fine couscous: on the left before adding water to fluff it & on the right after adding the water but before the first steaming. It will fluff up even more after the 1st steaming, adding more water, then the second steaming
The last guest post by my lovely friend Charles Perry on when camel meat was fashionable was such a success that I asked him if he would do another one and I asked if he would write about how far back in history he can trace couscous. I reckoned that it would very interesting to know given how popular couscous is and what a global ingredient it has become. So, here is Charles’ post, followed by two recipes, one for how to steam couscous, and another for the seven vegetable broth to serve with it. I like to make mine without meat and I often use baby vegetables for a nicer presentation but you may not find these easily.
“Look up the word for couscous in a couple of dozen Berber dictionaries and you’ll be surprised how many ways there are of pronouncing the basic Berber name for it, seksu. (If you’re a linguist, you’ll also wonder exactly how seksu could have become the Arabic kuskusu.)
Couscous is the North African staple food, of course. In some places the word for it is just the local word for food in general, utshu or tt’am. A larger variety of couscous is called by the Berber name berkukes, which has a prefix meaning “large,” or by the Arabic word muhammas, which means “made to resemble chickpeas.”
I love Pakistani food, but it is not often that I can have it well prepared. The Lahore Kebab House in London has expanded and is no longer as good as it used to be and Salloo’s is too expensive and too far from where I live. And I can’t go to Karachi (where I had fabulous food last year) every day, or even every year.
Luckily, I happen to be in Dubai where my brother, a fine gourmet, lives and he seems to have the best addresses. Today, he took me for lunch to Barbecue Delights, a rather charmless restaurant in an equally charmless part of town but where the cooking is just perfect. As usual, we ordered far too much: raita and salad before anything, then chicken tikka, mutton ribs, lamb chops to start, followed by lamb biryani, potatoes, spinach, daal, and kulfi to finish.
Every dish apart from the lamb chops (tough and not so tasty) was scrumptious but my favourite was the mutton ribs. They reminded me of my mother’s dale’ mehshi (ribs stuffed with rice and minced meat). After lunch my brother showed me where he lived, on the 41st floor of a tower opposite the DIFC overlooking a good chunk of Dubai and the sea. Sadly, the light was not so good but the photograph below gives you an idea of how amazing the place is. I guess there are some consolations to being here.
Near Lamcy Square, Oud Metha, Dubai, Tel: +971 4 335 9868 or 9870
It’s this time of the year again when everyone is getting excited because desert truffles are back in season. Well, at least in Syria and Lebanon whereas they are just over in the Arabian Gulf — I missed them by a week or so. Not that I was so sad to miss them. I can’t say I am a great fan of these prized nuggets of the desert. They are more about texture than either aroma or flavour, and the annoying thing is that however well you clean them, there will always be a few grains of sand left to spoil the bite.
But I did have them once, at the house of a friend in Aleppo, when they were not only totally delicious — stewed with meat and served with the most divine rice flavoured with cardamom — but also without any grit. She had used truffles that are much bigger than those in the pictures here which I snapped last week in Damascus, and the girls who helped her in the kitchen spent a lot longer cleaning them. There wasn’t a single grain of sand.
You can, if you want, buy them already cleaned but they never clean them well enough. They don’t want to lose any of the weight as they are very expensive, although nowhere near as expensive as either the black or white ones. In any case, I will not be buying them, either cleaned or still covered with earth. But if you are, ask for the darker truffles that are imported from Algeria. My Damascus grocer assures me they are far superior to the local ones. I guess they must be. They are twice as expensive.
I was on my way to the Iranian embassy in Bir Hassan, a funny area of Beirut where luxurious towers are built right next to hovels. Well, perhaps not quite next door but a street or two away, and I have to admit that I almost prefer the downmarket areas. They remind me of my life in Beirut before the war, when the city was not so over-developped and when street vendors pushed their carts, piled with seasonal produce, through the smartest and poorest quartiers alike, shouting at the top of their lungs: “yalla ‘a batikh’ (come and get watermelons) or yalla ‘a kussa (come and get courgettes) and so on. Their calls changed with the seasons and my siblings and I could almost guess, from listening to them, what my mother would cook that day.