If you’ve been to Morocco, but didn’t have couscous, then you haven’t been to Morocco. Not really. As Moroccan as mint tea, Morocco’s official dish can be found all over the Maghreb. While couscous pops up as a grain occasionally used in salads and side dishes here in the States, in Morocco, is it a complete meal with vegetables and meat. So popular is couscous, in fact, that it has spread to different parts of the world, where it is known as cuscusu in Italy, keskes in Senegal, and cuscuz in Brazil.
Couscous has most likely achieved its popular status because of its versatility. Different regions have their own varieties, the most well-known of which is the ‘Couscous with Seven Vegetables’ from the area around Casablanca. In mountain villages, it is not uncommon to find a simple bean stew poured over the grains to make a complete meal. In Essaouira, couscous is made from corn meal, and often accompanies fish with vegetables. The region around Marrakech, where squash and gourds grow bountifully, is known for its pumpkin couscous.
Couscous can also be made as a sweet dish, with flavored waters, sugars, and cinnamon. Seffa is a well-known couscous dessert, made with milk, almonds, and cinnamon, mounded into a conical shape, and adorned with more cinnamon, sugar, and almonds. In Morocco, couscous can be mixed with dried fruits and nuts and stuffed into the cavities of small birds such as pigeons or Cornish hens, known as ‘coquelets,’ for special occasions.
Couscous has most likely achieved its popular status because of its versatility.
Couscous is made from semolina, the hard part of the hard wheat grain that resists grinding. In fact, it has been speculated that couscous derived its name from the Arabic word kaskasa, which means ‘to grind small.’ The grain most likely got its moniker, however, from the kiskis, the Arabic name for the perforated earthenware pot used to steam it. In these modern times, the best equipment with which to steam couscous is a French invention similar to the traditional kiskis: the couscousiére.
Cooking couscous in the traditional way is an exact art, and can be an almost spiritual experience. Patience is required, but that particular virtue pays off with multiple dividends when it comes to couscous. A large steamer (if a traditional couscousiére is unavailable,) that seals completely to the pot below is a must. Cheesecloth dipped in a simple paste of flour and water can be used around the edges of the pot to ensure a tight seal, if needed. Double cooking duty can be achieved, here, as the water in the bottom pot can also include meat, spices, and vegetables. Not only does this create a tasty stew to serve atop the couscous, it also seasons the couscous grains as they cook.
Cooking couscous in the traditional way . . . can be an almost spiritual experience.
The couscous should be pre-washed, and allowed to swell for several minutes in clean water. When the actual cooking process begins, the couscous will undergo a pattern of steaming, followed by soaking up more water, at least twice before it is ready. Manually working through the couscous to separate the grains— with clean hands, of course — is also part of the process, and some liken the relaxing feeling that ensues to that of kneading bread dough.
Making couscous, or tasting it at a local eatery that specializes in Moroccan or Mediterranean food, is a simple and delicious way of experiencing Morocco without leaving the country. If you should be so fortunate to visit Morocco, make sure that a local couscous specialty is one of the first dishes you try. When you have tried it once, try it again. And again. And again.
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