Couscous: A North African Staple

For the Jews of North Africa couscous is as homey as apple pie.

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Reprinted with permission from The Book of Jewish Food: An Odyssey from Samarkand to New York, published by Knopf.

The theme of a Jerusalem congress on Jewish food in 1993 was “Gefilte fish or couscous?” Couscous, the most famous of North African foods, has had an enormous impact in Israel. Ruth Sirkis, my Israeli publisher, had phoned once, years ago, to ask if there was an easy way to prepare fish couscous for a few hundred people. I wondered if it was for a wedding party. No, she said, it was for the army: Soldiers wanted couscous instead of gefilte fish on Friday. 

There is probably more couscous than gefilte fish served on Friday night in Jewish families in France too. Twenty years ago, I was invited to a ball in Orléans by a woman who was hoping to translate my first book into French. It turned out to be a Hanukah party. The community had always kept a low profile. But everything had changed since the arrival of North African Jews, who were al­ways getting together for celebrations. And for the first time the old established community of Vieille France and Eastern European Jewry had joined them.

couscousThe reason was extraordinary. Rumors had spread in the city that girls who went into Jewish shops had been drugged and spirited away to Saudi Arabia, where they were sold as sex slaves. Jewish shops had been attacked, and an anti-Semitic cabal had continued for months. The community became frightened and decided to get together to show solidarity. Certainly the atmosphere at the ball took them far away from their troubles in Orléans. There was chanting and belly dancing. People snatched the microphone to sing passionately songs like “Un Soir à Casa” and “Fez Tu Es Mon Amour.” The meal consisted of spicy salads, roast lamb, and mountains of splendidly decorated couscous. It is difficult now to go to a Jewish event in France without it turning into an opportunity for North African music and song. North African‑style weddings have become fashionable. I have heard many accounts of henna nights in tents, where the bride is transported on a large tray, dressed in velvet and gold, and bedecked with jewels; a band plays and singers perform, while great platters of Moroccan goodies and mountains of ornate couscous are served.

The name “couscous” refers to the hard semolina grain on which it is based, as well as to the stew or soup and the side dishes that go with it. For North African Jews, though not for those of Morocco, couscous is the Friday‑night dish. Couscous with meatballs—a dish cooked by Muslims for their great feast of the year, Eid el Kibir—is the Friday‑night dish of Algerian and Tunisian Jews. They make large quantities, so that it can be eaten again on Saturday to accompany the dafina (the potted Sabbath dish). There are also festive couscous dishes, including sweet ones, for different holidays, and grand ceremonial ones for weddings and bar mitzvahs. Typically Jewish are the boulettes—meatballs, chicken balls, or fish balls—which are part of the Friday night meal. The night before Yom Kippur, the couscous is with chicken; during, Sukkot, there are sweet potatoes and raisins in the soup; at Rosh Hashanah there are more sweet ingredients—quinces, sweet potatoes, and yellow raisins—and nothing black—no olives and no eggplants.

In the past, families would buy whole hard wheat in big sacks and have it ground at the mill while they watched, to make sure that they got their own grain back. They could have it ground to different degrees of fineness. At home they sifted and separated it, then moistened it, and rubbed fine flour into it with their hands.

The cooking of the grain by steaming in a couscoussier—a pot made usually of aluminum but also of clay, with a steamer or strainer that fits on the top—was equally painstaking and time‑consuming. You started by moistening the grain with a little water, stirring in salt and oil, and airing it by picking it up and rubbing it between your hands over the bowl or putting it in a large sieve and throwing it up in the air. Then the grain was steamed in the top part of the couscoussier for one hour over a bubbling broth. After that it was turned into a large bowl and water was added. When the steaming grain was cold enough, it was rubbed between the hands so as to break up and separate any lumps. It was left for half an hour to absorb the water, then aired again by combing and turning it over lightly with the fingers, put back in the steamer and steamed for another half‑hour, and finally turned out to have any lumps broken up before serving.

You can understand why couscous is surrounded by mystique, and why its preparation arouses great passions among the people whose traditional cooking it is and also among those who have adopted it as a fashionable and exotic new food. When I was in America recently, I was pursued by a journalist who telephoned me in Boston and New York to find out if I thought processed, packaged couscous was acceptable and how I dealt with it. There was great controversy, it seemed, between California chefs and some famous food writers. I said I did not believe in being “plus royaliste que le roi” (more royalist than the king), or in making life difficult for myself or others. Anyway, nowadays, it is virtually impossible to find the unprocessed grain outside North Africa.

Today in North Africa, there are two types of commercially processed grain sold in packages—the precooked one, which is sold abroad, and one that is commercially “rolled” but not precooked. In 1993, I visited a couscous factory in Sfax. It was during an Oldways International Symposium which took us on a fabulous gastronomic tour of Tunisia. We were received with flags and welcome banners, and treated to a tasting of dozens of sumptuous couscous dishes—both savory and sweet—and to a demonstration by Berber women in exotic dress of the old traditional ways of rolling couscous by hand. Then the owner of the factory took us in small groups to see the processing of the grain—the grinding, steaming at great pressure, and drying. Earlier, American symposiasts had insisted that even the commercial grain needed to be steamed twice. When I asked the manufacturer what he advised, he said, “Once it has absorbed an equal volume of water, all you need really is to heat up the grain, either in a saucepan, in the oven, or a microwave, and to break up any lumps. If people steam it, it is because they are used to doing that. It is a ritual part of the culture.”

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Claudia Roden

Claudia Roden is one of England's leading food writers. Her works include the James Beard Award winning The Book of Jewish Food and A Book of Middle Eastern Food.