Couscous or kuskus as it is known in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya (in the US, /ˈkʊskʊs/ in the UK; Berber Seksu - كسكس, called maftoul in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories). It consists of spherical granules made by rolling and shaping moistened semolina wheat and then coating them with finely ground wheat flour. The finished grains are about 1 mm in diameter before cooking. The Levantine variant often misquoted as Israeli, is about twice the diameter and made of hard wheat instead of semolina. Traditional couscous requires considerable preparation time and is usually steamed. In many places, a more processed quick-cook couscous is available and is particularly valued for its short preparation time.
The dish is a primary staple throughout the Maghreb; in much of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya it is also known as ṭa`aam طعام, "food". It is also popular in the West African Sahel, in France, Madeira island, in western Sicily's Trapani province, and parts of the Middle East. It is particularly popular among Jews of North African descent, such as the Berber Jews, and is eaten in many other parts of the world as well.
The semolina is sprinkled with water and rolled with the hands to form small pellets, sprinkled with dry flour to keep the pellets separate, and then sieved. The pellets which are too small to be finished grains of couscous fall through the sieve to be again sprinkled with dry semolina and rolled into pellets. This process continues until all the semolina has been formed into tiny grains of couscous. Sometimes salt is added to the semolina and water.
This process is very labour intensive. In the traditional method of preparing couscous, groups of women would come together and make large batches over several days. These would then be dried in the sun and used for several months. Couscous was traditionally made from the hard part of the hard wheat Triticum durum, the part of the grain that resisted the grinding of the relatively primitive millstone. In modern times, couscous production is largely mechanized, and the product sold in markets around the world.
One of the earliest references to couscous in Northern Europe is in Brittany, in a letter dated Jan. 12 1699. But it made a much earlier appearance in Provence, where the traveler Jean Jacques Bouchard writes of eating it in Toulon in 1630.
Properly cooked Couscous should be light and fluffy, not gummy or gritty; steam Couscous two to three times to achieve this consistency. Traditionally, North Africans use a steamer called a kiskas in Arabic or couscoussière in French. The base is a tall metal pot shaped rather like an oil jar in which the meat and vegetables are cooked in a stew. On top of the base a steamer sits where the couscous is cooked, absorbing the flavours from the stew. The lid to the steamer has holes around its edge so that steam can escape. It is also possible to use a pot with a steamer insert. If the holes are too big the steamer can be lined with damp cheesecloth. There is little archeological evidence of early diets including couscous, possibly because the original couscoussière was probably made from organic materials which could not survive extended exposure to the elements.
In Algeria, Tunisia, couscous is generally served with vegetables (carrots, turnips, etc.) cooked in a spicy or mild broth or stew, and some meat (generally, chicken, lamb or mutton); in Algeria, couscous can also be topped with fish in a sweet sauce with raisins and caramelized onions.
In Algeria it is also served, sometimes at the end of a meal or just by itself, as a delicacy called "Seffa". The couscous is usually steamed several times until it is very fluffy and pale in color. It is then sprinkled with almonds, cinnamon and sugar. Traditionally, this dessert will be served with milk perfumed with orange blossom water, or it can be served plain with buttermilk in a bowl as a cold light soup for supper.
Couscous is very popular in France where it's now considered a traditional dish. Indeed many polls have indicated that it is often a favorite dish. Although introduced in France by the pieds noirs (people of European descent who used to live in Algeria), many couscous restaurants are now owned by people originating from Algeria. In France the word "couscous" usually refers to couscous together with the stew. Packaged sets containing a box of quick-preparation couscous and a can of vegetables and, generally, meat are sold in French grocery stores and supermarkets. In France it is generally served with Harissa sauce.
In North America and Great Britain couscous is available most commonly as either plain or pre-flavoured, quick-preparation boxes. In the United States it is widely available but largely confined to the ethnic or health food section of larger grocery stores.
Taboule, a salad of Levantine origins is, today, more often made with the easier, quicker, couscous. The traditional recipe used crushed wheat, olive oil, chopped tomatoes, onion, parsley, mint, salt and pepper, mixed together and, where possible, chilled. It is often served as a side dish, great for buffets. Prepacked Taboule, in various combinations, is sold in shops, especially in France where the Maghreb influence is strong.
Israeli couscous (in Hebrew פתיתים אפויים 'baked flakes'), also known as maftoul or pearl couscous, is a larger version of couscous and used in slightly different ways. In Western cooking it is often used as a bed for salmon or chicken dishes, or put into salads. Compare with Middle Eastern Tabouli or egg barley.
Israeli couscous is a version of North African Berkukes, introduced by immigrants from various parts of North Africa in the early 1950s, and Levantine Maghrebiyya (from the Maghreb) common in Palestine, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. Couscous was meant to provide a rice substitute for those immigrants from eastern Arab countries and from Persia, where rice was the staple grain. Unlike North African couscous, it is not semolina at all, but rather a toasted mixture of bulgur and flour.