As it’s Friday and traditionally the day Moroccans (and most of North Africa) meet up after Friday prayers for a family couscous, here is a quick post about this great and now famous dish.
What is couscous?
Generally known in Morocco by the Berber name of “seksu”, it is the North African dish of small steamed balls of crushed durum wheat semolina that is traditionally served with a stew spooned on top. Other cereals can be cooked in a similar way and the resulting dishes are also sometimes called couscous.
It is a staple food throughout North Africa. Like curry in the UK, it is widely eaten in France and has been voted France’s favourite dish.
The term applies both to the name of the grain and of the dish itself.
Preparation of the couscous grain
The grain is traditionally made from the hard part of the durum, the part of the grain that resisted the grinding of the millstone. The semolina is sprinkled with water and rolled with the hands to form small pellets, sprinkled with dry flour to keep them separate, and then sieved. Any pellets that are too small to be finished granules of couscous fall through the sieve and are again rolled and sprinkled with dry semolina and rolled into pellets. This labor-intensive process continues until all the semolina has been formed into tiny granules of couscous. In the traditional preparation method, groups of women come together to make large batches over several days, which were then dried in the sun and used for several months. Handmade semolina may need to be re-hydrated as it is prepared; this is achieved by a process of moistening and steaming over stew until the couscous reaches the desired light and fluffy consistency.
In some regions couscous is made from farina or coarsely ground barley or pearl millet.
Most Moroccan households buy it in packets but is not the same as instant couscous that can be bought outside North Africa.
Preparing the couscous dish
The dish is prepared in a food steamer (a “couscoussier” in French). The grain is firstly spread out in a large flat ceramic dish and sprinkled with water to re-hydrate it, and vegetable oil. After leaving it for 10 minutes or so, you then work the grain with your fingertips until the water and oil and well absorbed.
The grain is then added to the top part of the steamer and is steamed over the “stew” which is cooking underneath. This process for the grain is then repeated at least 3 times during the cooking process and is the secret to obtaining light and fluffy couscous.
The stew part of the dish consists of vegetables, chick peas and spices. Chicken, lamb, beef or even fish in certain regions can be added but vegetarian couscous is very popular and is delicious.
There are many different types of the “couscous” dish in Morocco, depending on the region and culture and not only that but every Moroccan mother, grandmother or “chef” has his or her own take on the dish.
How is couscous served traditionally?
As I mentioned earlier, couscous is very much a family gathering dish and should be shared as much as possible. It is often served in a large ceramic dish and everyone eats from this communal dish. You can either eat the couscous with a spoon or the traditional method where you take a small amount of the grain in your hand, roll it into a ball with some pieces of vegetables and meat and then put it in your mouth.
A couscous meal is great fun in Morocco and is a moment of conviviality and gathering together of family and friends.
The best way to learn how to make proper couscous is to come to Morocco and learn with great cooks like Mouna Eddrou.
She runs very popular cooking classes from her guesthouse in Meknès, Riad Lahboul.
However, if you can’t make it to Meknès quite yet (!) but would like a recipe for couscous, contact me and I will send one through in either English or French.