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couscous copy couscous-fluffed up copy

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.”

There are even more names – stop me or I’ll go on and on. My favorite is the very small variety called rus el-neml, “ants’ heads.” (It’s an old comparison. Pedro de Alcala’s 15th century dictionary of Granada Arabic translated cuzcuzu as hormigos de massa.)

In some Berber dialects, couscous has the interesting name afettal, which comes from the Arabic verb meaning to twist or spin with the addition of a Berber prefix. (The word has been around so long that it has developed an irregular plural, ifathlen.) Couscous granules are created by sprinkling salted water into a bowl of flour and running your fingers through it, and people evidently thought this process resembled twisting or spinning.

However, in the 13th-century Moorish book Fadalat al-Khiwan, muhammas is not a couscous – it’s an ordinary soup noodle, made by kneading dough until stiff (“as for fidaush,” the text says, using the Spanish word fideos) and twisting it (yufattal) with the fingers until you have little round balls like peppercorns. Twisting in the more usual sense, that is.

It adds, “It may also be twisted en masse (yufattal jumlatan) the way zabzin is twisted, for him who wishes to accomplish it quickly.” The book has already described zabzin, which was what the Andalusians called berkukes, and it has compared its granules to “small chickpeas,” which brings us back to that name muhammas.

In other words, muhammas could be either a small soup noodle or a large couscous. For that matter, the 13th-century Syrian cookbook Al-Wusla ila al-Habib gives recipes for two kinds of couscous: “couscous of the North Africans,” which is the usual granules made by stirring the fingers through a bowl of flour, and a “couscous” which was a small soup noodle made by kneading.

This medieval ambiguity about couscous and soup noodles still exists. In Kabylia and the Mzab oases of Algeria, Berbers make berkukes-sized balls of dough by the noodle process, kneading rather than stirring, and they call them tihemzin, a Berberized pronunciation of muhammas. But elsewhere in Algeria, the same word (now pronounced mhammsa in Arabic, tikhemzin in Tuareg) means a large-granule couscous like berkukes.

This may explain how couscous was invented in the first place – as a way of making granules “en masse, for him who wishes to accomplish it quickly.” In other words, as a hasty shortcut.
Pretty soon, though, people realized that steamed couscous is far more elegant than noodles, and couscous became a North African addiction. Already in the 14th century they were telling a story about a North African visitor to Damascus who was dying of a mysterious illness until the Prophet Muhammad appeared to somebody in a dream and told him, “Feed him couscous.” The North African immediately recovered, of course.”

Thank you Charles. I am assuming mhammas and moghrabbiyeh (the Lebanese couscous which is erroneously referred to and sold as Israeli couscous) are more or less the same. In any case, here are the recipes:

Couscous (Kseksu)

There is no comparison between the steamed couscous that people use in Morocco and other North African countries and the pre-cooked “instant” one that most people use in the west. The former is finer with a slight crunch even when you reheat it while the pre-cooked is rather mushy. Most people in Europe or America expect couscous to be served as a side dish with tagines but, in North Africa, couscous is always served with its own special accompaniments (either a vegetable and meat broth, a fish stew or chicken with onion and raisins) and never as a side dish.  Serves 4-6

2 1/2 cups (500 g) fine uncooked couscous

sea salt

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons butter, melted

1 – Put the couscous in a shallow mixing bowl. Dissolve 1 teaspoon sea salt in 2/3 cup water and sprinkle, the salted water over the couscous, stirring the grain with your fingers and breaking up any lumps. When the couscous has soaked up all the water, stir in the oil.

2 – Put the couscous in the top part of your couscoussière or steamer lined with a cheese cloth if the holes are too big and set over the bottom part filled with either boiling water or the broth to be served with the couscous (see following recipe). Ideally no steam should escape from the bottom pan, so, if necessary, wrap a strip of cloth around the edge of the pan before slotting in the top. Steam the couscous, covered, for 20 minutes

3 – Tip the couscous into a bowl and sprinkle, again little by little, with another 2/3 cup water, this time using a wooden spoon as the grain will be too hot for your hand. Add the melted butter and stir well. Leave, covered with a clean kitchen cloth, for 15 minutes to fluff up.

4 – Put the couscous back into the top part of the couscoussière and set over the pan of boiling liquid. Steam, uncovered, for a further 10-15 minutes or the last 10-15 minutes of the cooking time of the broth. Tip the couscous into a large serving bowl and arrange into a mound. Garnish with the following recipe and serve hot.

Couscous with Seven Vegetables (Kseksu Bidawi)

A very versatile broth that you can prepare with or without meat. You can also replace the meat with chicken. Whichever way you choose to make it, it will be good. I rather like the delicate, clean taste of the meatless version. You can vary your choice of vegetables according to what is in season: pumpkin, artichoke hearts, peas and sweet potatoes, to name a few, are all good substitutes for any of the vegetables listed below. Serves 4-6

1/3 cup chickpeas soaked overnight with 1/2 teaspoon baking soda

good pinch saffron threads

2 medium onions, quartered

1 2/3 cups finely chopped canned tomatoes with their juice

1 1/2 teaspoons finely ground black pepper

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

the heart of 1/2 a small cabbage, cut lengthways into 4 wedges

2 medium carrots, cut across in half, quartered lengthways and cored

1 medium zucchini, cut across in half and quartered lengthways

2 medium turnips, peeled and quartered

1 cup fresh or frozen fava beans

1/4 cup finely chopped cilantro

1/4 cup finely chopped flat-leaf parsley, and a little more for the garnish

1/3 cup seedless raisins

sea salt

chili powder or harissa (optional)

1 – Drain and rinse the chickpeas and put in the bottom half of a couscoussière or steamer together with the saffron, onion and tomatoes. Add 1 1/2 litres water and the pepper and bring to the boil over a medium heat. Then add the olive oil and butter. Cover and simmer for 30 minutes. Start preparing the couscous following the instructions in the precious recipe.

2 – When the time is up, add the cabbage to the pan and cook, covered, for a further 15 minutes. Then add the rest of the vegetables, together with the herbs, raisins and salt to taste. Put the couscous to steam uncovered for the second time, for 10-15 minutes, or until the vegetables are ready. Transfer the couscous to a serving dish and arrange into a pyramid. Taste the broth and adjust the seasoning if necessary then arrange the vegetables on top of the couscous. Sprinkle with a little broth and garnish with the remaining chopped herbs. Serve immediately with more broth on the side which you can spike with a little chili or harissa if you like your couscous spicy.

recipes @anissa helou, from Mediterranean Street Food

There is 9 comments on this post

  • Warning: Undefined array key 36 in /data/40/0/131/109/783598/user/802494/htdocs/anissahelou/wp-content/themes/Anissa/functions.php on line 377

    i really love reading these kinds of posts- rich in history with lovely recipes as well, charles has written a wonderful piece here. i wonder how people started to take short-cuts, i thought that was an invention of the 21st century! i love the addition of saffron threads to the couscous. x shayma

  • Warning: Undefined array key 36 in /data/40/0/131/109/783598/user/802494/htdocs/anissahelou/wp-content/themes/Anissa/functions.php on line 377

    thanks shayma. and yes, charles is great. not sure when they started the short cuts but i can assure you that the real couscous is completely different from the instant one, which i never eat or serve obviously. xx

  • Warning: Undefined array key 36 in /data/40/0/131/109/783598/user/802494/htdocs/anissahelou/wp-content/themes/Anissa/functions.php on line 377

    There’s absolutely no mention of couscous in historical sources before the 13th century, so I assume it was invented by the Berbers of northern Algeria and Morocco in the obscure period between the collapse of the Zirid Kingdom in the 11th century and the rise of the Almohads in the 13th. Maybe people often found themselves in a hurry during unsettled times.
    You’re right, Anissa, moghrabiyyeh is the Syrian name for couscous. When granules are that size, they’re often boiled a bit after steaming because it takes so long to cook them through.
    And you’re also right, instant couscous is boring, it’s just mush.

  • Warning: Undefined array key 36 in /data/40/0/131/109/783598/user/802494/htdocs/anissahelou/wp-content/themes/Anissa/functions.php on line 377

    Of course, in Algerian folklore, they say that couscous was invented by the Djinn.
    I want to start a rumor that it has something to do with crop circles.

  • Warning: Undefined array key 36 in /data/40/0/131/109/783598/user/802494/htdocs/anissahelou/wp-content/themes/Anissa/functions.php on line 377

    i like this charles. let’s start the rumour here. i will post a recipe for moghrabbiyeh, but i really need to take a picture first. we soak or boil the moghrabbiyeh first, then cook it with the sauce like with risotto, adding the broth little by little, until the moghrabbiyeh softens but not to a mush like with instant couscous. i’ll make you my steamed couscous with baby vegetables when you are in london in july.

  • Warning: Undefined array key 36 in /data/40/0/131/109/783598/user/802494/htdocs/anissahelou/wp-content/themes/Anissa/functions.php on line 377

    Fantastic read! Thank you for the post….

  • Warning: Undefined array key 36 in /data/40/0/131/109/783598/user/802494/htdocs/anissahelou/wp-content/themes/Anissa/functions.php on line 377

    For couscous the mouvie is:

    La graine et le mulet/The Secret of the Grain
    “….The French title of the film refers to a “grain of couscous” and to mullet, a type of small fish, both popular in Tunisian cuisine. The two ingredients constitute both the staple of his extended family’s diet and the menu on which he plans to establish his restaurant.”

  • Warning: Undefined array key 36 in /data/40/0/131/109/783598/user/802494/htdocs/anissahelou/wp-content/themes/Anissa/functions.php on line 377

    i saw that film and liked bits but not all of it. loved the belly dance at the end 🙂

  • Warning: Undefined array key 36 in /data/40/0/131/109/783598/user/802494/htdocs/anissahelou/wp-content/themes/Anissa/functions.php on line 377

    Yes !
    about belly dance:
    the girl has l great force,power
    force with the eye and body
    she won the award for most promising actress at the César Awards 2008

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