There’s so much more to couscous than just a quick-cooking starch. With its different varieties and exceptional ability to take on flavors, couscous is a highly adaptable and integral component of dishes in North African and Middle Eastern cuisines and around the world. Let’s get to know this simple-yet-versatile staple.
Origin: North Africa
Often served: Traditionally served with a stew of meat and/or vegetables spooned on top
Commonly used in: Maghrebi cuisines of Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Mauritania, and Libya; also France, introduced by Maghreb immigrants
Where to buy: In the rice or grains grocery store aisle(s) or the international foods section
What is Couscous?
Despite its grain-like appearance, couscous is technically a pasta made of durum wheat semolina that’s been rolled into tiny granules. While the traditional method of preparing couscous involves a relatively lengthy process of steaming and separating the granules, the pre-steamed and dried “instant” variety of couscous that’s commonly sold in the U.S. requires simply steeping in boiling water for a matter of minutes.
The term “couscous” can refer to both the granules themselves and a complete main dish, topped with stew. In North Africa, where couscous originated, couscous is an entire meal. “You would never be served a bowl of plain couscous in Morocco,” says Amanda Ponzio-Mouttaki, founder of MarocMama.com and owner of Marrakech Food Tours.
Varieties of Couscous
There are three main varieties of couscous:
- Moroccan couscous: This variety is made from tiny, steamed granules of semolina.
- Israeli couscous: Despite the name, Israeli couscous (known as ptitim in Hebrew) isn’t actually couscous. Instead, it’s comprised of tiny toasted balls of pasta, which were first created in Israel in 1953 as a wheat-based substitute for rice.
- Lebanese couscous: Also known as Moghrabieh or pearl couscous, this pea-sized semolina pasta is the largest variety of couscous.
What Does Couscous Taste Like?
On its own, couscous has a nutty flavor, but it can also absorb the flavors of the stock in which it’s boiled or the aromatics over which it’s steamed. The Moroccan variety of couscous is very light and fluffy, while the pearl-style Israeli and Lebanese couscous varieties have a chewy texture.
Where to Buy Couscous
You can find Moroccan and Israeli couscous, from a wide variety of brands, in most general grocery stores, often in the rice and grains aisle or with international foods. For Lebanese couscous, check international markets or online at Amazon and other retailers.
How to Store Couscous
Keep couscous in an airtight container or glass jar in a cool and dry place, such as your pantry. Avoid exposing couscous to moisture or heat. Stored properly, it should last several months past its “best by” date.
How to Prepare Instant Couscous
To make the instant couscous commonly sold in the U.S., you simply add one part couscous to one part boiling stock or water, and let it sit, covered, for 10 to 15 minutes until the liquid is absorbed.
Then you fluff the couscous with a fork. From there, you can top it with any meat, seafood, or vegetables that you like.
Making Traditional Couscous
In North Africa, preparing couscous takes quite a bit more effort but results in an exceptionally light and fluffy base for family-style stews. Amanda Ponzio-Mouttaki describes how cooks in Morocco make couscous:
“Couscous is traditionally cooked is in something that looks like a double-boiler, called a couscoussier. The top has holes in it―like a colander, but smaller. The bottom part is like a stockpot. In the bottom is where you make the base, which is always vegetables, aromatics, and meat, if you’re using it, and water. That all boils.
Then there’s the couscous. It’s not cooked on the stove or boiled in water; it’s steamed. There’s a large clay plate―we call it a kesseriat in Morocco―and you add your couscous, salted water, and maybe some olive oil. You get it damp, kind of saturated with water. Then the couscous is put in the top part of the pot, with a lid.
While the base cooks in the bottom part it steams the couscous on top. After about 20 or 25 minutes, the couscous gets tipped out back into that clay kesseriat, and you pick it up and separate the grains with your fingers, so it doesn’t clump together. You add enough water to re-saturate it and steam the couscous again for another 20 to 25 minutes. Dump it out again. You do this at least three times. By the third steaming, it’s usually done.”
Recipes That Use Couscous
Couscous provides a flavorful base for comfort dishes as well as lighter salads. Give these couscous recipes a try: