Cooking couscous

Posted by: Ren

Despite what many think, couscous is a coarsely ground wheat rather than a rice-like grain. Thus more akin to pasta than basmati, fresh couscous is actually an intensively laborious process, made from rolling semolina wheat between palms until it sticks together in tiny granular pellets. I love couscous for its signature fluffiness, its versatility, and the fact that it’s just fun to say: Couscous!

Couscous has skyrocketed into recent popularity, but has been a staple of the North African diet for centuries. According to Paula Wolfert, author of the book Food of Morocco, the name couscous was given from the hissing sound made as steam from the pan rises through the grain. So coveted is couscous in some parts of Algeria and France that a special cooking vessel, the couscoussier, is dedicated to the steaming of the dish. That’s also fun to say: Couscoussier!

Couscous goes by a few different names in the regions where it is most popular. In some parts of Algeria and Morocco, couscous is called ta’aam, or directly translated: food. In these North African Berber traditions, where couscous is so much a staple that it is referred to simply as food, women gather to make couscous in the way women in other parts of the world gather for tea, or to play mahjong, to discuss books, or for social knitting circles. Women in Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, or Libya come together in a home to prepare the precious staple, making enough couscous to last several meals, and coming together again when the ration runs low.

Couscous

Couscous

In these circles, semolina is sifted into a flat pile, then wetted with droplets of water. The flour is rubbed in between moistened hands until tiny pellets form. Methodical and repetitious is the work, hands constantly moving in the same circular motions over and over again. Once the wheat has been rolled, these miniscule balls of flour are filtered through a fine sieve to create hundreds of tiny grain-like pieces. The uncooked couscous is then left out in the hot African sun to dry, after which they are packed and stored. To prepare, the couscous is steamed once, twice, or sometimes thrice over, often times in a rich stew to infuse more flavor. Fresh couscous is often monitored carefully to ensure the mixture does not stick, mixing vigorously to break up the pellets if it looks anywhere close to sticky.

These days, couscous is available all over the world, usually pre-fabricated by factory machines rather than meticulously rolled by hand. Once in your own kitchen, all a box of couscous needs is a quick boil in water and a bit of time to steam. For its quick prep time (10-15 minutes is all your need!), as well as for its versatility as a side dish, it’s no wonder that more and more consumers all around the world are wising up to the wonders of couscous.

I know of not one person who eats couscous by itself, since the biggest appeal of couscous is to pick up the other flavors that share the plate. Hence, it traditionally served under a serving of rich stew of meat or vegetables. These days, besides for being fun to say, couscous is a wonderful side dish to add into weekly rotations. Add sauteed onions and diced roasted vegetables into steamed couscous to deepen the complexity, or perhaps walnuts and dried cherries to give it a luxurious flavor. It can be served alongside a roast chicken, grilled fish, or seared pork loin, or simply a big pot of vegetables.

Want some couscous recipes? Well, they’re already here! Each of the couscous links above shows different recipes around the world. Go check’em out again!

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