Couscous: A North African Staple

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

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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.