A guide to couscous: The history, different types and how to cook with it

A guide to couscous: The history, different types and how to cook with it

By Aaron Hutcherson

Just as some cultures serve rice at nearly every meal, others do the same with couscous.

And just as there are many varieties of rice, there are also different categories of couscous for curious cooks to explore.

If it’s not already a part of your regular diet, couscous is a great alternative to the typical starch rotation and deserves a place in your pantry for quick, filling dishes.

The term “couscous” can refer to both the grain product typically made from semolina (coarsely ground durum wheat) – though it can also be made from other grains, including barley and millet – and the dish made from it.

The dish is traditionally made by steaming the granules in a couscousière over a simmering stew until light and fluffy to absorb the stew’s flavors before being served together.

It is a staple food from the Maghreb, also known as Northwest Africa, and is so beloved that Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Mauritania submitted a joint bid for couscous to receive intangible cultural heritage status from UNESCO, a distinction reserved for the world’s most treasured cultural practices, and it was approved last December.

“This new inscription recognizes the value of couscous and the knowledge, practices and know-how that surround it,” the UNESCO website states.

The exact details of couscous’s origins are unknown, but we do know the latest time it could have emerged.

“Since the forties we have become aware of 13th and 14th century Arabic cookery books which contain couscous recipes,” food historian Charles Perry wrote in the essay “Couscous And Its Cousins” published in “Staple Foods: Oxford Symposium on Food 1989.”

“But altogether, the suspicious silences about couscous in sources from before the 13th century, coupled with the evident Berber origin of the Arabic word ‘kuskusu,’ suggests that couscous arose among the Berbers of northern Algeria and Morocco during the obscure period between the 11th century collapse of the Zirid Kingdom and the triumph of the Almohads in the 13th.”

Food historian Clifford Wright narrows it down a little further to Tunisia, sometime in the 12th century, and conjectures it started out being made from barley and acorn flour before durum wheat took over as the predominant grain.

However, “Researchers have found utensils used for making couscous in the tomb of the third century Berber ruler King Masinissa, who united what is today Algeria, Libya and Tunisia,” per Quartz.

In putting together a list of simple side dishes to round out dinner, I stumbled upon a conundrum: Should I lump couscous in with the grains or include it in the grouping of simple pastas? Or does it belong to a category of its own?

An informal Twitter poll combined with internet searches led to conflicting conclusions: “tiny pasta,” “grain-like pasta,” “granular starch,” “an elegantly simple pasta” (“On Food and Cooking”), “processed wheat” (“The Joy of Cooking”), “a traditional North African pasta,” “grain product,” “a semolina-based cousin to pasta” and “a man-made product similar to pasta” are all different descriptors I came across, which only further confused me.

To answer this question fully, we need to start with how couscous is made. In its simplest and most traditional iteration, couscous granules are formed by mixing coarsely ground grains (typically in the form of semolina) with water and rolling them between the palms of your hands to form tiny beads. Since it’s man-made, I take issue with simply labeling couscous as a grain, but “grain product” or “processed grain” both seem fitting.

As to whether couscous is pasta, it depends on your definition of the latter. If “pasta” simply means ground grains mixed with water and then cooked, couscous is pasta.

If you’re thinking, “But pasta needs to be kneaded,” allow me to present gnocchi as a counterargument. Or, if instead you point out that pasta is boiled whereas couscous is steamed, is there really that much of a difference between the methods, since both involve cooking with heated water? As food travel blog Food Fun Travel put it, “Though every ounce of my being tells me it’s not pasta, it sort of fits in the definitions.”

So while, in a sense, couscous is both a grain and pasta and neither at the same time, I think it is best to put it in a field of its own.

Different types of couscous

Couscous. Anything simply labeled “couscous” – or sometimes “Moroccan couscous” – refers to the (typically semolina) grain product we’ve been discussing thus far.

What we find in most grocery stores in the United States is typically instant, precooked or quick-cooking, meaning that it has been steamed and dried, and it only needs to be reconstituted with boiling water before consumption.

Otherwise, it is typically steamed – often repeatedly – until light and fluffy. You may also see whole-wheat couscous on store shelves, which has a nuttier flavor.

Israeli couscous. Originally called p’titim (also written ptitim) – which translates to “flakes” or “little crumbles” in Hebrew – Israeli couscous is not actually couscous, but rather extruded pasta that has been toasted.

It was invented in the 1950s by the Osem food company at the behest of the then-prime minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, as a more affordable alternative to rice.

“Time passed, austerity was over, real rice was now readily available and Osem decided that p’titim would be better marketed in rounded, farfel-like pellets rather than in elongated, rice-like grains,” according to an article in the Forward.

Typically thought of as kids’ food to those in Israel, it was introduced to and popularised among the broader U.S. audience by American chef and cookbook author Don Pintabona, who learned of it while visiting the home of Israeli-born chef and cookbook author Mika Sharon for dinner.

Sharon was feeding it to her daughter, but Pintabona asked for a taste and fell in love. It was Pintabona who gave it the name “Israeli couscous” when he added it to the menu at New York City’s Tribeca Grill.

In terms of flavor, it is similar to Sardinian fregola, another toasted semolina-based pasta.

Pearl couscous. Pearl couscous is technically a larger version of Moroccan couscous, though it’s sometimes erroneously used synonymously with Israeli couscous.

Roughly the size of a pea, pearl couscous is even larger than Israeli couscous.

Throughout the world, its also known as Mograbia (also spelled Mograbiah or Moghrabieh), maftoul (often made with bulgur wheat) and Lebanese couscous.

Steamed couscous leads to an incredibly ethereal texture, but it can take longer to prepare than some might like, which is when the convenience of instant couscous comes in handy.

Simply mix it with boiling water, let it sit covered for a few minutes, fluff it with a fork and it’s ready to be enjoyed.

The proportion of water to instant couscous is generally 1-to-1, but it can vary based on the brand or your preferences, so check the package instructions.

It’s great on its own drizzled with olive oil or melted butter and seasoned with salt, or mixed with any number of ingredients to create more complex dishes. Some suggest using it in place of breadcrumbs as a filler for ground meat dishes, and it can even be used to make desserts.

Just as some cultures serve rice at nearly every meal, others do the same with couscous.

And just as there are many varieties of rice, there are also different categories of couscous for curious cooks to explore.

If it’s not already a part of your regular diet, couscous is a great alternative to the typical starch rotation and deserves a place in your pantry for quick, filling dishes.

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