelli pasta (Moroccan way) or 1/2 cup barley (Moroccan) or any combination of the three that you like!
lemons (minimum 1)
Cook lentils separately or in advance in about 3 cups of boiling water until tender (approximately 20 minutes) and drain.
Saute the onions and garlic in a small amount of olive oil or water (depending on how low fat you want this to be). After about 5 minutes, lower heat and add the tomato paste and spices and celery (if using) and stir vigorously to prevent sticking or burning. Add tomatoes, harissa and stock to the pot. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and add bulgar or barley and cilantro and parsley (if using – don’t skip the cilantro though – it’s a must), reserving just a tablespoon of cilantro for a garnish. Simmer for about 10 minutes if you are using bulgar, longer if using barley. Add cooked lentils and chick peas (if using), as well as vermicelli (if using). Be careful at this point not to overcook if you are using pasta – it will get mushy. Just before serving, add the juice of half a lemon, and slice the other half into wedges for serving. Garnish with remaining cilantro. Some people also add a few olives on top. Traditionally, it is served during Ramadan with dates or figs and a glass of milk – I’ll take any excuse to eat dates and figs, so why not?!
Enjoy – Ramadan Mubarak!