Couscous: From the Berber Tribe to the Whole World
By: Noah Robertson/Arab America Contributing Writer
Couscous is well known around the world and has rapidly become a very popular ingredient. It is healthy, delicious, has a neutral taste, can be combined with just about anything, and it can be used in dishes from stuffed fish to stew to a light salad. Along with all of these benefits, instant Couscous is widely sold now and is super fast to cook, making it popular at home and in restaurants. Despite the popularity of Couscous, its history is still often untold, and as much as Americans love it, they know little about how it’s meant to be made or even the difference between Moroccan, pearl, or Israeli Couscous, etc. There are a wide variety of different types and styles of preparation with many Arab countries (especially the Maghreb region) having their own unique style.
This article will cover the main styles of making Couscous and some popular dishes unique to different countries. Still, with so many styles of preparing and serving, some less popular ones may be excluded.
What is Couscous, and Where Did it Come From?
Couscous is often mistaken as a grain given its smaller shape and generally grainy look, but in reality, it is more similar to pasta because it is made of semolina and wheat flour that is moistened and tossed together until it forms little balls (it is not pasta though). Though this is not the only set of ingredients that can be used, it is the most common. These little balls are then steamed, though the amount of times depends on the style. One especially important note is that what most people in the U.S. consider Couscous is actually instant Couscous. These little boxes found in about every store in America contain pre-steamed and dried Couscous, which is why it is possible to cook it so quickly.
The exact origin of Couscous is disputed given the lack of written records, but most people believe the Berber tribes of Morocco were the first to make it, and some believe it has been around since 238 BC. What is a little more certain is that it started spreading around the 13th century because it appears in two Arab cookbooks from that time period.
The Different Styles
Much of the couscous served outside the Arab World is based on the Moroccan style. In Morocco, it is cooked in a special pot known as a couscousier and must be cooked three times. First, with salt and water, then hand-rolled. Second, with salt and water again and then hand-rolled again. Third, the meat and vegetables cook below it to provide flavorful steam for the final round. It is typically flavored with a lot of saffron and semnah (a kind of butter) and has lots of vegetables, meat, and sauce with it. Also, Moroccan Couscous is made with the smallest balls of all the varieties.
Tunisian couscous is referred to as “kousksi”, is a staple of their cuisine, and many Tunisians believe it is the best in the world. Kousksi is prepared very similarly to the Moroccan style with one major difference: it’s red. Okay, fine, that’s not really the difference. It is red because of the spicy-red harissa-based sauce that any true version must be soaked in. Without the sauce, you are not eating real Tunisian-style couscous. Kousksi also rarely comes without a wide variety of vegetables and a hearty mix of spices like cumin, ginger, turmeric, and cinnamon.
Algerian Couscous is kind of the perfect middle ground dish that is neither spicy or sweet and, instead, is buttery since it is typically mixed with butter ghee before adding meat or vegetables. It is a perfect “comfort-style” most commonly served with a flavorful lamb and vegetable stew.
Libyan couscous is called “Cousksi.” It’s soaked in sauce like the Tunisian style, but its distinctive flavor comes from spices included in the sauce and in the couscous itself. The color is also more of an orange than the red of Kousksi. Most unique about Cousksi is its topping, Bulsa, which is “a topping made of stewed onions that have been cooked in olive oil until sweet, mixed with plump raisins flavored red with cinnamon.” When eating Cousksi expect some heat from a heavy dose of chilis.
Egyptian couscous is very different than most variations because it is sweet. It is boiled and then fried in samna baladi, which is similar to ghee. After this, it is covered in lots of icing sugar and occasionally served with some toppings. While other countries will use raisins or cinnamon for a sweeter dish, they do not come close to the Egyptian sugar rush.
Many people believe Israeli, and pearl couscous is the same, but they are definitely not. Israeli couscous is called p’titim in Israel, and it is not actually couscous. P’titim is “made from a wheat paste, just like pasta, which was originally mass-produced into pellets the same shape as long grain rice.” This was intended to be a substitute for rice, but once rice supply increased, its shape was made into the couscous-like shape, though it is produced in many other shapes as well. In 1993 p’titim got its new name, Israeli couscous, and became popular outside Israel when a chef from Tribeca Grill in New York visited Israel and tried this dish. He loved it, but to avoid customer confusion he renamed it, and p’titim instantly became a hit around the U.S.
Lebanese couscous is referred to as Moghrabieh, or more commonly, pearl couscous. It is still made with the typical semolina and wheat flour, but it is rolled into a larger size before cooking. Moghrabieh does not just refer to the couscous, but also refers to the dish made from it. When it is served, it usually is with chicken or lamb shanks (it used to be both). This style is popular in the whole Levantine region.
Palestinian couscous is called Maftoul and is unique because it uses bulgur and wheat instead of semolina. It is a bigger and slightly darker grain though it is still smaller than Moghrabieh. Maftoul is often dried and packaged for a quick meal, but like all other varieties it is best when made fresh.
Couscous comes in many shapes and sizes, with sauces and spices galore. In most Arab countries, it is served in a large communal dish and is often eaten after Friday prayers (this is especially common in the Maghreb region). However, Egyptians have their couscous at the end of a meal. This style of eating homemade couscous out of a large communal dish makes it a really special dish that brings families and friends together, but this part of the experience has unfortunately been lost as its popularity has grown.
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