Tucked into a humble strip center on North Maple Road an understated yet functional interior defines El Harissa. With varied North African and Mediterranean goods in a commercial market space, including oils and food items from Tunisia, fabrics, pottery and other adornments, the market exudes an eclectic and comfortable feel.
Energetic world music livens the space, paralleling the upbeat counter staff who offered a friendly greeting and enthusiastic explanations of the foods displayed in the glass case. The ordering process relies on posted labels that teach and entice, leading guests through explanations of each item.
From Tunisia, with love
Khaled and Susan Houamed, a husband and wife team, operate the establishment. Khaled hails from Tunisia. He arrived in the United States to obtain a doctorate in medical research, working in the area of diabetes. After stints in Chicago and on the east coast, the pair settled in Ann Arbor to raise their son Yusef and daughter Yasmin.
Inertia performing medical research for many years prompted Khalid to try his hand creating foods from his native Tunisia. Unique and unheralded in this area of southeastern Michigan, the typically spicy food is mostly subdued for the local clientele and boasts an abundance of vegetables complementing a variety of meats cooked using techniques unusually deployed elsewhere.
For instance, tagine cooking, using a conical cooking crock to recirculate the steam escaping during the cooking process back into the food to enhance tenderness, is used for some of the chicken and beef dishes.
Influences from Greece, Morocco, Lebanon and Italy join with the family’s Tunisian ancestry to create a deja vu effect, inspiring us to question, despite never previously sampling Tunisian cooking: “Haven’t we enjoyed this food before?”
Comfortable spice levels
Used frequently in Tunisian cooking, harissa is a spicy paste made from roasted peppers. While some of the preparations offered use the harissa, it is toned down, often with the addition of other roasted vegetables in a mindful wink acknowledging the sensibilities of the market’s Southeast Michigan location. Ask for the authentic, original harissa to use as a condiment to lend the dishes an added kick.
With help from staff, the food is plated and weighed by the pound or piece crossing North African fare with a deli format. This is food characterized by a unique blend of spices and flavors, though not so different that an uninitiated guest might feel intimidated. Instead it feels similar to meeting a stranger that shares a close mutual friend with you; you enjoy a degree of familiarity and shared experiences all through a common bond. Though certain flavors filter through to present themselves as comparable to Middle Eastern and Ethiopian cuisine, it’s not quite either of those genres. This realization illuminated a novel thrill of trying something new.
The Carthage Salad topped with fresh figs, pomegranate seeds and other prizes crunched with freshness. Dips also assumed a level of notoriety during the meal. For the Moroccan Zaalouk, picture a hearty babaganouj twisted with skordalia, a Greek potato dip with rich berbere spices and garlic. The namesake Harissa dip, made from harissa and sweet bell peppers lifted the Tunisian-style flatbread with a tangy bite.
Vegetable dishes, including Lablabi, a cumin flavored chickpea stew, a Tunisian couscous, Kousha, with slow baked vegetables, Mujadara rice with lentils, spiced roasted cauliflower and roasted mushrooms with cumin and garlic, represent dishes from Tunisia, Ethiopia, Lebanon and other countries ringing the Mediterranean. Sweet desserts include various gelato flavors and a delicately exquisite rosewater baklava, all fresh-made, with 20 different types to choose from.
For a delightful foray into a multifarious market and cafe, El Harissa’s bold flavors make the respite all the more worthwhile.
El Harissa Market Cafe. 1516 N. Maple Rd. Open daily 11am – 8 pm. 734-585-0686. www.elharissa.com