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Volume 49, Number 6November/December 1998

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The Measure of the Maghrib

Written by Greg Noakes and Laidia Chouat Noakes
Additional photographs by Owen Morse

Former President Habib Bourguiba of Tunisia was once asked to define "the Maghrib, "the culturally distinct—but geographically imprecise—western part of the Arab world. He allegedly replied that somewhere in Libya there was an imaginary north-south line. To the east of this line the staple food was rice, he said; to the west it was couscous. And it is at that line, according to Bourguiba, that the Maghrib begins.

Bourguiba is not alone in his estimation of the significance of couscous. Among Algerians, couscous is called ta'am, the word which—in the rest of the Arabic-speaking world—means simply "food." For all North Africans, couscous is part of one's cultural identity, a food that is both ceremonial, served at each of life's milestones, and quotidian, "comfort food" par excellence. Its preparation and consumption are nearly always social events, and, while it is a dish common to all of the Maghribi countries, there are enough different recipes throughout the region to provide almost limitless variations on a single method of preparation and a narrow range of ingredients.

The term "couscous" refers both to the dry, uncooked semolina pellets themselves and to the ready-to-eat dish of light, fluffy steamed grains topped by marga, a hearty vegetable-based stew. The Arabic word kuskus comes from the Berber seksu, which points to the dish's presence in North Africa before the arrival of Arab Muslims in the 100 years following the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632. But the introduction of new ingredients from around the world, as well as influences from Mashriqi (eastern Arab), African, Andalusian and even European cooking, has transformed couscous over the centuries, and resulted in distinct regional cuisines.

Berber couscous, which is found mostly in the rugged mountain ranges of North Africa, is sometimes made with barley, or even corn. It is usually the dish at its most basic—and often its most delicious. The Moroccans have a reputation for subtly spiced couscous dishes that occasionally feature exotic ingredients such as pigeons or dates. Tunisians are said to do away with such niceties and opt for blazing hot couscous liberally spiced with peppers. Algerians, at the heart of the Maghrib, pride themselves on the authenticity of their unpretentious, robust couscous, while Libyans, at the eastern edge of the region, developed a variation that uses millet rather than the usual durum wheat semolina as its base.

Within regions, further variations exist among villages and even from one family to another, depending on the availability of ingredients and the cook's tastes and preferences. Couscous is most often made with lamb or chicken, but beef, fish, rabbit, quail or—in the Sahara on special occasions—camel are also used. Other recipes, meatless, rely on a rich variety of legumes. Some cooks toss a healthy pinch of saffron into their marga to color it a sunny yellow; others prefer the mellow red hues produced by adding handfuls of chopped tomatoes.

Despite the differences, and even disagreements, over what constitutes "real" couscous, the method of cooking and presentation remains more or less the same everywhere west of the "couscous line." Couscous grains are prepared in advance from semolina, salt, flour and water using a long, labor-intensive process. (See page 16.) In the kitchen, the dry pellets are steamed twice in a special utensil like a double-boiler that most North Africans call by the French term couscousier. Its upper pot, the kiskas, has tiny holes punched in the bottom, and nests snugly atop the lower pot (gdrah), in which the marga, the stew of meat and vegetables, is gently simmered. Steam from the sauce in the lower pot passes through the holes in the upper one and cooks the couscous, causing the grains to swell, lighten, and absorb the tempting aroma of the marga.

The couscous is then served, in a sense, upside-down, as the cooked couscous grains—often with a bit of added butter to keep them separate—are placed in a large bowl and then topped with the stew. Extra stew sauce is served in a separate bowl, from which those who prefer their couscous wet with broth may spoon it on. For the brave of palette, hot pepper sauce (harissah) may also be served. Couscous is a complete meal in itself, generally followed only by fresh fruit such as grapes or melon, whose cool sweetness provides an interesting counterpoint to the rich, spicy sauce.

There are, of course, variations. One dish, called burkukis in Algeria, mhammsah in Morocco and tikhemmezin by the Tuareg nomads of the Sahara, uses couscous grains twice the size of the usual ones. Another recipe, known variously as sfuf, mesfuf or siffah, is sweet rather than savory, and is often served in the heat of summer. In it, plain steamed couscous is topped with raisins and sugar, decorated with cinnamon and sometimes garnished with sliced boiled eggs. Sfuf is usually served with buttermilk or laban (yoghurt), whose acid edge cuts the sugary taste of the sweetened semolina.

Besides its nutritional value for the body, couscous is also food for the North African soul. A steaming platter of couscous is always sure to evoke memories of friends and family, and since it is often served during special events, it also brings up recollections of past celebrations. In many Maghribi families, the week is not complete without a bowl of couscous served on Friday afternoon, after the Muslim congregational prayers. During Ramadan, sfuf with buttermilk is often eaten at sahur, the pre-dawn meal taken before the day's fast. Likewise, the end of this month of daytime fasting is heralded in many households by an elaborate couscous. And some two months later, part of the lamb sacrificed during the 'Id al-Adha, which marks the end of the pilgrimage to Makkah, may likewise find its way into a marga atop couscous.

In Algeria, a new mother is traditionally given burkukis following childbirth, to help her regain her strength. And when a newborn child is named—traditionally on the seventh day of its life—this occasion, too, is marked by a special couscous, this time a spicy stew based on chickpeas and fava beans and known as gsaa, after the concave wooden or clay platter on which it is served. Later in life, heaping bowls of couscous will accompany the celebrations marking a boy's circumcision; it is also often served at weddings, where several hundred guests may dine. At death, it is customary for neighbors to bring a bereaved family dishes of couscous to help feed visiting mourners. In fact, it is difficult to find an important occasion in which couscous does not play a part.

Because of these special associations, North African emigrants have taken couscous with them wherever they have traveled, and some of today's best couscous is served not only in Marrakech and Meknes, but also in Marseilles and Montreal. When piping-hot, spicy marga is ladled over a golden mound of couscous, Maghribi expatriates are transported home, even if just for a moment.

Socially, through each stage of preparation and consumption, couscous is a powerfully communal food. "Couscous for one" is not just impractical: Most Maghribis would find it an absurd, alien idea. The time and effort involved in preparation of the dish make it the opposite of fast food, and couscous is generally made in quantities to feed not only the immediate family but also a bevy of aunts, uncles and cousins—and often the neighbors as well.

From the beginning, couscous is a group effort. The traditional preparation of the grains—rolling the semolina with water and salt, sifting and steaming the grains and then spreading the couscous out to dry—takes three or four people all day to accomplish. Women from an extended family will generally come together two or three times a year to prepare couscous grains, going through one or two 50-kilogram (110-lb) sacks of semolina at a sitting. After the grains are prepared, each household will take home its share of the finished product, which can be stored almost indefinitely.

Despite the hard work, the preparation takes on a festive air. This is a time when women catch up on family news, tell jokes, listen to music and dance for one another. Tradition charges the youngest woman in the group with preparing coffee, tea and m'semmen, a pastry made by frying small semolina-and-flour cakes and drenching them with honey. Although some North Africans, especially those in cities and abroad, now buy factory-prepared couscous in boxes—it can be found in many supermarkets in the United States and Europe—the traditional method remains common across the Maghrib.

The consumption of couscous too is communal. One big bowl of cooked couscous is set on the table, and everyone digs in with a hand or a spoon. The eldest diner at the table, or a special guest, is likely to have the choice bits of meat and vegetables slipped over in front of him or her. And no matter how much couscous one consumes, it always seems impossible to make more than a small dent in the mountain of semolina and stew!

But couscous often embraces a larger community than the family. Many households set aside a large bowl for the less fortunataiin the neighborhood, while others occasionally send a big helping of couscous to the local mosque to be consumed by the worshipers following Friday prayers. North Africans feel that couscous, like bread, contains barakah, a blessing, and while it is certainly delightful to be the recipient of a delicious bowl of couscous, it is even better to give than to receive.

The Maghrib, like all the world's distinct yet multicultural regions, is filled with great contrasts. It boasts rich farmlands and barren gravel plains, burning deserts and snow-topped mountains, isolated oases and overcrowded cities. Its people speak variations of Arabic all their own, often interlaced with heavy doses of French or Spanish, and sizable minorities have one of several Berber dialects as their native tongue. Among Maghribi governments, there are several republics, one kingdom, and even a unique "socialist peoples' Arab jamahiriyya." Yet whether they are Arab or Berber, rural or urban, or live in Tangier, Tunis or Tindouf, couscous, in its almost infinite variety, is a common touchstone for North Africans. When taking the measure of the Maghrib, one could do worse than to borrow Habib Bourguiba's couscous yardstick.

Greg Noakes is a staff writer for Saudi Aramco in Dhahran. Laidia Chouat Noakes, a native of Oran, Algeria, learned the art of couscous preparation from her mother. Owen Morse's photographs have appeared in numerous publications, including his wife Kitty's latest cookbook. (See page 25.)

Couscous: Past and Presence
Written by Kitty Morse

What pasta is to Italians, what rice is to the Chinese, couscous is to the people of the Maghrib. It has been a staple of the diet and a presence in the culture of North Africa for more than 1000 years.

The word couscous—from the classical Arabic kuskus and the Moroccan dialect Arabic k'seksu—refers both to the hard-wheat semolina product and to the popular dish of which it is the principal ingredient. Some scholars believe the word is onomatopoetic, an imitation of the rushing, rattling sound that the couscous granules make as they are rolled under the hand. Others, among them food historian Clifford Wright, believe it may have derived from the classical Arabic word kaskasah, meaning "to grind" or "to pound."

The origins of the dish itself are even less certain. Moroccan economist Naima Lakhal, author of La Production et la Consommation du Couscous au Maroc (The Production and Consumption of Couscous in Morocco), credits the ancient Berbers for its development. So does culinary historian Lucie Bolens. In her book La Cuisine andalouse, un art de vivre, du XIe au XIIIe siècle (Andalusian Cuisine From the 11th to the 13th Century: A Way of Life), Bolens describes primitive couscous pots found in tombs that date back to the reign of the Berber king Massinissa of Numidia, that is, to between 238 and 149 BC. Clifford Wright, on the other hand, and Los Angeles Times food writer Charles Perry, a respected Arabist and food historian, believe that couscous did not appear till eight or nine centuries later, following the introduction of durum wheat to North Africa in the course of the Arab conquest between 632 and 732.

Whatever its etymology or origin, couscous has long been the "national dish" of North Africa. The 13th-century Andalusian author Ibn Razin al-Tujibi described the preparation of couscous in his book Fadalat al-Khiwan fi Tayyibat al-Ta'am wa 'l-Alwan (Delights of the Table and the Best Types of Dishes). Six hundred years later, French author Pierre Loti (See Aramco World, July/August 1992), in his book Au Maroc, called it "the piece de résistance of a Moorish dinner," and explains,

"...kesk'soo is a small round granule prepared from semolina which, having been steamed, is served like rice beneath and around an excellent stew, which is heaped in the center of the dish. With the thumb and first two fingers of the right hand, you are expected to secure some succulent morsel from the stewmeat, raisins, onions or vegetable marrow [squash]and with it a small quantity of kesk'soo. By a skilful motion of the palm, the whole is formed into a round ball, which is thrown into the mouth with a graceful curve of the hand and wrist...."

Many agrarian families in Morocco plant their own hard winter wheat in the late fall so it can develop during the winter rains for harvest in the late spring or early summer. Others purchase sacks of grain which they take to the miller's for grinding into semolina. Those in more remote parts of the country perform this operation with hand-powered querns, or raha.

Besides being a staple of their diet, couscous is a presence in the daily life of the people of the Maghrib on a religious and symbolic level as well. Many believe it brings God's blessings on those who eat it, and its preparation is de rigueur on religious occasions. Pilgrims returning from the Hajj to Makkah are treated to k'seksu bil bayd wal lawz (couscous with eggs and almonds), a dish crowned with caramelized onions and raisins lightly scented with saffron and cinnamon, and garnished with hard-boiled eggs, symbols of purification and renewal. Superstitious wives believe they can ensure their husbands' continued fidelity in the coming year by serving him a couscous which conceals tender morsels of preserved lamb's tail (qaddid) cooked in a cumin-flavored broth.

Couscous usually precedes dessert in a multi-course Maghribi meal. To serve it, fluff the steamed granules with a fork, and add a little olive oil, butter or smen (preserved butter). Mound the couscous on a platter and "decorate its face" with the meat and vegetables from the stew. Traditionally, North Africans deftly fashion little balls of the broth-soaked granules with their right hand and pop them into their mouth with a flick of the thumb, just as Pierre Loti described more than a century ago. Uninitiated or less intrepid diners may prefer to confront the communal dish armed with a soup spoon.

How to Make Couscous

Although the process of making couscous grains requires skilled hands—preferably more than one pair—and an abundance of time, you will need only four simple utensils. North African cooks use a shallow basin made of wood, clay or metal, called a gsaa or sahfah; a wooden hoop sieve called a ghorbal, with a mesh fine enough to produce the size of couscous grains desired; a shallow, round basket known as a tbak or miduna; and a large, clean white sheet. Similarly, the ingredients are simplicity itself: semolina, which is coarse-ground flour from hard, or durum, wheat; salt; water and a dash of ordinary flour. One pound of semolina flour will produce roughly enough couscous for six to eight people.

To make couscous grains, place several handfuls of semolina in the gsaa, sprinkle them with salty water, then roll the resulting lumps in the gsaa under your palm. Small grains or pellets will form. Repeat this process until all of the semolina is rolled into small pellets. Sprinkle a little flour on the pellets as needed to help separate them.

Sift the pellets through the ghorbal. The smaller, finished grains will drop through the screen into a basket or other container. Tip the larger grains into the tbak so they can be rolled again without returning them to the gsaa. As you roll them, sprinkling with flour as necessary, they will break up to become smaller pellets. Sift again in the ghorbal, re-roll and sift again, until all of the grains have passed through the ghorbal and are thus of suitable dimension—a size that the 14th-century writer Ibn Razin al-Tujibi described as "the size of ants' heads." Any larger grains remaining in the ghorbal when you are tired of rolling can be used for burkukis.

Next, steam the couscous over plain water in a couscousier until the vapor penetrates all the grains and steam rises from the entire surface of the mound of couscous. Cooking time will depend on the size of the couscousier. Then transfer the pellets to the gsaa to cool to room temperature, and break up any lumps. Steam the couscous a second time, and return it to the gsaa again. Once it has cooled again, spread the grains out on the sheet to dry in the sun. Rake them occasionally with your fingers to expose all the pellets to the air. Drying them completely may require several days, depending upon humidity; remember to take the grains in at night, or the dew will dampen them again. When the couscous is completely dry, divide it among its makers and store in it closed containers until needed. Properly dried couscous will keep for months.

Because the ingredients of couscous are so basic, it is hard to imagine that the product from a box could be inferior to home-made, hand-made couscous. But home-made bread is certainly more satisfying to both body and soul than most commercial loaves, and the same is true of North Africa's staff of life. Nonetheless, even boxed couscous can be good if it is steamed over boiling water—or marga!—rather than soaked in boiling water.

This article appeared on pages 16-25 of the November/December 1998 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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