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What is couscous?

Couscous, a staple of North Africa and a national dish in several countries (Tunisia, Libya, Algeria, Morocco), has its roots in the Berbers. The oldest traces of manufacture (a sort of couscoussier) were found in Kabylia. In the strict sense, couscous is the seed obtained by agglomeration of wheat semolina, fine, medium or large. Couscous is often accompanied by a vegetable broth called “marka”. It can also be served with curd called “ben”.

What is the etymology of the word “couscous”?

According to an etymology advanced by Salem Chaker [Algerian academic, doctor of letters, specialist in Berber linguistics, professor of Berber universities at the National Institute of Oriental Languages ​​and Civilizations – INALCO – in Paris], the word couscous comes from the Berber whose basic form is “k’seksu” which designates both durum wheat semolina and the popular dish of which it is the basic ingredient. The name “couscous” was given to the preparation traditionally made in an earthen dish.

Some believe that it comes from an onomatopoeia referring to the breath and rattling of semolina grains when rolled up on hand. Others believe that it could be derived from the Arabic classic “kaskasah” which means “crush, crush,” the Arab ” kiskis ” designating the steamer used for its cooking or even sound emitted by steam during cooking. . It could also come from an Arabic word meaning the beak that the bird gives to its young.

Most of Algeria, eastern Morocco and Libya also call this dish طعام, or “ta`aam”, that is to say food. In the east of the Algerian country, it is called “barbucha”, deriving from the Berber “aberbuc” meaning large grains.

What is the origin of couscous? 

Historians are divided on the exact origin of couscous and on the date of its appearance in the Maghreb: some of them affirm that it would be from China, others from East Africa (Sudan via the Egypt); in Sudan, pilpil and “couscous” of millet or sorghum were cooked in woven baskets subjected to steam in the same way that today semolina of wheat or barley is cooked in the colander of couscoussier .

But the most widespread and plausible thesis is that of the appearance of couscous in North Africa where archaeological excavations have revealed the presence of kitchen utensils dating from the 9th century which very closely resemble the main cooking tool. couscous which is couscous. A researcher dates his origins between -238 and -149 BC. BC, while another states that it appeared that between the XI th and XIII th century between the end of the Dynasty Zirid and the start of the Almohad Dynasty.

The expansion of couscous took place from the 11th century thanks to the commercial development of this region, and in particular the development of wheat crops, brought by the Arab-Muslim conquests. Under the Roman Empire, wheat was mainly cultivated in the colonies of North Africa, the Near East and Sicily. These regions act as foster granaries.

This is how couscous was brought and spread in sub-Saharan Africa, Andalusia and the Mediterranean region in general. Couscous has spread from the Maghreb to Egypt, sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. This dish was introduced in the Iberian Peninsula in the XIII th century when it became popular among the Moors. A period of Muslim domination, between 829 and 1063, may be behind the introduction of couscous in Sicily. Portugal has introduced the commodity in the XVI th century in its Brazilian colony where he remains an important dish for breakfast today.

The French discovered it under Charles X at the time of the conquest of Algeria. Couscous ranked second in 2006 among French favorites.

The expansion of couscous continued and knew an important push during the XXème century thanks to the successive waves of immigration from North Africa towards many European countries, and in particular in France where this dish became with wire very popular years.

Fantastic beliefs related to couscous

It is said that to make someone fall in love with a spell, just roll the couscous with “moon water” or with the hand of a recently buried corpse. It is the witches who, at nightfall, haunt cemeteries to engage in such macabre practices …

The virtues lent to couscous

It brings God’s blessing to all who consume it.

Like bread, he wears baraka (luck).

Superstitious women secure the fidelity of their husbands for the coming year if they serve them a couscous in which they have hidden the most tender pieces of the sheep’s tail.

The place of couscous in the community

The image we retain of couscous is that of a woman (mother or grandmother) who, “sitting on the ground, on a sheepskin, bent right leg and elongated left leg, the back against the wall with all the utensils at hand, ”rolls the golden grains with repetitive gestures.

Couscous takes on a cultural dimension in the Maghreb countries which can be described as identity. Just as pasta or rice are basic foods for Italians or Chinese, couscous represents for the people of the Maghreb a basic food and an identity pillar. Couscous has long been the “national dish” of North Africa. For everyone, it is part of daily and religious life and accompanies all the major events in life. Its preparation and tasting are always a celebration.

To discover a Berber tale around the theme of couscous

Couscous is a gastronomic symbol in the Algerian and Maghreb tradition: festivity, marriage, circumcision, offerings, deaths … It creates a meeting, reunion. It is also a bond that strengthens friendship and further strengthens family alliances. It also means links and connections. It means sharing and solidarity. Couscous is the dish of sharing, therefore of hospitality and generosity. It refers to the founding principle of all human communities, solidarity.

On many occasions, couscous is present in the life of the community: 

– Couscous for celebrations, weddings, baptisms or circumcision: these dishes are the product of a long socio-cultural process which has its origins in the past; on these occasions, couscous and tradition are strongly intertwined.

– Couscous of cities, mountains, desert. Couscous of the rich and the poor. Couscous from the Maghreb, immigration and the beyond. Couscous adapts to the specific means and living conditions of each family and each community, which explains its permanence and its capacity to evolve. The spirit of sociability and conviviality characterizes this dish of sharing par excellence.

Couscous also means authenticity. So, couscous will remain forever in our memories, in our songs, on our palate.

Couscous varieties in the Maghreb

It is called Seksou in Kabylia, Taberbouchet in the Aurès, Taâm among the Ouled-Naïl, lem’hawar among the people of Mila and Naâma among those of Constantine. In the Chenoua region, we even make Taâm oubeloout or “acorn-based couscous”. The couscous will be accompanied by a sauce called “marga” made of vegetables such as tomatoes, onions, cougettes, turnips, garlic, beans, chickpeas, white or red meat and condiments (ras el hanout, coriander, pepper, salt or even chili to have a spicy kitchen). The people of the Littoral as in Collo have the specialty of couscous with grouper.

At each ceremony, its own couscous.

There is honey and raisin sweet mesfouf, or seffa with butter, raisins, cinnamon, orange blossom and hulled almonds in the west of the country. There is the couscous of brownish color called “lemziet” which the townspeople of Constantine love. Pied-noir has become accustomed to couscous-merguez borrowed from Jewish culinary art.

The couscous with the seven vegetables is part of the offerings that the Berbers put to celebrate Yennayer ( Berber New Year) . There is also the preparation of couscous with large grains cooked with the feet of the ram or the calf butchered on the occasion of Eid El-Kebir (El Adha).

The manufacture of couscous grains

Couscous is a food made of rolled durum wheat semolina grains about one millimeter in size and steamed and then dried.

Durum wheat (triticum durum) is generally used for the production of semolina. This is genetically distinct from common wheat, also called wheat, which, crushed into flour, forms the basis for making bread and pizzas.

Traditional manufacturing required the use of a large workforce. In the tradition, it is a group of women who gathered and made a batch of couscous grains for several days.

During the manufacturing, the semolina is sprinkled with water, then rolled with the hands to form small balls which are sprinkled with dry semolina in order to keep them separated.

The pellets are then sieved. The grains passed through the sieve are again sprinkled then rolled into pellets and finally sieved. The process continues until the semolina is completely transformed into couscous.

How do you cook couscous?

Couscous is made up of two thirds of semolina for one third of a mixture of flour, salt and water. Its preparation begins with rolling semolina with both hands to which salt water is added. Then add flour, while the mixture is dewatered by hand, in an earthen container. Small grains are separated during this process. Oil is then added when the grains have reached the right size, which completes its preparation: all that remains is to add the meat and vegetables.

Once this first step is completed, cooking of the couscous can begin. The couscous undergoes two to three steaming cycles to obtain a light and tender grain texture.

In North African traditions, couscoussière is used: meat and vegetables are cooked in the lower bowl while the semolina gently swells in the upper bowl under the effect of steam.

Traditionally, couscous is prepared with a single type of meat, because the broth and semolina which is steamed soak up its aroma (couscous with lamb, fish, chicken …).

In Morocco, we traditionally celebrate weddings and religious ceremonies by eating couscous prepared with seven varieties of vegetables including potatoes, carrots, zucchini and dried fruit cooked separately with honey.

The “masfouf” is a sweet couscous accompanied by currants. Butter couscous is the sweet variant of couscous.

The presentation is done separately in two dishes. The couscous is served on a deep plate, then pour a ladle of sauce over it and decorate the middle of the plate with vegetables and pieces of meat.

Couscoussier: essential utensil!

Originally, the couscoussier was a thick earthenware dish with large adaptable holes above a pot containing water. It allowed a perfect cooking of couscous. The food cooked in the clay objects of yesteryear had a particular, more natural taste probably coming from the material with which the objects were made.

The nutritional virtues of couscous

The health benefits of couscous have always been recognized due to the balanced combination of cereals, vegetables, meats, poultry or fish.

For North Africans, the consumption of couscous combined with meat and vegetables has always been a balanced and healthy food. Durum wheat or barley couscous and vegetables contain protective substances, certain vitamins, fiber and many other beneficial elements.

In the past, couscous was made from barley semolina and accompanied by vegetables or whey. This time is far away and the Maghreb housewife rarely ventures today to prepare a barley couscous because of the length and the pain of its preparation.

The many dietary qualities of barley are recognized: benefits of fiber and “resistant starch” with a “regulatory” function on blood sugar, intestinal function and blood cholesterol.