Couscous is a North African Berber dish of semolina traditionally served with a meat or vegetable stew spooned over it. Couscous is a staple food throughout Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Libya and India.
Couscous was elected as the third favourite dish of French people in 2011 in a study by TNS Sofres for magazine Vie Pratique Gourmand and the first in East of France.
The semolina is sprinkled with water and rolled with the hands to form small pellets, sprinkled with dry flour to keep them separate, and then sieved. Any pellets which are too small to be finished granules of couscous and fall through the sieve will be again rolled and sprinkled with dry semolina and rolled into pellets. This process continues until all the semolina has been formed into tiny granules of couscous. 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 durum, the part of the grain that resisted the grinding of the relatively primitive millstone. In modern times, couscous production is largely mechanised, and the product is sold in markets around the world.
In the Sahelian countries of West Africa, such as Mali and Senegal, pearl millet is pounded or milled to the size and consistency necessary for the couscous.
Properly cooked couscous is light and fluffy, not gummy or gritty. Traditionally, North Africans use a food steamer (called a couscoussière in French). The base is a tall metal pot shaped rather like an oil jar in which the meat and vegetables are cooked as 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 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 archaeological evidence of early diets including couscous, possibly because the original couscoussière was probably made from organic materials which could not survive extended exposure to the elements.
The couscous that is sold in most supermarkets has been pre-steamed and dried, the package directions usually instruct to add 1.5 measures of boiling water or stock and butter to each measure of couscous and to cover tightly for 5 minutes. The couscous swells and within a few minutes it is ready to fluff with a fork and serve. Pre-steamed couscous takes less time to prepare than regular couscous, most dried pasta, or dried grains (such as rice).
In Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia, couscous is generally served with vegetables (carrots, potatoes, turnips, etc.) cooked in a spicy or mild broth or stew, and some meat (generally, chicken, lamb or mutton).
In Algeria and 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 colour. It is then sprinkled with almonds, cinnamon and sugar. Traditionally, this dessert will be served with milk perfumed with orange flower water, or it can be served plain with buttermilk in a bowl as a cold light soup for supper.
In Libya, it is mostly served with meat, specifically beef, lamb, or camel, in Tripoli and the western parts of Libya, but not during official ceremonies or weddings. Another way to eat couscous is as a dessert; it is prepared with dates, sesame, and pure honey, and locally referred to as “maghrood”.
In Tunisia, it is made mostly spicy with harissa sauce, it is served with almost everything, including lamb, beef, camel, and poultry. Fish couscous is Tunisian specialty, it can be also made with octopus in hot red spicy sauce. Couscous in Tunisia is served on every occasion; it is also served sweetened as dessert called masfouf, mostly during Ramadan.
In Egypt, couscous is eaten more as a dessert. It is prepared with butter, sugar, cinnamon, raisins, nuts and topped with cream.
Couscous is also very popular in France, where it is now considered a traditional dish, and has also become popular in Spain, Portugal, Italy, and Greece. Indeed, many polls have indicated that it is often a favourite dish. Although introduced in France by the pieds noirs (people of European descent who used to live in Algeria), many couscous restaurants are now owned by people originating from Algeria. In France, Spain, Italy, and Portugal, the word “couscous” (cuscús in Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian) 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, Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese grocery stores and supermarkets. In France, it is generally served with harissa sauce.
In North America, Australia, and the United Kingdom, 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 and supermarkets.
There are recipes from Brazil and other Latin American countries that use boiled couscous molded into a timbale with other ingredients. In Northeastern Brazil and among the diaspora of its population in other Brazilian regions, cuzcuz locally, in Rio de Janeiro, a steamed cake of couscous and corn flour (a mixture called fubá, said to be of African origin from the slave trade), is a popular meal, served in many forms: With sugar and milk, with varied meats, with cheese and eggs, and so on. In Mexico, there are two dishes called the couscous taco (taco de cuscús) and couscous burrito (burrito de cuscús), which consists of the addition of couscous to a traditional taco or burrito respectively, similar in fashion to a North African pita.
Couscous is among the healthiest grain-based products. It has a glycemic load per gram 25% below that of pasta. It has a superior vitamin profile to pasta, containing twice as much riboflavin, niacin, vitamin B6, and folate, and containing four times as much thiamine and pantothenic acid.
In terms of protein, couscous has 3.6 g for every 100 calories, equivalent to pasta, and well above the 2.6 g for every 100 calories of white rice. Furthermore, couscous contains a 1% fat-to-calorie ratio, compared to 3% for white rice, 5% for pasta, and 11.3% for rice pilaf.
- Attiéké, a variety of couscous that is a staple food in Côte dIvoire and is also known to surrounding areas of West Africa, made from grated cassava.
- Wassa wassa, is another variety of couscous made in northern Togo made from yams.
- Berkoukesh are pasta bullets made by the same process, but are larger than the grains of couscous.
- Fregula, a pasta from Sardinia, consists of pellets that are larger than couscous and toasted.
- Kouskousaki (Κουσκουσάκι in Greek or Kuskus in Turkish), a pasta from Greece and Turkey, that is boiled and served with cheese and walnuts.
- In Brazilian cuisine, the “cuscuz marroquino” is a version, usually eaten cold, of the “couscous”. Brazilian cuscuz is usually made out of corn meal, rather than semolina wheat. Another festive moulded couscous dish, containing chicken, vegetables, spices, steamed in a mould and decorated with orange slices is called “Cuscuz de Galinha”.
- In Lebanese cuisine, Jordanian cuisine and Palestinian cuisine, a similar but larger product is known as maftoul or moghrabieh.
- “Israeli couscous” , also called “ptitim”, is a larger, baked wheat product similar to the Italian orzo.