COUSCOUS. Couscous (from the Berber word k'seksu ) is the staple product of North Africa and the national dish of the countries of Maghrib, that is, Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia. Couscous spread from this area, where it originated, to Libya, Mauritania, Egypt, and sub-Saharan countries. Couscous is also consumed in the Middle East, where it is called mughrabiyya.
Couscous is an icon food in northern Africa for dietary and cultural reasons. Similar to rice, pasta, or bread, couscous is an inexpensive and highly nutritive product made from wheat or other cereals (barley, sorghum, corn, millet, or minor grains) with the capacity for long-term preservation. With a basic cooking system, it is possible to prepare an everyday meal or a luxury feast, a main course or a dessert. A versatile dish, couscous can be mixed with vegetables, legumes, meat, or fish, or it can be eaten with butter or fresh fruit.
Couscous is an icon also because it permits the expression of national identities and ways of life, and it has religious and symbolic meanings. Women usually prepare the grain known as couscous during a family celebration, and the dish named couscous is eaten during a family feast, thereby associating both the product and the dish with solidarity. Couscous accompanies Friday and end of Ramadan celebrations and birth and wedding feasts. The association of couscous with these festivities also attaches it to the concepts of abundance, fertility, fidelity, and Barakah (God's blessing). For example, while preparing couscous, women have to make an invocation and converse about religious facts, prosperity, and positive feelings.
The grain. Although the use of precooked couscous has spread widely, making couscous is traditionally a female activity that involves much work. On a big flat plate, the woman in charge puts a handful of freshly ground hard wheat, sprinkles on salted water and a bit of flour, and with her palms treats the grain with rolling movements until the couscous granules appear. Later she sifts the grain with sieves of different diameters to obtain granules of similar size. Finally, couscous is sun-dried and stored or cooked.
The dish. Couscous is cooked in a special pot (a couscous steamer), usually earthen, which has two components: a bottom-perforated pan, which contains the grain, and a globular pot that stands underneath it and contains water or a boiling stew whose steam cooks the granules.
Couscous is moistened with water and oil before cooking and then it is placed in the pan. Every ten or fifteen minutes, the couscous is taken out of the pan; oil or butter is added, and it is worked by hand to avoid the formation of curds. Couscous is ready when the granules are cooked, separated, soft, and moist.
The basic ingredients of the couscous stew are seasonal vegetables and legumes (usually chickpeas), fish or meat (chicken, lamb, beef, rabbit, hare, and even camel), and spices. There are regional preferences regarding couscous. Algerian couscous includes tomatoes and a great variety of legumes and vegetables, and Moroccan couscous uses saffron. Tunisian couscous includes fish and dried fruit recipes and always contains chickpeas and a hot salsa (harissa). Saharan couscous is served without legumes and without broth.
After the grain is cooked, a pile of couscous is placed in a big platter topped with the meat or fish and vegetables. The couscous broth is put in a side bowl and optionally mixed with hot sauce.
The History of Couscous
Origins. The origin of couscous is uncertain. Lucie Bolens affirms that Berbers were preparing couscous as early as 238 to 149 b.c.e. (Bolens, 1989, p. 61). Nevertheless, Charles Perry states that couscous originated between the end of the Zirid dynasty and the rise of the Almohadian dynasty between the eleventh and the thirteenth centuries (Perry, 1990, p. 177).
Iberian Peninsula. Bolens dates the introduction of couscous into the Iberian Peninsula to the period of the Berber dynasties in the thirteenth century (Bolens, 1989, p. 62). The popularity of couscous spread quickly among the Moors, and the two Arab cookbooks available from that time, the anonymous Kitâb al Tabij and Fadalat al Jiwan by Ibn Razîn al Tujibî, include couscous recipes. Sephardim incorporated couscous into their cuisine because of the Moorish influence and carried it to their asylum countries after their expulsion from Iberian lands (1492). It is still popularly consumed in Israel.
Couscous also was a staple for the Moriscos, who ate it during secular and religious celebrations. Consequently, the Inquisition prosecuted its consumption. The hostility toward Morisco culture and foodways led to the disappearance of alcuzcuz from Spain and to the development of a derivative, migas. In Portugal the gentry and nobility still consumed couscous during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; however, the cozido à Madeirense (a couscous dish) has its origin in African influences. According to Francisco Abad, the couscous recipes included in the Spanish court cookbook by Martínez de Montiño (seventeenth century) are related to the author's Portuguese origin (Abad, 2000, pp. 23–24).
Italy. Cùscusu is a typical dish of western Sicily, especially of Trapani, where it is eaten with a fish stew or in a sweet recipe. There is no agreement about the date of the introduction of couscous into Sicily. Some writers claim that couscous was introduced during the Muslim period (827–1063), while others state that it was introduced after the settlement of Sephardim in the island, at the end of the fifteenth century.
Brazil. The introduction of couscous into Brazil in the sixteenth century, according to Luis da Cámara Cascudo, was a result of the culinary influences of both Portugal and African slaves cultures (Cascudo, 1983, pp. 207–211). There are two varieties. Southern couscous (Cuscuz paulista) is a steamed cake made from corn flour, vegetables, spices, chicken, or fish (prawns and sardines). The northern variety (cuscuz nordestino) is a steamed pudding made from tapioca flour and sugar and moistened with coconut milk. This is a popular Brazilian breakfast.
Couscous in the Western World
Couscous has developed worldwide popularity. Among the explanations for its success are the increasing importance of vegetarianism, the preference for healthy foods that are aesthetically attractive, the trendy fascination with the Mediterranean cuisine, and the culinary influence of Maghribian immigrants in the Western world.
See also Africa: North Africa; Brazil; Iberian Peninsula; Italy; Legumes; Mediterranean Diet; Middle East.
Abad, Francisco. Cuscús: Recetas e Historias del Alzcuzcuz Magrebí-Andalusí [Couscous: Recipes and stories about the Maghribian and Andalusian couscous]. Zaragoza: Libros Certeza, 2000.
Bolens, Lucie. "L'étonnante apparition du couscous en Andalousie médiévale (XIIIe siècle): Essai d'interprétation historique" [The surprising apparition of couscous in Medieval Andalusie, thirteenth century: An attempt of historical interpretation]. In Mélanges en l'Honneur du Professeur Anne-Marie Piuz, 61–70. Genève: Université de Genève, 1989.
Cascudo, Luís da Cámara. História da Alimentação no Brasil [History of food in Brazil]. 2 vols. São Paulo: Editora da Universidade de São Paulo, 1983.
Perry, Charles. "Couscous and Its Cousins." In Staple Foods: Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery 1989, pp. 176–178. London: Prospect Books, 1990.
Teresa de Castro
cous·cous / ˈkoōˌskoōs/ • n. a type of North African semolina in granules made from crushed durum wheat. ∎ a spicy dish made by steaming or soaking such granules and adding meat, vegetables, or fruit.