Couscous is to the Maghreb what pasta is to the Italians and rice to the Chinese. It is a staple food that is the mainstay of life in the Maghreb.
Couscous is a transgenerational and flawlessly popular complete dish that stands out for its great diversity of tastes, ingredients and flavors.
Couscous is a dish of Berber origin. It is a friendly and complete dish. In its original preparation, couscous is based on millet and not wheat, embellished with spices and sauces, not to mention vegetables. It is then served in a tagine decorated with lamb meats.
Couscous is cooked throughout the Maghreb and is the staple food in Tunisia, but also in Algeria and Morocco. Defended by these countries, couscous has been an intangible cultural heritage of UNESCO since December 2020
The term couscous can refer to the semolina itself or the dish or complete. It is difficult to know where the couscous dish comes from, since different cultures of the Maghreb have different ways of preparing and describing it. And everyone is arguing a little about the origin of this traditional dish with several cultures. Historians, however, mostly agree that it is a dish of Berber origin.
What Is Cous Cous Or Couscous
Couscous is a typical food of Maghrebi cuisine. It is common in countries such as Morocco, Algeria, or Tunisia, where it is considered the national dish, and from where it has gradually been conquering the world: first touring the Mediterranean basin in the direction of Palestine, more recently in time favored by French colonialism. It is made from durum wheat semolina that has not been transformed into flour, which is mixed with water and transformed into small grains of just one millimeter in diameter. Although it may seem like a cereal, in reality we are facing a type of pasta.
Origin Of Couscous
Like many other foods, its origin is uncertain, although it is possible to think of its emergence within Berber culture many centuries before the first reliable written references appeared in the form of a recipe in the thirteenth century. It is known that it was already used by the Berber tribes that lived in North Africa approximately in the third century BC, thanks to various archaeological findings, for example of primitive pots where it was cooked.
It was a popular dish in Al-Andalus among Moors, a popularity that would be transferred to the Castilian culinary heritage, being known among other names as alcuzcuz, as evidenced by its progressive appearance in writings and historical works. To the north of Europe, it would arrive in the seventeenth century. it gained popularity in France in 1830, a popularity that is maintained thanks to the close relationship that exists between both regions and emigration.
There is also no consensus on the etymological origin of the word. It is believed to come from the Berber word kuskus, but its meaning is not clear, which some attribute to an adaptation from the name of the container where it is cooked with water and steamed broth. The original Arabic word, t’aam طعام, means “the food” and gives a good account of the importance it has in its culture as food for daily consumption.
The term “couscous” refers to both the durum wheat semolina agglomerate giving the couscous grains and the final dish composed of these grains, vegetables, meat or fish. Couscous can be plain, salty, sweet or even sweet-salty. But before these grains get soaked with all these different flavors, one step is essential: the preparation of couscous from durum wheat semolina, fine or medium (even both). As a first step, salt and pour a good drizzle of oil on the semolina. It is recommended to work it in a large wooden bowl (or in a gasaa, a traditional terracotta dish) to spread and aerate it well and thus avoid the formation of lumps. Mix with the help of a wooden spoon or with your fingertips while moistening with water (it depends on the amount of semolina). Once the grains have swelled well, transfer the semolina to the upper part of the couscoussier, it is the steam emanating from the lower part hosting the vegetables and meat that will cook the grains.
To prevent steam from escaping, place a cloth, silicone seal or lut at the junction of the couscoussier. As soon as the steam passes through the semolina (i.e. after 10-15 minutes), put the semolina back in the dish. Then begins the stage of seeding which consists of rubbing, rolling the semolina between the hands, if not with the help of a fork, a wooden spoon or even a whisk, always gradually pouring water, to homogenize and aerate it well. Then replace the semolina in the couscoussier and continue cooking. Repeat the operation a third time. When the grains are tender, put the couscous back in the dish and add the butter (or smen, salted clarified butter) just before serving. A faster solution: pre-cooked couscous!
From Little Hands To Industrialization
If its method of preparation is constant (a semolina rolled, steamed and seasoned with a broth) the ingredients that go into its composition provide information about the social rank of the family. In addition, we could draw a map of couscous where two axes are clearly drawn.
From the garden to the desert via the coast seasonings and vegetables change.
Simple product, it can be adapted to a complicated preparation rich in ingredients as well as a simple nut of butter and a little sugar and cinnamon.
Despite differences or even disagreements on what makes a “real” couscous, the method of preparation and presentation remains more or less the same everywhere. Couscous seed is made with durum wheat semolina, water and possibly salt and flour either by hand in a method that requires a lot of work and time or increasingly in an industrial way.
The first machine reproducing the human gesture of rolling semolina grains was developed in 1953 by the Ferrero brothers. The grains thus formed are steamed two or three times in a strainer placed above a pot in which the broth is cooked.
To make a good couscous, everyone has their own recipe. “Barley and oat couscous lower cholesterol and blood sugar levels,” says a famous Moroccan cook based on the results of American and British scientific studies on the impact of rice, barley or oats on health. And for those who want to put a little more taste in their semolina, it offers a series of aromatic couscous: honey, soy sauce, ketchup, prunes and raisins, mustard or kiwi …
Today, industrial flour mills are legion in the region and competition is fierce. And unfortunately, women only roll couscous on rare occasions…
Traditionally it is a food that is made with the hard part of ground wheat, in such a way that it has not been converted into flour, this grinding process can be done with various types of cereals such as barley, millet, polenta, rice or corn kernels. It is a food that has a series of remarkable benefits, such as having a high content of carbohydrates and vitamin B1, it becomes a food that provides energy, ideal for practitioners of physical activities and students, is ideal for people suffering from diabetes, helps prevent or treat constipation and as a last great contribution, helps us to take care of our cardiovascular system, thanks to its balanced content of linoleic and oleic fatty acids
Algerian, Moroccan And Tunisian Couscous. What Are The Differences?
Friendly and festive, couscous has always been very popular, especially in rural communities. Indeed, couscous grains were an ingenious way to preserve cereals such as durum wheat. It was then enough to decorate them with the meats, fish, vegetables, spices and aromatics available locally to transform them into a dish as gourmet as it was satiating.
- The Naming
The name “couscous” comes from the Berber word seksu meaning “well rolled”. However, it also comes from the Arabic word kaskasa. This is already the first differentiation to note on this culinary specialty. Si in Morocco, couscous is still called “seksu“, in a Tunisian restaurant, it is named “kouski“, while “Taam“, “koski” or “kesksu” is the term that designates it in Algeria.
- The Grains Used
Couscous is a dish whose base consists of crushed wheat semolina dumplings and then steamed. In its traditional preparation, it is cooked in a couscoussier so that the seeds can grow and be softer. On the other hand, in Tunisian gastronomy, medium couscous semolina is used, while in Morocco, they prefer large fragrant grains and in Algeria, the fine seeds are rolled in fermented butter.
- Their Sauces
Sauce is a must for cooking couscous. Although the Tunisian sauce is reddish due to the tomato sauce that embellishes it, the white sauce is adopted in Algeria with a white broth based on vegetables and meat. Moroccan couscous differs in its yellow saffron sauce.
Traditional couscous is characterized by a single meat to cook. In addition, the type of couscous is easily recognizable thanks to the meats served:
For the shabby couscous of southern Tunisia, tripe is preferred. The one with fish also makes them famous;
In Algeria, lamb meat is always cooked with couscous. However, in the south of the country, couscous with mechoui or vegetarian make a carnage;
In Morocco, chicken is invited to the tagine.
- The Vegetables Accompanying It
Vegetables make couscous. They give it taste, color and in font a hyper vitamin dish. If in Tunisia, zucchini, potatoes, carrots and turnips, as well as chickpeas, are used for its preparation, in Algerian couscous, seasonal vegetables such as squash or pumpkin are added. On the other hand, in Morocco, no less than 7 vegetables will be integrated.
The Maghreb is renowned for its richness in spices. Cinnamon is the one that is most used in Algerian couscous. Also, the pinches of pepper, cumin, paprika and the four-spice blend are not to be omitted.
Most often, the ras el hanout is usedin Tunisian couscous. The latter is a mixture of Maghreb spices. Also used are carawaya, garlic, as well as harissa.
In Morocco, spices with striking tastes are the most appreciated:
The Presentation Of The Different Types Of Couscous
Berber Couscous From Algeria
To make a dish of Berber couscous from Algeria, it is necessary to put the semolina in a dish with the grains not glued. Add the meat to the middle and arrange as many vegetables as you want properly. Spread one or two ladles of your broth on it. Put plenty of meat in the center and serve with lben.
Put the domed couscous in a large hollow dish and add butter to it. Dig a well in the center of the semolina and put the meat in it. Drizzle with three ladles of broth. Decorate with vegetables evenly with potatoes, zucchini, carrots to finish with chickpeas and pumpkin. Add more broth (according to your choice). The rest of the broth is served in a soup bowl. Enjoy with curdled, fermented milk or Harissa. You can also serve with cut watermelon or fresh grapes.
To present Tunisian couscous, it is enough to first arrange the semolina in a circle in a dish by making a well in the middle. Then put the sauce in the well and arrange the carrots and potatoes in the sun on the semolina. Do not put a large amount of sauce at the risk of loosening the semolina. Add fresh parsley.
Royal couscous is a typical French recipe. Moreover, it is the dish that is most found in restaurants in France. It was in the 60s with the arrival of the “pieds-noirs” in France that couscous became popular. In France, a royal couscous includes several different meats: chicken, lamb, merguez and beef, not to mention the ras-el-hanout spice blend.
As you will have understood, couscous is a dish appreciated by the whole world and everyone prepares it in their own way. The main thing is to share this traditional dish with your family or friends and enjoy!