1 a spicy dish that originated in northern Africa; consists of pasta steamed with a meat and vegetable stew
2 a pasta made in northern Africa of crushed and steamed semolina
EtymologyFirst attested circa 16th century, from , from Arabic (kuskus), from (kaskasa) “to pound, to pulverize”
- ''For the possum species, see Cuscus
The dish is a primary staple throughout the Maghreb; in much of Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, and Libya it is also known as ṭa`aam طعام, "food". It is also popular in the West African Sahel, in France, Madeira island, in western Sicily's Trapani province, and parts of the Middle East. It is particularly popular among Jews of North African descent, such as the Berber Jews, and is eaten in many other parts of the world as well.
Couscous is traditionally served under a meat or vegetable stew. It can also be eaten alone flavoured or plain, warm or cold, as a dessert or a side dish.
EtymologyThe name is derived from Maghrebi Arabic kuskusu or ksaksu, which is from Tamazight seksu (meaning well rolled, well formed, rounded). The other variant, keskesu is mainly used by the Tuareg. In Libya it is commonly called "kusksi", though "kisksu" is also used. In Malta, something called kusksu is similar but much larger in size. At Trapani in Sicily cuscusu is served with fish, like trout or anchovies.
ManufacturingThe couscous granules are made from semolina (coarsely ground durum wheat) or, in some regions, from coarsely ground barley or pearl millet. In Brazil, the traditional couscous is made from pre-cooked sweetcorn flakes.
Couscous from semolina (wheat)
The semolina is sprinkled with water and rolled with the hands to form small pellets, sprinkled with dry flour to keep the pellets separate, and then sieved. The pellets which are too small to be finished grains of couscous fall through the sieve to be again sprinkled with dry semolina and rolled into pellets. This process continues until all the semolina has been formed into tiny grains of couscous. Sometimes salt is added to the semolina and water.
This process is very labour intensive. In the traditional method of preparing couscous, groups of women would come together and make large batches over several days. These would then be dried in the sun and used for several months. Couscous was traditionally made from the hard part of the hard wheat Triticum durum, the part of the grain that resisted the grinding of the relatively primitive millstone. In modern times, couscous production is largely mechanized, and the product sold in markets around the world.
Couscous from pearl millet
In the Sahel, pearl millet is pounded or milled to the size and consistency necessary for the couscous.
HistoryOne of the first written references is from an anonymous 13th century Hispano-Muslim cookery book, "Kitāb al-tabǐkh fǐ al-Maghrib wa'l-Andalus" : The book of cooking in the Maghreb and Al Andalus, with a recipe for couscous that was 'known all over the world'. From the name, it appears that this dish was not Arabic, but Berber. Couscous was known to the Nasrid royalty in Granada as well. And in the 13th century a Syrian historian from Aleppo includes four references for couscous. These early mentions show that couscous spread rapidly, but that in the main, couscous was common from Tripolitania to the west, while from Cyrenaica to the east the main cuisine was Egyptian, with couscous as an occasional dish. Today, in Egypt and the Middle East, couscous is known, but in Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, and Western Libya couscous is a staple.
One of the earliest references to couscous in Northern Europe is in Brittany, in a letter dated Jan. 12 1699. But it made a much earlier appearance in Provence, where the traveler Jean Jacques Bouchard writes of eating it in Toulon in 1630.
African originsThere is some evidence that the process of couscous cookery, especially the steaming of the grain over broth in a special pot, might have originated before the tenth century in the area of West Africa now comprising Niger, Mali, Mauritania, Ghana, and Burkina Faso. Ibn Batuta journeyed to Mali in 1352, and in what is now Mauritania he had a pearl millet couscous. He also noted rice couscous in the area of Mali in 1350. Also, for centuries, among the nomadic Berbers, black African women were employed as couscous cooks, another possible indication of the sub-Saharan origin of the dish.
There are others who say that couscous was brought from Ethiopia to North Africa in the seventh century by conquering Arab armies. (Claudia Roden, Arabesque: A Taste of Morocco, Turkey, and Lebanon.)
CookingWhen properly cooked couscous should be light and fluffy; it should not be gummy or gritty. Couscous is steamed two to three times. The traditional North African method is to use a steamer called a kiska:s in Arabic or couscoussière in French. The base is a tall metal pot shaped rather like an oil jar in which the meat and vegetables are cooked in a stew. On top of the base a steamer sits where the couscous is cooked, absorbing the flavours from the stew. The lid to the steamer has holes around its edge so that steam can escape. It is also possible to use a pot with a steamer insert. If the holes are too big the steamer can be lined with damp cheesecloth. There is little archeological evidence of early diets including couscous, mainly because the original couscoussière was probably made from organic materials which could not survive extended exposure to the elements.
Instant couscousThe couscous available to buy in most Western supermarkets has been pre-steamed and dried, the package directions usually instruct to add it to a little boiling water in a pot and covering for 5 minutes to make it ready for consumption. Another quick and easy method is to prepare it by placing the couscous in a bowl and pouring the boiling water or stock over the couscous, then covering the bowl tightly. The couscous swells and within a few minutes is ready to fluff with a fork and serve. Pre-steamed couscous takes less time to prepare than dried pasta or grains such as rice.
Recipes and combinationsIn Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco, couscous is generally served with vegetables (carrots, turnips, etc.) cooked in a spicy or mild broth or stew, and some meat (generally, chicken, lamb or mutton); in Morocco, couscous can also be topped with fish in a sweet sauce with raisins and caramelized onions; In Tunisia, the most common way is to prepare couscous with a tomato base sauce and beef or lamb. However, on the coast various types of sea food, including squid, octopus and fish are prepared with couscous. Couscous with White grouper (called 'Kusksi bil mennani' in Tunisian Arabic) is considered a delicacy in Tunisia, as is 'Kusksi bil ousbane', in which couscous is stuffed into sheep guts (reminiscent of Scottish haggis). A sweet version with nuts, dates and spices is also eaten for breakfast, called 'mesfouf'. In some parts of Libya fish and squid are also used. The stew in Tunisia is red with a tomato and chili base, whereas in Morocco it is generally yellow.
In Morocco it is also served, sometimes at the end of a meal or just by itself, as a delicacy called "Seffa". The couscous is usually steamed several times until it is very fluffy and pale in color. It is then sprinkled with almonds, cinnamon and sugar. Traditionally, this dessert will be served with milk perfumed with orange blossom water, or it can be served plain with buttermilk in a bowl as a cold light soup for supper.
Couscous is very popular in France where it's now considered a national dish. Many polls have indicated that it's the preferred dish, it has been introduced in France by pieds noirs (people of European descent who used to live in the Maghreb and especially in Algeria), though many couscous restaurants are now owned by people originating from the Maghreb. In France the word "couscous" usually refers to couscous together with the stew. Packaged sets containing a box of quick-preparation couscous and a can of vegetables and, generally, meat are sold in French grocery stores and supermarkets. In France it is generally served with Harissa sauce.
In North America and Great Britain couscous is available most commonly as either plain or pre-flavoured, quick-preparation boxes. In the United States it is widely available but largely confined to the ethnic or health food section of larger grocery stores. In the United States, couscous is known as a type of pasta. However in most other countries it is considered a distinct type of cereal food in its own right.
Taboule, a salad of Lebanese origins is, today, more often made with the easier, quicker, cous cous. The traditional recipe used crushed wheat, mixed with olive oil, chopped tomatos, onion, parsley, mint, salt and pepper. the whole mixed together and, where possible, chilled. served as a side dish, great for buffets. Cous cous seems even more light as a replacement for the crushed wheat. Prepacked Taboule, in various combinations, is sold in shops, especially in France where the [Maghreb]influence is strong.
- Berkoukes (Algerian speciality) are pasta bullets made by the same process, but are larger than the grains of couscous.
Israeli couscous/Palestinian Maftoul
Israeli couscous (in Hebrew פתיתים אפויים 'baked flakes'), also known as maftoul or pearl couscous, is a larger version of couscous and used in slightly different ways. In Western cooking it is often used as a bed for salmon or chicken dishes, or put into salads. Compare with Middle Eastern Tabouli or egg barley.
Israeli couscous is a version of North African Berkukes, introduced by immigrants from various parts of North Africa in the early 1950s, and Levantine Maghrebiyya (from the Maghreb) common in Palestine, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. Couscous was meant to provide a rice substitute for those immigrants from eastern Arab countries and from Persia, where rice was the staple grain. Unlike North African couscous, it is not semolina at all, but rather a toasted mixture of bulgur and flour.
References and notes
- Couscous: about the etymology of the word
- BBC Food Glossary: Couscous
- Encyclopaedia of Food: Couscous New York, USA. Scribner and Sons. 2003, vol. 1, pp. 465-466. (Cuscús)
- Mediterranean and Wold Cuisine: Couscous: History of Couscous by Clifford A. Wright
- Saudi Aramco World article on Couscous : Couscous - The Measure of the Maghrib. Written by Greg Noakes and Laidia Chouat Noakes 1998.
- Magharebia.com: News and Views of the Maghreb article on Couscous: Couscous: Long-Term Maghreb Staple Still Going Strong
- "The March of Couscous" article written by Farid Zadi. Traces how couscous was taken to different countries from its origins in North Africa.
couscous in Arabic: كسكسي
couscous in Bambara: Basi
couscous in Bulgarian: Кускус
couscous in Catalan: Cuscús
couscous in Czech: Kuskus
couscous in German: Kuskus
couscous in Spanish: Cuscús
couscous in Esperanto: Kuskuso (manĝaĵo)
couscous in French: Couscous
couscous in Fulah: Lacciri
couscous in Indonesian: Couscous
couscous in Italian: Cuscus
couscous in Hebrew: קוסקוס
couscous in Dutch: Couscous
couscous in Japanese: クスクス
couscous in Norwegian: Couscous
couscous in Polish: Kuskus
couscous in Portuguese: Cuscuz
couscous in Russian: Кус-кус
couscous in Sicilian: Cuscusu
couscous in Slovenian: Kuskus
couscous in Finnish: Kuskus
couscous in Swedish: Couscous
couscous in Tagalog: Kuskus
couscous in Chinese: 古斯米