Couscous bought packaged in supermarkets is not a grain in itself. It is made from semolina, a coarsely ground durum wheat. Some couscous dishes however, are made from entire grains, such as barley, millet and corn.

A staple in most North African countries, it is usually served as the centrepiece of a meal that is accompanied by a moist dish, most notably a tagine. The name is derived from the cooking utensil traditionally used for its preparation, the couscousière, a double layered brass or copper pot that braises the tagine on the bottom and steams the couscous on the top. Information on when couscous was first made is scant, but Charles Perry from the Los Angeles Times believes it was around the eleventh or twelfth century.

Every packet couscous I have seen gives instructions to pour boiling liquid, either water or stock, directly onto the couscous. As shown by the couscousière, steaming is the traditional method. It allows the semolina to expand to its full fluffy size, providing a culinary delight rather than gut luggage. Couscousières are rather expensive and let's face it, it hardly has multiple uses in the kitchen, so here is a method using just a pot and a colander;

Place the desired amount of couscous (it will treble in volume once cooked) into a sieve and rinse under cold running water. Set aside for a few minutes and let some moisture absorb. Pour a good slug of olive oil into the palm of your hand and toss the now clumped couscous around and coat the granules in oil. Pour the couscous into a colander and set over a pot of simmering water. If your colander and pot don't make a tight fit, use a moist tea-towel to seal the gap. There is no need to cover the couscous. Once the first whisps of steam emerge from the surface of the couscous, steam for 15 minutes. Remove from the heat and dump into a bowl. Once cool enough repeat the oiled hands procedure, this time adding some sea salt. (This, as they say, can be done in advance). Put the couscous back into the colander and steam for another 15 minutes. Turn out again into a bowl, this time add a large knob of butter and check again for salt. Ready to go.

All packet couscous has been partially cooked, so the only way to get raw couscous is to make it yourself. If you are keen, it isn't that hard, and I have a © recipe that I will send you if you ask politely.

Here is a recipe for traditional Moroccan couscous. Actually, it's passed through two generations of Northern French so perhaps it ain't as traditional as I like to think (the leeks especially are quite suspicious). On the other hand, this is pretty much the dish you'd get if you asked for "couscous" in a North African restaurant in France. It's what my grandmother used to make, along with her famous pastries and crepes, when her grandchildren would visit from Australia.

This recipe assumes there will be 4 to 12 diners. The exact quantity of those ingredients which are not "per person" is pretty flexible, so just modify the recipe to taste. If you hate turnips, then leave them out or substitute somethng else.

Couscous is the kind of meal to make for a large dinner party with guests who appreciate good food. Much red wine should accompany the couscous.

Ingredients and Utensils

Per person:


You will also need:


The couscous:

  • Brown the meat in olive oil and salt it well (ie. rub salt all over it). If you're having only Merguez, then grill/fry your sausages.

  • Add all the vegetables, the chickpeas and the onions, as well as the herbs and spices (exept the Harissa).

  • Fill pot to 3/4 full of cold water and cook for at least two to three hours.

Ideally, you should soak the chickpeas for at least six hours prior to the cooking. If not, place them in cold water and boil for five minutes.

The semolina:

There are two main ways of preparing the grain for consumption. The first presumes that you don't own a couscousière, but the method would be pretty much the same if you did, just easier. Semolina should be prepared immediately prior to serving.

  • Place the grain in a large tea-towel and soak for two minutes in salty lukewarm water, then place the cloth in a metal colander and let it drain for twenty minutes.
  • Mix in 2 or 3 tbs of olive oil and a pinch of salt, then place the colander over either the couscous or a pot of boiling water.
  • Let steam for 10 to 15 minutes.
  • Fluff and separate the grains using a fork.
The second method in my opinion produces a more flavoursome grain, with less chance of oversaturation.

  • Bring water with a few teaspoons of butter and a pich of salt to the boil, then remove from heat.
  • Stir in an equal amount of semolina (eg: 250ml water = 250g grain), cover and allow to swell for two minutes.
  • Add the same amount of butter again and return to low heat for three minutes, all the while fluffing it and using a fork to separate the grains.

Always served piping hot. Red wine is the best drink to consume with couscous, though this is hardly what they would do in Morocco - quite possibly mint tea is the preferred accompaniment.

If you used the traditional method for the semolina, it is best to leave it in its teatowel (after it has been fluffed, of course) so that heat can be retained. Or, put it in a large salad bowl and cover it. Either way, add a knob of butter on top as you unveil it for all to see.

Each person serves themselves both the grain and the couscous. Traditionally, the harrissa is diluted in the ladle by each individual diner along with some broth and poured onto the cousocus. Alternately, a separate dish may be provided for this purpose, similar to the soy dish when one eats sushi.

Cous"cous` (k??s"k??s`), n.

A kind of food used by the natives of Western Africa, made of millet flour with flesh, and leaves of the baobab; -- called also lalo.


© Webster 1913.

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