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« Memory of a Lebanese Village by Nadia | Main | Indian wedding feasts by Monica Bhide »

July 30, 2005

The March of Couscous by Farid Zadi

Typical_cuzcuz(Photo of Brazilian cuzcuz courtesy of Nana in Sao Paulo, Brazil)

Hard wheat semolina couscous is a Berber creation and the staff of life in the Magrhreb countries of Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco. One of the earliest written references is in an anonymous thirteenth century Moorish cookbook. There is some evidence that the style of cooking couscous  has it's origins in West Africa where couscous dishes are oftentimes made with millet.

There are written references on how  quickly couscous  spread to the Mashriq or Arab Levant, especially berkukis (semolina pasta balls) that later became called Maghribiyya meaning to make like the Maghrib  is a clear reference to it's origins.  A 13th century Syrian historian describes four recipes for couscous, one of them is called Maghribian.

Israeli couscous is toasted berkukis and is not an Israeli culinary invention, rather it is a marketing term invented in the 1950's by a firm in Tel Aviv. To suggest that it was 'invented' and not related to couscous, maghrbiyya or berkukis betrays ignorance of well documented historical facts. Most likely couscous and berkukis were introduced by Sephardic Jews into Israel.

Its spread into Europe began with the Moors from Algeria and Morocco who occupied the Iberian peninsula from the 8th-15th  centuries  and the Saracens from Algeria and Tunisia who ruled  Sicily from the 9th-11th centuries.

The Moors called couscous alcuzcuz. The Spanish Inquisition included purging the consumption of couscous but  a derivative dish called migas thrived long enough for the Spanish to take it to  Mexico. The Mexican dish called migas or migajas differs from the Spanish version, but is conceptually similar in that crumbs or tiny pieces of tortilla are used rather than bread as in Spanish versions. I'm still researching this, quite frankly I do not know much about it. Perhaps Rachel Lauden, an eminent food historian who has also signed up to be a co-author on this blog, will chime in with her knowledge.

In Portugal the upper classes still consumed couscous up to the 17th century. I have been unable to find any information regarding contemporary couscous consumption in Portugal.

I do know that Spanish and other European chefs are currently preparing nouvelle couscous dishes.

The Saracen influence in Sicily is still celebrated in what is called cucina-arabic sicula. There is even an annual Cous Cous Fest. Sicilian cuscusu is usually prepared with fish like in the Mediterranean coast of North Africa.

The Portuguese introduced cuscuz (also spelled cuzcuz) to Brazil where it has been consumed ever since and has led to very imaginative and elaborate spin off preparations including steamed cakes and puddings.

Couscous entered France long before the French invaded  North Africa.  Jean-Jacques Bouchard writes in 1630 of eating courcoussou in Toulon. Another reference is in a letter dated January 12, 1699 Charles de Clairambault  writes about a Moroccan ambassador and his entourage preparing couscousou in Brittany for Ramadan.

Couscous is so popular in France that in a quote that I've often mentioned a conservative French politician called it "Conquest by Couscous" which as a French chef of Algerian descent I find personally satisfying. North African ranks in the top five of favorite so called ethnic cuisines in countries such as Belgium, Germany and the U.K.

Instant semolina couscous is very popular with American consumers and new unusual flavored varieties seem to keep popping up. I'm not quite sure why this rather poor couscous is so popular. Clearly the demand for properly prepared couscous would be even greater.

I've been reading reports for at least 8 years that  North African cuisine will be the next big trend in America. I have no doubt that this will happen and that it will become a staple as it has in so many other countries. Slowly but surely it is entering the mainstream in America at different levels. There are the couscous joints that serve inexpensive fare usually to those from the source culture, the garish disco Riyad places with belly dancers, North-African French restaurants, cuscusi in Italian restaurants and of course North African inspired dishes in fine dining restaurants.

I will post couscous recipes from around the world.  I also invite readers to submit them.

(As a side note, there is an Indonesian dish called Nasi Kuskus, I wonder if someone can comment on a possible linguistic connection?)




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Hello Farid,
I came across your article while searching for a Brazilian sweet named "cuzcuz". I had it in Rio and loved it so much. My hostess said it's made of cracked rice, milk and sugar. I wonder if anyone has heard about it? And yes, I tasted the shrimp cuscuz which I didn't like much because of the tuna fish mostly. I'd much rather our "lentil balls" which has a similar texture and taste except for the fish and veggies in it.

I just read in 2 places that maftoul refers to Jordanian and Palestinian "super couscous" which has a bulgur wheat center and a flour shell. Previously, when I researched couscous I read in several places that maftoul also refers to Israeli and Lebanese couscous and it is made from semolina flour.
The word couscous applies to the process rather than the grain and couscous granules are made from semolina (coarsely ground durum wheat) or in some regions, from coarsely ground barley or pearl millet.
So on that note, regardless of which grain is used, maybe maftoul refers to the larger pearl couscous from the Middle East rather than which grain is used. Can anyone elaborate on this? To my understanding maftoul refers to Middle Eastern couscous which is large pearl, as opposed to the smaller grain Algerian or North African couscous. Maftoul is also called Palestinian, Israeli, Lebanese and Jordanian cous cous with slight variations within each country. Lebonese couscous is very large; the size of large peas, while Israeli couscous is the size of split peas, but basically maftoul refers to Middle Eastern large pearl couscous. If anyone knows differently I would like to know. Basically I am now confused about exactly what maftoul is. Is maftoul only the kind with a bulgar wheat center or is Israeli couscous also called maftoul? Is Israeli couscous made from semolina? The bag I have at home says "wheat flour" but semolina is wheat. If anyone knows, please educate me.

In the Aures mountains of Algeria the Shawi (local Berber language) word Abarbush (French spelling: Aberbouche or Berbouche) is used for Couscous. Arab speaking population around the area use the word Barbusha (French: Berboucha).

I've just found another variation of couscous. Jordanian and Palestinian "super couscous" called maftoul. It has a bulgur wheat center and a flour shell. There's a recipe here



Thank you and it's good to see you hear.

Kuskus is Arabic for Berber Seksu (there are variations of this in different dialects.) Couscous is the French spelling.

You would know better than I, but I have been told that nasi kuskus is cooked in a cone shaped woven bamboo container, especially made just for steaming rice, called a “pengukusan”.

Rice that is boiled is called nasi bubuh.

I doubt the Arabs introduced the cooking method, I could be wrong. But it's fun to think about the language connection a bit.

Thank you so much for starting this blog. Each entry is wonderfully fascinating, a pleasure to read and am learning a lot from them.

"Nasi Kukus" translates to steamed rice. I am no lingustic expert but it is possible that the word "kukus" could have been derived from the steaming of couscous since there have been Arab traders in the Malay archipelago for centuries.

I haven't read anything about fideos. I understand that couscous was banned because the dish was so representative of the Moors and Moriscos who stayed tried to continue eating it, especially on special occassions.

I've also read and have been told by reliable sources that Moriscos were forced to eat pork as a symbol of renouncing Islam.

Thanks so much Zadi for asking me to chime in. I have long wondered about migas (literally crumbs of the soft part of bread, figuratively pith, marrow, meat) in Mexican cooking.

They're there but they tend to lurk below the surface. They crop up in home-style food and street food, not in cookbooks.

In the 19th century, they were made into an elaborate kind of torta/savory cake or simply into a pap for children.

At present, in this region of Mexico at present the bits of pork that remain at the bottom of the huge copper pot in which pieces of pork are fried in their own fat are called migajas (same word). They are mixed into maize masa and made into fat little patties called gorditats. This is a long journey from al-Andalus!

So the Inquisition banned them or used them as a test. I didn't know that. I wonder if they tried the same with fideos, the thin noodles that remain so popular here and that are widely believed to have Arab origins.

Anyway, I will poke about a bit,

Rachel Laudan

Hi, dear Zadi.. thank you for showing the typical cuscuz from São Paulo. I am amazed with you long research about it. By the way, your blog is very good!! Shukran jazilan wa bossah!!

Very interesting Zadi! I can tell you why boxed instant couscous is so popular in America. It is not easy to find an American who knows how to make the wonderful thing that "real" couscous is and television Chefs/cooks just are not doing it! In the 70's there was an upswing in Moroccan cooking due to Madhur Jaffrey's PBS series on Morocco. It seems sadly that many of those making couscous then, are no longer.

I am hoping with my column to be a small part in a new upswing of real Maghribi/Moroccan home cooking.

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