19 January 2010

Lost in Translation

Turns out harissa was a lot more difficult to find around here than I thought it would be.  Took me 4 stores, 3 days and 2 unintended purchases before I was able to procure the stuff. 

My favorite HEB was a bust on Saturday.  So Sunday I headed to Fiesta, where I (surprisingly) struck out again.  Although a bit frustrated at this point, I was determined to find that silly spice and not to drive all the way in to town in the process. 

I had seen a little place called Cedars Mediterranean Grill and Market  just up the road, so I decided to check it out, thinking that surely they would carry harissa.  Not wanting to draw a lot of attention to myself, I was thrilled to see that the 'market' section was near the door.  My plan was to unobtrusively scan the shelves and if I did not see what I wanted, I could make a quick exit. 

Great plan...in theory.

 I had no idea the people who own the cafe would be so friendly.  After making two hurried laps around the shelves, a young man spotted me and came to ask if I needed help finding anything in particular.  I guess the very light colored eyes and skin, along with the look of utter helplessness on my face suggested to him that I was a little out of my element.  I told him I was looking for something called harissa.  He took a second to think about it and enthusiastically responded, "Oh yes, we have that right here!" 

I excitedly followed him around the corner to a shelf of ... baked goods???  I'm a little confused at this point, because all along I have been looking for a spice of some sort and he is pointing to a cake.   And I suppose the confusion was evident on my face because before I could say anything, he picks up the container and begins to give me a helpful lesson on how this cake is called 'harissa' in some dialects, but goes by many different names. 

I think I just smiled and nodded. 

I was completely frozen, unsure how to politely get out of the situation.  Then, to make matters worse, he noticed that the pan of 'harissa' was dull looking (evidently, glistening almonds signify freshness) so he assured me his mother would package a fresh batch for me.  How could I say no?!?! 

Not only did I not say no to the fresh batch of 'harissa', I went on to order an entire meal for R from the cafe while I was waiting.  (In my defense, R loves lamb and I rarely cook it at home so I was trying to be nice.  Also, the food smelled way too good to pass up.) 

Fifteen minutes later I got back into the car with my 'to-go meal' and fresh pan of cake, but still without what I set out to purchase: harissa.

After a bit of reserach when I got home I understood the mix-up.   Turns out the baked good I purchased is a very common Middle Eastern cake and is called Hareesa by the Palestinians and Syrians, just spelled differently (darn homonyms).  It is also called Basboosa by the Egyptians and Nammoura by the Lebanese.  It is a dense cake made  from either semolina or farina and is soaked in a sweet syrup and topped with almonds.


By the time Monday rolled around  I had resigned myself to the fact that I was probably going to have to drive all the way in to town to find this elusive ingredient.  On a whim I checked the closest HEB Plus and lo and behold... I found harissa! 
Funny thing is, had I not gotten distracted by the cute bottles of Nando's chicken marinade in the African section, I would have never even seen the harissa!  Even though everything I read said to find harissa at Middle Eastern stores or in the Mid East food section, it's actually a North African spice blend ... so the stores logically stock it with the African foods.  This is a minor detail that would have been very helpful for me to take note of last week. 

Smells really "earthy"

The next dilemma I faced was whether to buy the spice blend or the prepared harissa.  I took a chance and purchased the spice blend... WRONG.  I should have bought the prepared harissa.  Oh well, turns out you can easily make the prepared harissa from the spice blend by mixing it with olive oil.  Phew

Even though the search took longer than I anticipated, it was well worth it because I learned the following:

  1. Cedar's Mediterranean Grill and Market has a friendly staff and great food

  2. If you are looking for an ingredient from another country, it's a good idea to spell the ingredient's name, not just say it

  3. Nando's marinades are available here in the US!!!! (R and I fell in love with Nando's in London on our honeymoon)  I encourage everyone to run out and buy a bottle this week.  You will LOVE it!


Rhonda said...

GREAT story, Ella! Which Nando's marinade do you recommend....or is it all the same? You failed to mention if the Hareesa was as good as it looks! Keep blogging...I learn so much from you and you inspire me!

Sara said...

--Which HEB is your favorite? Did you go all the way in to Central Market???
--Where is Cedar's?
--What's next on the "new ingredient" list?
--When can I come to dinner?

Love you, friend!! I told you you'd be a fabulous blogger!!!

E said...

@ Sara: My favorite HEB is the one at Mason and Highland Knolls. I like Don (the cooking guy there), they have the regular sized grocery carts and it's not as crowded as HEB Plus.
No, I didn't go all the way in to Central Market, the HEB Plus at 99 and Fry had the harissa.
Not sure what the next ingredient will be - suggestions? :)
What night can Ryan keep the kids for us to do a girls dinner here???

E said...

@ Rhonda: The Hareesa was really quite good! It smells heavenly, but is very, very sweet. It also has a unique texture (very coarse). However, I can see how it makes a nice dessert for very spicy meals.
About Nando's - I bought the original (medium) marinade, just because that's the one I had ordered in London, but I plan on trying all of the varieties eventually!