Couscous or kuskus consists of spherical granules which are made by rolling and shaping moistened semolina wheat and then coating them with finely ground wheat flour.
The finished grains are about 1 mm or 1/26th inch in diameter (before cooking).
Traditional couscous requires considerable preparation time and is usually steamed.
In many places, a more processed quick-cook couscous is available and is particularly valued for its short preparation time.
The dish is the primary staple food throughout the Maghreb in much of Algeria, eastern Morocco, Tunisia, and Libya. It is also popular in the West African Sahel, in France, Madeira island, in western Sicily's Trapani province, and parts of the Middle East.
It is quite popular among numerous other locations in the world as well.
Couscous is traditionally served under meat or vegetable stew. It can also be eaten alone, flavoured or plain, warm or cold, as a dessert or a side dish.
The couscous granules are made from semolina (coarsely ground durum wheat) or, in some regions, from coarsely ground barley or pearl millet.
The semolina is sprinkled with water and rolled with the hands to form small pellets, sprinkled with dry flour to keep the pellets separate, and then sieved.
The pellets which are too small to be finished grains of couscous, fall through the sieve to be again sprinkled with dry semolina and rolled into pellets.
This process continues until all the semolina has been formed into tiny grains of couscous. Sometimes salt is added to the semolina and water.
This process is very labour intensive. Traditionally, groups of women would come together and make a large batch of couscous grains over several days. These would then be dried in the sun and used for several months. Couscous was traditionally made from the hard part of Titicum durum wheat, the part of the grain that resisted the grinding of the relatively primitive millstone.
In modern times, couscous production is largely mechanized, and the product is sold in markets around the world. Today, in Egypt and the Middle East, couscous is known, but in Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, and Western Libya couscous is a staple.
When properly cooked couscous should be light and fluffy it should not be gummy or gritty. Couscous is steamed two to three times. The traditional North African method is to use a steamer called a kiskas in Arabic, or couscoussire in French. The base is a tall metal pot shaped rather like an oil jar in which the meat and vegetables are cooked in a stew. On top of the base a steamer sits where the couscous is cooked, absorbing the flavours from the stew. The lid to the steamer has holes around its edge so that steam can escape. It is also possible to use a pot with a steamer insert. If the holes are too big the steamer can be lined with damp cheesecloth.
There is little archeological evidence of early use of couscous, mainly because the original couscoussire was probably made from organic material which would not survive.
The couscous has been pre-steamed and dried, the package directions usually instruct to add it to a little boiling water in a pot and covering for 5 minutes to make it ready for consumption. Another quick and easy method is to prepare it by placing the couscous in a bowl and pouring the boiling water or stock over the couscous, then covering the bowl tightly.
The couscous swells and within a few minutes is ready to fluff with a fork and serve.
Pre-steamed couscous takes less time to prepare than dried pasta or grains such as rice.
Couscous with vegetables.
In Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco, couscous is generally served with vegetables (carrots, turnips, etc.) which are cooked in a spicy or mild broth or stew, and some meat (generally, chicken, lamb or mutton). In Morocco, couscous can also be topped with fish in a sweet sauce with raisins and caramelized onions in some parts of Libya fish and squid are also used.
The stew in Tunisia is red with a tomato and chili base, whereas in Morocco it is generally yellow.
In Morocco it is also served, sometimes at the end of a meal or just by itself, as a delicacy called 'Seffa'. The couscous is usually steamed several times until it is very fluffy and pale in colour. It is then sprinkled with almonds, cinnamon and sugar. Traditionally, this dessert will be served with milk perfumed with orange blossom water, or it can be served plain with buttermilk in a bowl as a cold light soup for supper.
Couscous is very popular in France, where the word 'couscous' usually refers to couscous together with the stew. Packaged sets containing a box of quick-preparation couscous and a can of vegetables and, generally, meat are sold in French grocery stores and supermarkets.
In North America and Great Britain couscous is available most commonly as either plain or pre-flavoured, quick-preparation boxes.
In the United States it is widely available but largely confined to the ethnic or health food section of larger grocery stores. In the United States, couscous is known as a type of pasta. However in most other countries it is considered a distinct type of cereal food in its own right.
There are also recipes from Brazil that use boiled couscous molded into timbale with other ingredients.
Spyros Peter Goudas
Σπύρος Πήτερ Γούδας