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Though synonymous with Tunisia, Algeria and other North African nations, harissa’s main ingredient helms from Mexico. After 1492, chile peppers crossed the Atlantic via the Columbian Exchange, trading between the New World and Old World. It was Spain that introduced Tunisia to the spicy capsicum during their 16-century occupation.

The Arabic verb harasa means “to crush or press,” and the process of pounding the pepper into a paste with olive oil, garlic and various spices gave birth to harissa. For centuries, the hot chile paste has been used to flavor simmered stews and as a condiment throughout the Maghreb and the Middle East – and, in Marseille, as immigrants have infused the multicultural city with their food traditions.

We like to spoon harissa atop Algerian barley couscous at La Femina and swirl it into Tunisian leblebi (chickpea soup) at Chez Yassine. Yet, Marseillais’ love of the spicy paste goes beyond North African cuisine. We dip our frites into it, slather it on kebab sandwiches and mix it with a cheesy sauce on gut-busting French tacos. Depending on the locale, the harissa ranges from homemade to industrial. Now, thanks to one enterprising local, we have a gourmet “made in Marseille” version.

William Lellouche launched Tava Hada Pilpeta to, as he puts it, “teach people how to eat chile.” Rather than bombard your taste buds with spice, his harissa marseillais is a tasty balance of heat and flavor. It’s more than a question of quantity over quality, for the budding harissa whiz believes that “a little bit can change everything.” Which is why he’s created an entire line of products based on his phenomenal harissa.

“Every country, region, town and household have their own harissa recipe,” Lellouche says. Born in Marseille to Algerian Jewish parents, his formula was actually inspired by a Tunisian spiritual leader he knows well. A fitting heritage, considering it is the unofficial national sauce of Tunisia. Lellouche’s recipe is unique for four principal reasons: peppers, strength, texture and the way it’s produced. The result is a complex, thick, fragrant mix, a gastronomic harissa that merits the “grand cru” status bestowed upon it by French culinary radio personality Francois-Regis Gaudry.

Lellouche took the name Tava Hada Pilpeta from the first half of a Talmudic proverb in Aramaic, which says “One spicy pepper is better than a basketful of squash.” The harissa is made with three types of peppers. Mild Tunisian baklouti peppers make up the base. Smoked in olive wood, they lend the paste a rich earthiness. Tiny, dried bird’s eye chiles from Kenya and plump, red habaneros, the hottest of the trio, provide the heat. The right pepper should “trigger all of your taste buds,” explains Lellouche, “not just sting.” He recently enlisted Jean-Baptiste Anfosso, an organic farmer who supplies some of Marseille’s top chefs, to grow habaneros, jalapenos and the world’s hottest pepper, the Carolina Reaper, for future batches.

Other harissa makers use a lot of seeds to ramp up the spice – or add cayenne, a pepper that packs more heat than aromas. Lellouche prefers to use as much of the peppers’ flesh as possible for more intense flavor. This results in a harissa that packs a serious punch. Due to its strength, a small dollop goes a long way.

Texture is another characteristic that differentiates this Marseille harissa. It is incredibly dense, with decidedly less liquid than others. Lellouche calls it a “grandmother’s harissa,” due to its rustic, homemade appearance that is different from the super-smooth, tubed varieties. Often, fabricators dilute their harissa with water to cut costs. Tava Hada Pilpeta is so concentrated, it is three times more expensive than others.

“I can humbly say I don’t have competition in my fabrication nor in the selection of ingredients,” Lellouche told the regional newspaper La Provence in July. He chooses each element for its high quality. He grinds whole cumin and caraway, harissa’s two predominant spices, the same day to maximize their aromas. He peels and crushes the garlic fresh to avoid oxidation and increase flavor. Unlike harissas made with a mix of oils, he uses only olive oil, the liquid gold of Provence and the Mediterranean.

A harissa this singular is not used the same way as others. Since its flavor will decrease if you cook it a long time, its best as a finishing condiment rather than simmering it in a soup or stew. Lellouche suggests mixing it with olive oil and drizzling the delicious blend atop fish. He also loves it on bread with butter and paired with cheese – a reminder we’re in France after all. Eager to expand consumers’ horizons, he wants to change the assumption that harissa is “only for couscous and kebabs.”

This is the impetus behind the Tava Hada Pilpeta product line, in which harissa enhances each mediterranéane orientale good. Spiced olive tapenade and cashews – dusted with dried harissa powder – add heat to apéro. Inspired by Ottolenghi’s rose-petal harissa, Lellouche’s version uses rose buds for a pronounced floral flavor. Crème de citron confit, whipped preserved lemon, is sublime with grilled eggplant or smoked fish. You can also use it to mellow your harissa.

Lellouche’s recipe is unique for four principal reasons: peppers, strength, texture and the way it’s produced. The result is a complex, thick, fragrant mix, a gastronomic harissa.

Always innovating, Lellouche just added to his line a harissa oil, a tasty leftover from his fabrication process. Next up, he plans to launch harissa-spiked charcuterie and fig jam, plus a yellow harissa made with yellow habaneros and kefir lime leaves. “My goal is to add harissa to every product we know,” Lellouche says enthusiastically. Despite this visionary belief, the jovial thirty-something is rather modest, shrugging, “I didn’t invent the moon. I just make harissa.” He doesn’t think his recipe is better than others; it is simply a “question of taste.”

Part of this humility comes from his diverse work background. After installing air-conditioning units for a living, Lellouche held various jobs in the food industry: in a grocery store, at an herb wholesaler and in an Italian restaurant, where he worked his way up from cook to chef. “I always loved to eat,” he laughs, patting his belly. When someone gifted him a bird’s eye chili, he asked his Tunisian friend for a harissa recipe. Three years of testing later, Tava Hada Pipelta became official in January 2020.

Lellouche first sold the initial product, harissa prestige, to shops in the large local Jewish community. When Covid hit, he expanded his reach to chefs, who had free time to chat due to restaurant closures, and other épiceries fines (gourmet shops). Now, you can find his products at Chez Francette in Vauban, the Prado Monoprix and Souk de Nour d’Egypte, the Levantine emporium where we first bought it. Chef Laetitia Visse of Femme du Boucher mixes the harissa in her fantastic merguez. Even cocktail bar Copper Bay has used it to kick their mixed drinks up a notch.

You can find the most updated points of sale on their website, which has an e-shop for direct orders. Or, you can buy from his atelier directly. If you call in advance, and speak some French, you can even schedule a visit. He just moved to Le Carburateur, an entrepreneurial incubator that gives startups mentoring, financial and administrative help (one of our favorite small-batch coffee roasters, Café Corto, is also there).

During President Macron’s recent visit, he cited this innovative space in Marseille’s quartiers nord (the northern neighborhoods in which the city’s poverty is concentrated) for their much-needed boost to small business. From here, Lellouche is eager to take Tava Hada Pilpeta to the next level. For him, where there’s harissa, there’s a way.

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Published on September 21, 2021

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