Couscous, like tagine, is a traditional dish that is emblematic of the Maghreb countries (Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Mauritania and Western Sahara). In fact, durum wheat semolina is the staple food of these countries. It is different from the common wheat, also called “wheat”, which is used to make bread, pizza, etc. … etc… And the term “couscous” refers to both semolina (once steamed) and the whole dish.
Historians often attribute the origin of couscous to the Berber people (an indigenous ethnic group in North Africa). In fact, the oldest couscous maker in the world, dating back to the 11th century, was discovered in Kabylia (a region of Algeria populated by Berbers) where wheat was already being grown. And the word “couscous” comes from the Berber word “k’seksu” (or “seksu”). Later, this dish spread all over the world, starting with the Mediterranean basin (Spain, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Syria, Morocco, Algeria, …).
COUSCOUS IN THE MAGHREB TRADITION AND ALL OVER THE WORLD
Couscous is an essential element of the cultural identity of the Maghreb. It has also been officially declared “Common Maghreb Heritage”. And more recently, a project aims to classify it as part of the common heritage of humanity by the United Nations (United Nations Organization).
The couscous dish is part of everyday dishes, but it is also eaten on special occasions (weddings, religious ceremonies, births, offerings, circumcision, deaths, …). Especially during Eid el-Kebir, which means “feast of sacrifice” or “great feast”. But beware, do not confuse it with Eid el-Fitr which means “little feast” and marks the end of Ramadan.
It also has a very strong symbolism, because it’s a dish of sharing and solidarity. So, we gladly gather around a good couscous to strengthen friendships, alliances or to show hospitality and generosity.
1943, the French Algeria, Ali Pacha, a Berber leader, shoots with a Thomson machine gun surrounded by other Berbers and officers of the French army.
France discovered couscous during the colonization of Algeria (19th century). But other culinary historians believe that couscous has been known in France for longer. In fact, in medieval times, French authors already talked about it in their literary works. Like François Rabelais (1483-1553) who spoke of “coscosson” in the stories of “Gargantua” and “Pantagruel”; or Alexandre Dumas who called it “coussou coussou” in his “Grand Dictionnaire de Cuisine”; …
But it was not until the 20th century that couscous experienced a real expansion in French society. In fact, many “Pieds-noirs” (French from Algeria) had emigrated massively to the metropolis as reinforcements during the war. This means that today, couscous is one of the 3 favorite dishes of the French. Moreover, the “couscous royal” (with fusions, meatballs, chicken, …) is very popular in French families.
Couscous has different names according to the country and the region. Thus, in Algeria, it is called “ta`aam” (food) or “barbucha” (large grains); in Morocco, it is called “kseksou”; in Sicily, it is “cùscus” … etc
THE PREPARATION OF COUSCOUS
As we have mentioned, there are many variants to the couscous recipe. The preparation of this dish, as well as the choice of ingredients depends on the climate and the region, but also on the purchasing power of each family. Thus, we have the couscous of the cities, the couscous of the mountains, the couscous of the rich, the couscous of the poor, … For example, in the desert, where fresh vegetables are rare, couscous is served with salted and dried meat. In the Mediterranean basin, it is prepared with fish. Or in families with little money, more vegetable couscous is eaten because the meat is too expensive.
And finally, in black Africa, people eat couscous with millet, while in the Middle East they eat bulgur and in the Sahara they have adopted couscous with barley.
This dish can be eaten hot or cold, sweet or salty, and even for dessert or breakfast. In addition, there are several types of couscous: t’faya which is sweet and salty and tastes like cinnamon. It is eaten with chicken, raisins and caramelized onions. And it is often accompanied by fermented milk or very sweet mint tea.
The preparation of couscous has an almost ceremonial character in North African families. In fact, the semolina goes through different stages of preparation and cooking before being presented at the table. The history of couscous also tells us that in the past, barley semolina was used to prepare couscous. But, unfortunately, its preparation was too complicated and too long. Therefore, it was replaced by durum wheat semolina, which is much more practical. Moreover, in Western countries, there is already pre-cooked semolina. This is a heresy for Eastern countries where the preparation of couscous is imperatively done by hand. This means that the grains were crushed with millstones and dried in the open air. Then, groups of women prepared the semolina with a mixture of water and flour and made little balls to preserve it better. Later, before cooking it, they sifted the semolina and worked it with their hands and some salt water in large basins (“gessra”). Finally, they cooked it in the upper part of the couscous machine with the steam of the broth. The broth was at the bottom and contained meat and vegetables.
The particularity of the preparation of this dish also lies in the very special kitchen utensil used: the couscous maker. The couscous maker is a kind of large metal pot (aluminium or stainless steel). It has two parts: on the one hand, the “steam basket” at the top to cook the semolina and on the other hand, the “big pot” at the bottom that is used to cook the broth as well as the meat and vegetables. In fact, this is the best way to cook the semolina, as it will absorb the aromas of the broth. In addition, the steam will make it swell and make it lighter and more digestible. In addition, to make the most of this steam, the North African housewife sealed the two parts with a cloth soaked in water and flour, or with a plastic bag, or even with a kind of rubber seal.
It should be noted that the first manufacturers of couscous were clay dishes with large holes or baskets of basketwork. They were placed in large pots of boiling water for the steam to cook the semolina. Today, they are made of metal. And it would be inconceivable for any North African family not to have this utensil in their home.
THE RECIPE FOR COUSCOUS
Thus, traditionally, couscous is a clever mixture of fine semolina, coarse semolina, flour and water. And to which sometimes chickpeas are added. Today, thanks to technical progress in manufacturing, we have pre-cooked semolina. It is true that it is only industrial semolina, but it has the merit of saving us a lot of time. But if you still want to use handmade semolina, you will find it in oriental or specialized grocery stores.
Originally, the recipe for couscous only included a variety of meat. It was either ram, camel, fish, chicken, … etc… And in general, the pieces that were cooked on a low heat were preferred. As for vegetables, it depended on what people had on hand or even on the season: courgettes, carrots, potatoes, peppers, pumpkin, turnips, chard, celery, cabbage, … etc. As for spices, ras-el-hanout and harissa were easily used. And depending on the type of couscous, other spices like ginger, cinnamon or different peppers could be used. Finally, you could add raisins or caramelized onions to the dish.
The traditional preparation of semolina follows very elaborate rules and procedures. Therefore, the raw semolina must already be prepared. The latter is spread on a large plate to make it work better. A dash of olive oil is poured over it and the semolina is peeled with the fingers. The olive oil will make the seeds separate from each other. Then add water (preferably cold so as not to start cooking) and roll the seeds back up between the palms of your hands. The water will start to make the raw semolina swell and this will make cooking easier. Then, leave a brief pause before steaming the semolina. Ideally, we should put it in a cloth and cover it with it, before putting it in the steamer basket. The cooking time is about 15 minutes. The couscous is then poured back into the gessra and reworked by adding a little water. Then, we put it back in the steam basket for another 15 minutes. This operation can be repeated 2 or 3 times. And in the final cooking, a kind of rancid butter (the “smen”) is added, it is shelled for the last time and it is ready.
Please note that this cooking technique is not suitable for pre-cooked semolina, as only one cooking step is required. As for the stale butter used to give a particular flavour to the semolina, it can be replaced by normal butter. And finally, you can salt your semolina or not, but it is like the question of whether or not to salt the water of the pasta: it is a question of taste.