Couscous steamed in my battered old couscoussier.
Couscous is the national dish of the Magreb, the area of North Africa comprising Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. It’s a long simmered stew of assorted vegetables, cut into large chunks along with meat (generally lamb or in Tunisia, often fish), spiced perhaps with cinnamon or saffron. The stew is served over a “grain” confusingly also called couscous and doused with the cooking broth. Statistics show it’s the third most popular dish in France, just as Chicken Tikka Masala is Britain’s most popular dish (and in Australia, it could be pasta).
This “grain” is made from semolina, the “hard” interior of durum wheat. Semolina is rolled with dampened hands to form tiny, tiny balls. Tell your conservative old uncle it’s really like mini pasta. Women used to gather together to make large batches, which they dried and stored for months until needed.
Today, you can buy “instant”, packet couscous, machine made, pre-steamed, dried, ready to go. Most likely it will become a salad base, like tabouli or a quick alternative to rice. And that’s where the trouble starts.
Couscous should be light and fluffy and smell like freshly baked bread. It is not damp, sticky, gluggy and washed out.
The packet can be a quick fix but the instructions are vague and you won’t know what the final result should look and taste like. (See post “Cooking outside my culture” 5 October 2017) If you’re serious, cook it properly once and then do it the fast food way but at least you’ll know what to aim for.
Cooking couscous (the “grain”)
Only a couscous nerd will do this every time but as I said before, just once will show you what real couscous is like.
As children, we hoped there would be enough grain for the following day to eat it reheated with nuts (pistachios), cinnamon, dates and sultanas.