Talk the Casbah

Couscous, the national dish of Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, is an excellent platform for any meal.

couscous 88 (photo credit: )
couscous 88
(photo credit: )
Nutritious and delicious alone or combined with almost anything, couscous is made from hard-wheat semolina, which is rolled by hand in a variety of consistencies and characteristics. A good couscous is characterized by a lack of lumps in the steamed semolina, and therefore hand-rolling semolina is considered an art. Semolina is the hard part of the grain of wheat. When hard wheat is ground, the floury part of the grain is cracked into its parts: the outer surrounding, with its proteins and mineral salts, and the central floury mass, which contains the gluten protein that gives hard wheat its unique properties for making couscous. Although the word couscous may be derived from the Arabic word kaskasa (to pound small), it is generally thought to come from one of the Berber dialects. Historians have different opinions as to the exact origin of couscous. Some claim that couscous, like pasta, originated from China; others trace its origin to East Africa. The most likely evidence, however, points to a North African origin - archaeological evidence dating back to the 9th century and consisting of utensils needed to prepare this dish was found in this part of the world. In the 11th century, the Arabo-Islamic conquest helped disseminate couscous all around the North-African region. Economic growth and the development of wheat farming further accelerated this expansion. Consumption of couscous continued to spread during the 20th century, driven by large waves of migration from North Africa to various European countries and especially France, where this dish became very popular. In fact, many surveys reveal that couscous is the second most-preferred dish among the French. South America became familiar with couscous as well, through the Portuguese community who emigrated from Morocco. The people of North Africa used to prepare their yearly supply of couscous in the fall. Because of the large amount of semolina to be sifted through different sieves, the event required a large congregation: family, neighbors and friends gathered to help roll the couscous. A meal of couscous also had important religious characteristics, marking important events in the lives of North African people, such as weddings and funerals. Couscous is also given as charity to poor people in order to gather blessing for the entire family. THE KEY to making an authentic couscous is patience and care. There are two basic steps in preparing couscous before the cooking process: forming the couscous and humidifying and drying the couscous. The rubbing process to form the couscous is done in a platter and then dried in a basket; afterwards it is transferred to a finer type of basket. After drying a bit, the couscous is returned to the platter for more rolling. The couscous is then sieved in three stages through sieves with progressively smaller holes. It is sieved numerous times to form a uniform grain. The couscous is then left for four or five days to dry in the sun on a white sheet, with occasional light sprays of water. It must be completely dry before storing. Preparing couscous from scratch is rarely done anymore, even by Moroccans, Algerians and Tunisians. Only poorer folk and Berber tribes still make couscous the old fashioned way. Today, modern couscous factories do all of this by machine, including the drying process. In 1969, Moroccan-born David Chriqui established Couscous Maison in Jaffa, where couscous was handmade and sun-dried in the traditional fashion. Mr. Chriqui's idea to set up the factory emerged after he failed to find a shop where he could buy a ready-made couscous and satisfy his youngest son's simple request for the beloved dish. As demand for his authentic product grew, David Chriqui expanded the factory, and in 1993 moved in to its present home in Netanya, where the process has become fully automated, untouched by human hands, and is based on the food industry's most advanced technologies. Couscous Maison has now launched a new line of whole-wheat couscous, containing the entire kernel of wheat, high in protein and vitamin-rich. This all-natural couscous is low in fat and made from only whole-grain durum flour. COUSCOUS is cooked in a special kind of cooking ensemble called a couscousie're, which consists of two parts. The bottom part is a pot-bellied vessel for the broth while the top part fits over the bottom part and has holes in its bottom for the steam to rise through and cook the couscous. An alternative to couscousie're can be made by placing a colander over a like-sized pot. Couscous is traditionally served as a complete meal with an elaborate stew of vegetables such as pumpkin, zucchini, beans, carrots, chickpeas, potatoes and a variety of accompaniments, which may include fish or meats. Here are some favorite authentic recipes from Couscous Maison: Easy no-cooking preparation: Pour contents of package into a wide saucepan. Add 3 Tbsp. oil, 1 tsp. soup powder and salt and seasoning to taste. Mix this mixture well. Add 2 cups boiling water, sauce or gravy. Mix well, cover and let stand for 5 minutes until liquid is absorbed. Uncover and using a fork, break up any lumps that have formed, separating the granules of couscous. Leave uncovered and let stand for an additional 5 minutes. Once more, use a fork to separate granules (optional: add Tbsp. olive oil) and serve as is, with additional sauce, or topped with chosen recipe. COUSCOUS AND VEGETABLES 1 package of couscous (350 gr.) 6 garlic cloves, crushed 2 medium sized onions 1/2 cup oil (olive oil recommended) 2 hot peppers, finely chopped 3 medium-sized zucchini 2 sweet green peppers, diced 1 sweet red pepper, diced 5 tomatoes, cooked, peeled and diced 1/2 head of white cabbage, cut in quarters 500 gr. squash 2 carrots, cut in half 250 gr. chickpeas, dry and soaked overnight, or canned Salt and pepper to taste Heat oil in a deep, wide pan. Add crushed garlic, whole onions and the rest of the vegetables, and cook on medium to high heat for about 10 minutes until golden brown. Add 2 liters of water, salt and pepper, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, add chickpeas, and cook for about 45 minutes. Prepare couscous according to instructions above. Place prepared couscous in a large, wide bowl. Spoon out the vegetables and place on top of the couscous. Pour over remaining sauce, and serve. Makes 4 to 6 servings. GRAPES, COUSCOUS, ROQUEFORT AND PECAN SALAD 2 branches of red grapes (about 50) 50 gr. Roquefort cheese 50 gr. pecans 1 celery stick, cut in strips 2 cups greens leaves 1/4 package whole wheat/regular couscous For the sauce: 2 Tbsp. olive oil Tbsp. lemon juice 1 tsp. mustard 1 tsp. balsamic vinegar 1 tsp. silan (date honey) Salt and pepper 2 leaves of basil Prepare couscous according to directions on the package. Half and seed the grapes, and dice the cheese to 1-cm. cubes. In a large bowl, put the green leaves, celery cheese, couscous and pecan. Mix all the sauce ingredients and pour on the salad. Makes 4 servings.