Couscous, Morocco’s Tasty Secret

Couscous, also spelled cous cous or cous-cous, is perhaps the only food that most people associate with Morocco. Indeed, couscous is a staple of not only Moroccan cuisine, but most of the Maghreb (northwest Africa, essentially Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya). Couscous is a food with a long history and it has become a part of various cuisines as its use has spread beyond the Maghreb. Couscous was brought to America mainly by Sicilian immigrants who shared in the Italian islands Arabic heritage.

What is couscous? Well, it’s not exactly a grain and not quite a pasta, though it IS made from grains of semolina (a coarsely ground type of durum wheat) about 1mm (1/16”) in size. These tiny round grains make an ideal base for stews, much as a bed of rice is used today. So popular is couscous in Morocco and the Maghreb, that in the areas where it has traditionally been used it goes by the name “ta`aam”, literally translated as “food”! My introduction to couscous came during a day-trip to Tangiers, Morocco during a vacation to southern Spain. A midday feast was laid out for us near the Tangiers Kasbah, with the main dish an enormous platter of couscous in which rested cooked sheep’s eyeballs! While not brave enough to sample the staring orbs, I did enjoy the couscous immensely. It had a delightful, somewhat nutty flavor that, as mentioned, is not quite a grain and not exactly a pasta.

The traditional method of making couscous is very time consuming and intensive, involving laborious hand-rolling of the tiny semolina grains with powdered semolina which are then sieved. The smaller grains that fall through the sieve are re-rolled with semolina powder and sieved again, and so on until there are no more leftover grains. The packaged couscous commonly available in supermarkets has been pre-steamed and dried. To cook couscous, you will need a steamer and the couscous should be steamed several times until it presents a light and fluffy aspect. Then serve: with stewed lamb, beef, chicken or seafood to your preference. One taste and you’ll know why this formerly obscure dish is making new friends around the world!