The art of making the Moroccan couscous

the art of making the Moroccan couscous
Couscous is Morocco’s national dish. It is prepared throughout the country and is a traditional staple of the whole of the North African region, right down to Senegal and across to Chad. Further east in Egypt and parts of the Middle East, it is known as moghrabiyyeh, ‘the dish of the North Africans’. Although referred to as a ‘grain’, couscous is not technically one; instead, it could be more accurately described as Moroccan ‘pasta’ as it is made with semolina flour and water and then hand-rolled and dried even though it is prepared and served like rice. 

Couscous is of fundamental value to Moroccan culture for dietary, religious and symbolic reasons, as Moroccans believe it is a food that brings God’s blessing upon those who consume it. It is therefore prepared in every household on Muslim holy days and on Fridays, the Islamic day of rest when it is traditionally distributed to the poor as well. 

A festive and religious feast, such as the traditional diffas to celebrate births and weddings, or the Berber moussems, a mound of couscous is served as the magnificent crown to end the meal. There is a Moroccan saying that ‘each granule of couscous represents a good deed’, so it is not surprising that thousands of granules are consumed in a day.

There are many different types of couscous in Morocco, some made with wheat flour, others with barley, maize or millet. In the rural areas, the village women still buy sacks of wheat, which they take to the local mill to be ground to semolina, and then laboriously prepare couscous every week by sprinkling the semolina flour with water and raking it with their fingers in a circular motion to form tiny balls. The balls are then rubbed against the side of the bowl using the palm and passed through a sieve to form a uniform size: kesksou is 2 mm in diameter; seffa or mefuf is ultra-fine at 1 mm in diameter and is mainly reserved for fillings and sweet dishes, and mhammsa is 3 mm in diameter. 
The tiny granules are then spread out to dry before use. In modern households in the cities, many cooks prefer to buy sacks of ready-prepared couscous which needs to be steamed several times before eating. Outside Morocco, the most commonly available packets of couscous have been taken one step further as they are already precooked and only require soaking in water to swell, before being fluffed up aerated using fingers and olive oil. The recipes in this book use this pre-cooked version, which is available in supermarkets.

the art of making the Moroccan couscous

The preparation of couscous varies from region to region and is dependent on the type of granules, but the principal method involves placing the dried granules in a ga’saa – a wide, flat earthenware dish – and sprinkling them liberally with water. The moistened granules are then transferred to the metal keskess, a colander, and set snugly atop a q’draa, a large tin-lined, copper pot, which contains water or a stew of meat or vegetables. 

The utensils together are known in French as the two-tiered pot, the couscoussi√®re, and this is the name that is used in international culinary circles. The steam between the keskess and the q’draa is sealed with a piece of cloth that is dipped in a mixture of flour and water. The couscous is then steamed, uncovered until puffs of vapor emanating from the granules. 

The warm couscous is then returned to the ga’saa and mixed with more water before being returned to the colander and steamed a second time until the granules become soft and plump. Finally, it is flavored with lashings of butter, olive oil or smen (see page 11), which is rubbed into the grains with the fingertips, and it is moistened with the broth from the stew. This preparation plays such an important role in the culinary life of most Moroccans that it determines a cook’s ability – the granules should be light and airy, almost floating above the plate and heavenly to touch and taste.

To the majority of Moroccans, a meal would be unthinkable without couscous. It is extremely versatile and is traditionally served as a course on its own, but it can also be served as an accompaniment to tagines or grilled and roasted meats. It can look truly spectacular, particularly when piled high in a cone-shaped mound for banquets and topped with stuffed pigeons, dates and almonds, or decorated with strips of colorful vegetables and topped with sweet onions and raisins tinged yellow with saffron and it is often accompanied by little side dishes, such as spicy chickpeas, marinated raisins and harissa paste (see page 12). 

Traditionally eating couscous is an experience in itself and requires a little practice. It is a communal dish so, once the mound has been set on the ground, or a low table, diners literally ram their right hands, palm upwards, into the grains to extract a handful and then, using the thumb and first two fingers, deftly roll the grains to form small tight balls that might incorporate some small pieces of meat or vegetables, and flip them into their mouths. It looks easy but, on first attempts, the sauce dribbles down your wrist and the granules spill all over the table!