October 5, 2005


Marrakesh express: Couscous done right (think steam) opens up a world of delicious possibilities. (Charles Perry, October 5, 2005, LA Times)

COUSCOUS is one of the world's most extraordinary foods, more delicate than any gnocchi, light as a snowdrift.

It's also terribly misunderstood.

More than just the stuff that comes out of a box, couscous is a whole world of wonderful dishes: sublime stews spooned over the ethereal granules. They can be as luscious as pappardelle with rabbit ragù or as carefully harmonic as a great pesto. But they also have exotic allure. It might be long-simmered lamb and pumpkin with ginger and saffron, or loup de mer with quince, or perhaps veal and chicken with zucchini and almonds. Chickpeas frequently make an appearance, as do raisins, almonds, dates and spices such as cinnamon and coriander.

"You can push the parameters of couscous the same way you can push pasta," says Paula Wolfert, author of Couscous and Other Good Food From Morocco. "The difference is the couscous grain. Pasta can't compare with it in delicacy." [...]

IN North Africa, couscous is the centerpiece of the traditional Friday family lunch. It's always the last thing served at a banquet or a party, where it occupies the place of dessert, the course that makes sure every guest's appetite is completely satisfied.

And in some parts of Morocco, it's even more basic than that. The local word for couscous in those places is ta'am, which literally means "food."

As a culinary region, North Africa is a mosaic of regional styles that don't always fit neatly into national borders. But Morocco is the only Arab country that was never absorbed by the Ottoman Empire, so for centuries it has continued to have its own kings, who have sponsored an impressive court cuisine. As a result, Moroccan couscous, which is represented in most of our North African restaurants, tends to be served with rich stews aromatic with multiple spices, particularly in Marrakesh. Saffron is the most glamorous of them, but ginger, cinnamon, coriander and turmeric add their fragrance.

Algeria is an agricultural country with a robust, rustic cuisine, and the stews that accompany its couscous are typically less refined than in Morocco. During the 1960s, there was a craze for Algerian restaurants in Paris, and as a result, people who have fallen in love with couscous in France expect the Algerian hot sauce harissa with North African food, even at Moroccan restaurants. The practice of serving couscous, stewed meat and broth in separate bowls, rather than on a single plate, is also Algerian. As for Tunisia, it has the richest fishing grounds of any Arab country, so it makes a specialty of fish couscous dishes.

Couscous with seven vegetables (couscous à sept légumes) is a North African classic, assumed to be Moroccan though it's also made in Algeria. There's a lot of dispute about the correct seven vegetables that have to be included: Everybody seems to agree on tomatoes, turnips, carrots, zucchini and pumpkin, but what about peppers, cabbage, eggplant or fava beans? People also argue about which Moroccan city originated it: Fez, famous for its subtle and sophisticated cuisine, or Rabat, where seven-vegetable couscous is considered the "national dish."

Fez is certainly the home of some wonderful cooking, but Chagar — who happens to be a Rabati — is skeptical of its claim. "Fez is one of the oldest cities," he says, "so they think everything comes from there."

Sure, it's good eats, but it's staggerng how much of it your kids can get on the floor.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 5, 2005 12:00 AM

Yep, it's right up there with rice and peas.

Posted by: Luciferous at October 5, 2005 10:01 AM

I love the stuff, although prepared correctly (three steamings) takes time. It's best suited for a crowd, and is beautiful on a large platter with a lamb tagine spread over the top. The reason kids spill so much of it, oj, is that it's not intended to be eaten with silverware. Gotta go traditional and consume with one's fingers.

Posted by: Fred Jacobsen (San Fran) at October 5, 2005 11:33 AM

. . . and the house pets are so grateful.

Posted by: obc at October 5, 2005 12:02 PM

It's just like how Americans use chopsticks to pick up food off a plate when one needs to use them to shovel food out of a bowl.

Posted by: Chris Durnell at October 5, 2005 12:28 PM


I assume you are trying to replace Bart as gastronomic connoisseur around here? Three steamings?

Posted by: Peter B at October 5, 2005 7:46 PM
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