couscous of magic and wonder

I think there are three types of Americans. You can tell which category a person falls into depending on what jumps to their mind first when they hear the word “Morocco.” It’s either:

1) Wait, isn’t that the place with all the casinos? What does a Peace Corps volunteer do there? (true story…that would be because they’re thinking of Monaco)
2) The Marrakesh Express, recorded by Crosby, Stills and Nash, pre-Young, in 1969 (by the way, as a family friend remarked the other day, pretty much everything happened in 1969, didn’t it?)

Exhibit A. Also, just in case you were wondering, in “Berber” dialects like Tashlheet and Tamazight, couscous is called “sksu” (just reverse the “s” and “k” sounds in “couscous” and you’ve got it…it’s far more fun to pronounce).

What follows is a scrupulously transcribed version of the best couscous made in the best region (Taroudant) by the very best Moroccan cook, period (that would be Zahara Ait Ben Hmad, who is one of the most remarkable women I know. Her son Soufiane is pretty talented too, and you should check out his work). I could never make couscous as well as Zahara, but I do my best.

A few things about couscous: it’s often described as the “Moroccan national dish,” whatever that means. Far more interesting, I think, is the fact that while most Moroccan men can cook a decent tagine, I never met one who ever attempted to make couscous. It takes far more time than a tagine, and it has a ritual place in the Moroccan week – it’s usually enjoyed just after Friday prayers at the mosque (though not all families eat it exactly then). Couscous takes a notoriously long time to cook in Morocco, and is therefore considered more difficult – it simply requires a lot of patience and commitment.

What I love about couscous is that it’s traditionally prepared on the holiest day of the week in Islam – Friday – but it demonstrates that there are some really powerful aspects of Islam that take place outside the mosque. For one, couscous is often prepared in vast quantities to feed the poor on Fridays. In America, we often give donated or leftover food to the poor, but this gesture is especially powerful to me because it’s the act of giving one of Morocco’s most elaborate and special foods to the needy – in essence, saying that everyone deserves a well-prepared family meal. Along those same lines, as a foreigner, I had a standing invitation to couscous on Fridays; even though it was a religious day for observant Muslims, this was a part of that day meant to be freely and joyously shared with everyone.

That’s nice, you say, but why, exactly does it take so long to cook?

Well I am glad that you asked. The thing is, you see, you’ve probably been making your couscous all wrong. Most Americans treat couscous like rice or pasta, cooking it quickly in water. But it’s far better if instead it’s steamed over the course of a few hours with the aromatic vapors arising from whatever concoction you’re serving with the grain. This is why couscous takes so long to prepare in Morocco, and it explains the double-decker couscousiers that they use to cook it (which have a colander-type couscous steamer that fits into a tall, deep pot for cooking the meat, veggies, and sauce). This mechanism and method will take longer, but hey: you only need one burner to do it (!) and it will give you a grain that’s lighter, fluffier, and ever so fragrant.

My couscous had to be made without such a device because in America they cost $100, which is just silly. But I’m improvising with a standard pot, a metal mesh strainer, and a silicone tagine-style lid (courtesy of my godmother Tona, chef and world traveler extraordinaire). If you don’t have such a lid, honestly, any lid will do. The most important thing is a strainer-pot-lid combination that will direct as much of the steam from your sauce as possible towards cooking the grain.

exhibit b
exhibit b: to cook is to improvise

As for the recipe, here goes:

Couscous, Roudani Style*

3-4 carrots, peeled, cored, and sliced thin and long
1 eggplant – halved, then sliced into long wedges
1 cup pumpkin or squash, cut into large chunks
2 zucchini – peeled and halved or quartered
2 tomatoes, sliced
1 onion, sliced thinly
(A note on the vegetables: you can use any veggies you happen to have lying around the house, though I would say the onion is mandatory. From what I saw there were a few vegetables that seemed to be staples of the couscous dish – namely the ones listed here – but time and time again I saw those “rules” broken to accommodate whatever happened to be lying around…)
1 pound of chicken
Salt, pepper, cumin, ginger, paprika, and saffron
Large bunch of cilantro
½ cup chickpeas, soaked overnight
2 cups couscous, dry

Place meat in pot with onions and tomatoes and a cup of water.

Add generous amounts of olive oil and salt and pepper and a less generous amount of cumin, ginger, paprika and saffron (I’ve mentioned it before, but a good way to make the most of your saffron is to rub a few threads together with salt to help release flavor)

Remove the flowers from your cilantro (if there are any) and trim the stems. Tie in a bundle and add to the meat. Place on low heat.

it will look like this, inchallah

Spread a few cups of couscous on a wide shallow dish (a large plate or shallow serving bowl will do) and sprinkle about a quarter cup of water on it, a bit at a time – sprinkle the water evenly over the couscous. Next, you want to “fluff” it – it’s a difficult action to describe, but basically dig your (clean) hands into the grain, squeeze clumps of couscous together, then break it up again with your fingers. You’ll do this several times before the dish is done, and the idea is to sort of massage the couscous till it starts clumping together, but mix it up and aerate it a bit at the same time. And, you know, infuse it with a little love.

what your couscous grain should start to look like after a few fluffers

Place all the couscous in your strainer or top section of the couscous set (which is set directly over the meat and veggie pot).

While the pot is heating up, prepare the other vegetables if you haven’t done so already (peel, slice, etc.) and soak them on a bowl of water.

After about 20 minutes of cooking, the couscous itself should begin to steam. When this happens, cover it, and add chickpeas to the bottom half of the pot (with the meat).

After 5 minutes, pour out the couscous into your shallow pan and “fluff” it again, again sprinkling a bit of water over it. Add enough water to cover the chicken completely, and replace the couscous and lid. Add all vegetables except squash/zucchini/pumpkin, and let cook for 40 minutes.

Fluff the couscous yet again with some water – it should start to form serious clumps now, and feel pleasantly spongy. At this point, add the rest of your vegetables, and add water to cover again. Let it cook another 30 minutes.

Fluff couscous one last time, and return it. Taste the sauce in the bottom pot and adjust spices to taste.

Cook for another 15 minutes and safi! You’re done!

To serve, arrange the couscous in a large mound with a crater in the middle. Into this crater, place the meat; strew the vegetables around the dish artfully and drizzle the sauce all over.

It’s best eaten with your hands (which is hard) or a soup spoon, straight out of the communal dish (if you can’t reach, well then get closer to each other already) with extra sauce from the dish and buttermilk (try it. You doubt, I know you do, but it’s SO GOOD).


This probably looks long and intimidating, but see, the thing about couscous is…

It may take longer, but it’s utterly worth it – and not just because it tastes better that way. Shopping and cooking in Morocco take longer than they do in the US, no matter what, and when I stopped seeing this as a nuisance and started seeing it as a gift, it changed my life. With dishes like couscous, a longer preparation time doesn’t actually mean you’re spending all of three hours actively cooking – it just means that’s your only priority for three hours.

You’re more conscious of what you’re cooking because you have to be, and on top of it, in the down time (while you’re just supervising something that’s simmering on the stove) you can listen to music, reorganize your spice drawer, chat with family and friends (even if that means doing so on Skype or the phone) or take some time for yourself. The process forces you to take a deep breath and decelerate, and if there’s anything Americans seem to need, it’s an excuse to slow down the pace a bit. You not only infuse your couscous with the aromas of the dish…you infuse your home and your whole life with it. Getting your hands on that couscous to “fluff” it, you engage your sense of touch in addition to your senses of smell and taste and sight.

There’s really nothing like it.

*Roudani is the Arabicized, adjectival form of the Tashlheet name “Taroudant,” meaning that this is the type of couscous they make in the best region/city/area of Morocco…keep reading because one day I’ll get around to telling the story of where the name “Taroudant” comes from.

4 thoughts on “couscous of magic and wonder

  1. In Morocco they mostly use the “small” couscous, though even within that category there are a few variations (ie small and very small…). They do use a larger version – though from what I saw it cropped up in different types of dishes than the one above – which I think is what you’re talking about (more pea-sized than sea-salt-grain-sized).

    As far as I can gather, the main difference is somewhat akin to the differences between different pasta sizes and shapes – that is, it’s all made from essentially the same stuff, just rolled into a different form, and some shapes work better for certain types of sauces or dishes than others.

    Moroccans usually eat couscous with their hands, which requires deftly gathering the grain into a ball that will fit into the palm of their hand (I never really mastered it), and I think this is probably easier to do with the smaller grain. But as long as you’re not a slave to authenticity (and why would you be, at least in cooking) there’s no reason any size couscous grain couldn’t work with this dish. It just might require some experimenting as far as cooking time/methods go…

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