I’ve personally tried and tested a range of different harissa substitutes to find the best one.
Whatever your reason for avoiding harissa is and whatever dish you’re cooking.
Here’s the quick answer.
The best substitutes for harissa are the homemade version and sambal oelek. You can also try a mixture of tomato paste, chili powder, and smoked paprika. If you want a non-spicy option, go with a blend of roasted bell peppers, eggplant, and olive oil. Ground spice blends are also a good option.
Ready? Let’s jump right. in
I made Shakshuka to test out all the different harissa substitutes I could find.
Harissa is a Tunisian chili paste often featured in Middle Eastern and North African cuisines.
It’s made with a mixture of chilis and spices, giving you a blend of spicy, smoky flavors, with a bold garlicky twist and a hint of citrus.
I was looking for a substitute with a similar depth and complexity.
Here’s what I tested and the verdicts:
|Homemade harissa||Replace in a 1:1 ratio||10/10|
|Sambal oelek||Replace in a 1:1 ratio||10/10|
|Tomato paste + chili powder + smoked paprika||Replace in a 1:1 ratio, adjust to taste||9/10|
|Roasted red bell peppers + roasted eggplant + tomato puree||Replace in a 1:1 ratio, adjust to taste||9/10|
|Ground spice blends||Replace in a 2:1 ratio||8/10|
|Peri-peri sauce||Replace in a 1:1 ratio||8/10|
|Chipotle paste + tomato puree||Replace in a 1:1 ratio, adjust to taste||7/10|
Common uses for harissa and the best substitutes
Here are some common use cases for harissa and the best substitutes for those situations:
- Sauces, spreads, and dips – sambal oelek, tomato paste + chili powder + smoked paprika, peri-peri sauce
- Marinades and vinaigrettes – homemade harissa, ground spice blends, sambal oelek
- Soups and stews – homemade harissa, sambal oelek, ground spice blends
If you have 30 minutes to spare, homemade harissa is the way to go.
Whipping up a batch is simpler than you imagine, and it allows you to fine-tune the heat intensity to suit your taste buds.
The Mediterranean Dish offers a fantastic recipe that relies on New Mexican dried chiles for a mildly spicy chili paste.
But if you’re craving a bit more kick, add a few arbol chilies to turn up the heat.
Spices including coriander, cumin, caraway seeds, smoked paprika, and cayenne are essential to achieving that signature smoky flavor, so be sure not to skimp on them!
How to substitute: replace harissa in a 1:1 ratio with homemade harissa.
This Indonesian chili paste brings the heat just like harissa and will add an exciting tangy twist to jazz up your dish.
Although it lacks the earthy flavors of harissa, you can easily fix it by mixing in with a couple of the previously mentioned spices, like cumin and coriander.
The best part? Sambal oelek is super easy to find!
Huy Fong (the same folks who bless us with Sriracha) also make this fiery condiment, so you’ll find it in most grocery stores.
How to substitute: replace harissa in a 1:1 ratio with sambal oelek.
Tomato paste + chili powder + smoked paprika
This combo may not be a perfect flavor match, but it uses pantry staples you probably already have, so will save you if you’ve no time to make a grocery store run!
The chili powder lends a spicy punch to the acidic tomato paste, and the smoked paprika brings that earthy, smoky goodness that makes harissa so unique.
Aside from convenience, another great thing about this substitute is you can easily adjust the smokiness and spice levels to your preference.
Psst… I also added a squeeze of lime juice for some acidity.
How to substitute: replace harissa in a 1:1 ratio with a concoction of tomato paste, chili powder, and smoked paprika.
Red bell peppers + eggplant + tomato puree + olive oil
Cooking for someone who can’t deal with heat? This non-spicy “harissa” is the perfect substitute for you.
The tomato puree adds just enough tang, while the roasted bell peppers bring the much-beloved smoky kick. And the eggplant thickens the mixture, plus adds a touch of creaminess.
Like with the other substitutes on the list, a pinch of spices like cumin or paprika won’t hurt!
How to substitute: Replace harissa in a 1:1 ratio with a blend of red bell peppers, eggplant, tomato puree, and olive oil.
Ground spice blends
Ground spice blends are your new best friend when it comes to replicating harissa’s flavor.
I love adding these ground spices straight into my dishes, but you can also mix them with oil to create a paste-like consistency (great for marinating meat).
Another massive plus for spice blends is they keep for longer and are easier to store than other substitutes on this list.
- Harissa powder – shares almost similar ingredients with regular harissa, except for the roasted bell peppers and olive oil. You can easily find a bottle of this, but why not try making your own?
- Tabil – this spice blend shares similar Tunisian roots with harissa. It has a milder heat level but has identical warm, earthy notes. This spice blend is easy to make from scratch because it only requires four ingredients.
- Berbere – an Ethiopian spice blend that’s spicy, with a prominent citrusy twist that’ll give you a flavor profile close to harissa. It requires a lot of spices, but most are pretty easy to find in local shops.
- Ras al hanout – a Moroccan spice that isn’t as hot as harissa but brings a robust flavor profile that’ll take your dish to the next level. And you can always add chili powder if you want to get a bit of heat.
How to substitute: replace harissa with 1/2 the amount of your preferred ground spice blend, adjusting to taste.
This feisty sauce doesn’t shy away from the heat, making it the perfect substitute for those who crave a good kick of spice (although there are plenty of non-spicy options too).
It’s not that close in flavor to harissa, but’s it’s got just as much depth and complexity. What sets peri-peri sauce apart is its more prominent citrusy and garlicky undertones.
It brightened my shakshuka right up!
Nando’s is the go-to brand for this vibrant sauce, but I like making my own peri-peri because it’s super easy.
How to substitute: replace harissa in your recipe in a 1:1 ratio with peri-peri sauce.
Chipotle paste + tomato puree
Chipotle paste is another substitute that will bring real depth of flavor to your dishes – I loved it in my shakshuka.
The rich smokiness of adobo-covered chipotle peppers and the tomato puree’s deep, tangy flavor create a complex taste that’s sure to delight. And it wasn’t too spicy.
Psst… for spicier easier alternative, I tried mixing some chipotle Tabasco sauce into the tomato puree – it definitely packed a punch!
How to substitute: replace harissa in your recipe in a 1:1 ratio with a mixture of chipotle paste and tomato puree.
Other options to consider
The substitutes above were my top picks, but here are some decent replacements you can use if you have them on hand:
- Hot sauce – this is a more one-dimensional substitute but it will work to add heat to your dish if it’s all you have. Tabasco is the most common hot sauce, but it’s very vinegary, so you’ll need to cut back on the acid in your dish or add a dash of sugar to balance the flavors. Sriracha is also popular.
- Fresh hot chiles – these are another quick substitute that’ll add heat to your dish. Use a mix of chili instead of just one variety to add more complexity to your dish. And I would roast them to add some smokiness.
- Chili garlic sauce – this condiment is slightly milder than harissa and more garlicky. You can mix it with spices like cumin and coriander to bring it closer to the flavor of harissa.
- Ajika – a chili paste from Georgia that slightly veers away from harissa but still has smoky, spicy notes. This is best used as a meat rub, but you can also use it as a dip.
- Calabrian chili paste – this is just as spicy as harissa but with a subtle sweetness. You can also use whole Calabrian chilis and blend them into a paste (psst… check out my tried and tested calabrian chili paste alternatives here.)
- Red pepper flakes – these flakes are a last resort substitute. They’ll only add heat, so you’ll need to compensate with spices and a squeeze of lemon juice to make up for harissa’s flavor.
Substitutes to avoid
I frequently saw other blogs recommend these options, but when I tried them I wasn’t that impressed with the results.
- Gochujang – gochujang is tasty, but it’s very potent. I found its sweet-tangy flavor too much to work as a substitute for harissa. The flavor was quite overpowering and didn’t really work with shakshuka!
- Thai chili paste – this condiment is spicy, sweet, and delicious, but again the flavor is very strong and works better with Asian dishes rather than the traditional dishes you’d use harissa in.
Best Harissa Substitutes [And Two To Avoid]
- 1 tbsp homemade harissa
- 1 tbsp sambal oelek
- 1 tbsp tomato paste + chili powder + smoked paprika, adjust to taste
- ½ tbsp roasted red bell peppers + roasted eggplant + tomato puree, adjust to taste
- 1 tbsp ground spice blends
- 1 tbsp peri-peri sauce
- 1 tbsp chipotle paste + tomato puree, adjust to taste
- Cook your meal according to the recipe.
- Add your chosen harissa substitute at the appropriate cooking time.
- Mix until thoroughly combined and continue with the recipe.