Unbelievable that this pasta the size of a needle head can cause such an ecstatic culinary experience…
Whether it’s pronounced ‘ksks’, ‘seksu’ or ‘kuskusi’, any trip to North Africa would be incomplete without at least one traditional couscous feast. I remember in our early days of life in Morocco… hearing about this famous dish and the hard work that went into preparing it. I was puzzled as my mind’s eye traveled back to the Real Canadian Superstore where I had frequently purchased the little box of microwaveable magic which would yield its cup and a half of slightly-more-exotic pre-seasoned yummyness than could be found in the meat n’ potatoes options otherwise filling the aisles. How hard could this be??
Well, several years of couscous experience have come and gone and now I too appreciate the dedication needed in preparing this traditional dish! Apparently, couscous used to be hand-rolled by women who would sprinkle delicate drops of water into flour and roll them through their skilled hands until they formed the desired shape. Several Moroccan restaurants still boast ‘hand made couscous’ on their menus and I don’t want to be the skeptic but it looks and tastes a lot like the packaged stuff that most North Africans buy and prepare in their homes. THAT’S where the truest traditional treats can be found… in local abodes where women own special pots that proudly boil the spices, meat and vegetables on the bottom while simultaneously steaming the golden pasta which sits in its own special dish on top and is periodically removed and culled through by hand, gently dissipating unwanted clumps and adding butter or oil before being returned carefully in the steamer again.
Though the process in similar throughout the region, the outcome can vary drastically depending on where you travel. Moroccan couscous in rich in saffron colouring and usually consists of several irreplaceable vegetables… cabbage, carrots, potatoes, turnips, chickpeas and a piece of meat. The meat can be beef, chicken, mutton or just a little piece of animal for flavour… If you get to know a family well you may even have a chance to find a selection of ear or stomach lining in the common central dish 🙂 Some Moroccan couscous is even garnished with a sweet mixture of caramelized onions, raisins and cinnamon… delicious!
I remember the day when a new neighbour of mine here in Tunisia asked me if my family and I “ate red”…? I laughed as I knew the literal translation of what she was asking was almost certainly NOT what she meant! I’ve learned since that day that ‘eating red’ is what Tunisians do best! What saffron colour and flavour is to Moroccans, tomato and hot red pepper paste (called harissa) is to Tunisians. Most dishes do end up turning, well, RED and that includes arguably the nation’s favourite dish- couscous. There are usually less vegetables, more meat (or even seafood in coastal areas!) and the whole dish can be very spicy and, of course, tomato-red too.
Whatever your North African destination, you absolutely CANNOT leave without trying this culinary and cultural staple… Enjoy!