Harrisa, sometimes referred to as herisseh, harisa, or keshkeg, is widely considered as Armenia’s national dish. It is consumed all year long, but is especially popular in the colder months. It is also frequently served as a celebratory meal, such as for the birth of a first child, at Easter to mark the end of Lent (a vegetarian version of harissa made with wheat and chickpeas or herbs is consumed during Lent). Harrisa is a dish made of meat and wheat berries. Typically, the meat being prepared is chicken or lamb (rarely beef), while the wheat being prepared is korkot, or “shelled” wheat, which refers to wheat berries that have had their hard hulls removed, making them (somewhat) easier to cook. Together with water or stock, the meat and wheat berries are cooked and stirred for hours over a low flame until both decompose into a consistent, amorphous, stodgy porridge.
Harissa is typically served with crisp vegetables pickled in vinegar and sheets of lavash to scoop it up. Although it may seem like starch overload to combine a wheaty porridge with bread, the harissa is so flavorful that the lavash really acts as a mild-mannered foil for it. Additionally, the pickles aid in clearing the palette in between bites. (If you don’t have lavash or pickles, harissa is equally delicious when served with a colourfully dressed green salad and eaten with a spoon or a fork.)
Tips for preparing harissa
With harissa, the meat is purposefully cooked well past the point of being overcooked. This concept was difficult for me to grasp when I first attempted it, but after tasting my first batch, I realised what it meant: the goal is to reduce the meat to its base components and turn it into pure flavour. The good news is that once you get over your reluctance to cook meat for this long, it nearly goes without effort—you only need to stir occasionally to keep it from sticking. And using a pressure cooker makes things even easier. In terms of the type of meat to use, both lamb stew meat and boneless chicken thighs work well in this recipe. Armenians appear to prepare the chicken version most frequently because it is milder than the lamb version.
For this meal,you need korkot or “shelled wheat” which is not easily found outside of Armenian/Middle eastern grocery stores. An alternative to that which can be found easily is the pearled farro. Farro is a close relative of wheat and tastes a lot like korkot, therefore using it in this recipe is perfectly alright Additionally, pearled barley is a great fallback choice if you can’t get pearled farro.
- 4 cups (960ml) of homemade or store-bought chicken stock
- 450g boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut in half crosswise, or boneless lamb stew meat, cut into small cubes
- 1 1/2 cups (276g) pearled farro
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 6 tablespoons (85g) butter
- 4 tablespoons (60g) olive oil
- 2 tablespoons (16g) Aleppo pepper
- Lavash, for serving (optional)
- For the stovetop: In a Dutch oven, mix the broth, 2 cups (480 ml) water, farro, salt, and chicken (or lamb). Over high heat, bring to a boil. To keep a slow simmer, cover the pot and lower the heat. Cook for 90 to 120 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the mixture is creamy and thick and the grains may be readily pressed with a spatula. Toward the conclusion of cooking, you’ll need to stir more frequently. Move on to step 4. Using a pressure cooker: In a pressure cooker, combine broth, 1 cup (240 ml) water, farro, salt, and chicken (or lamb or beef). If using a stovetop model, seal it and raise the pressure while cooking on medium-high heat, or use an electric multi-pressure-cooker cooker’s setting. Cook for 40 minutes at high pressure, adjusting heat as necessary to keep pressure high (if using a stovetop pressure cooker; electric ones will automatically regulate the heat and pressure level).
- After allowing the cooker to naturally depressurize for about 15 minutes, carefully remove the lid and let the steam escape away from you.
- For about two minutes, rapidly mash the mixture with a potato masher until most of the chicken pieces are reduced to tiny shreds and the harissa is very thick and starchy. (If you have an immersion blender, blend the mixture for about 30 seconds before finishing with a potato masher.) Season with salt and pepper to taste.
- Melt butter and oil in a small saucepan over medium-high heat until foamy. Cook, swirling the pan until the milk solids in the butter turn a deep hazelnut brown, 1 to 2 minutes. Remove from heat and swirl in Aleppo pepper (don’t be alarmed; butter will froth and fizzle when pepper is added).
- Serve harissa in bowls with spiced brown butter drizzled on top (with lavash on the side, if included).