The Curious Case of Couscous

For all the world, the couscous we’ve learned to love from North Africa ought to be a grain. It’s possible that some of its biggest fans think it is. But it’s not.

Couscous (some people spell it “cous cous,” but not yours truly) is a pasta, which of course makes it sound less healthy than a grain like bulger or today’s darling of the good-for-you set, quinoa from Peru. It’s made from durum wheat, like spaghetti, lasagna or rigatoni. But before you start picturing a big pot of boiling water anywhere between Milano and Palermo, it might be time you think again. Couscous comes from an entirely different tradition, and ends up being cooked, served and appreciated quite differently.

I first tasted couscous in Paris in the 1970s, where its relatively low price in no-frills Moroccan or Algerian restaurants around the Sorbonne made it a favorite of centime-counting students. It was love at first bite for me, so much so that all these years later I land at CDG and started fantasizing about “French food” – namely, couscous delivered by immigrants from one or more former French colonies. The French did give us our Statue of Liberty, after all.

I was shocked but delighted some years later, visiting Paris for the first (and only) time on somebody else’s dime, that couscous had managed to “go uptown.” A fancy place called Chez Berber, either on or just off the Champs-Elysees, served me a couscous lunch with each and every of its dozen or so elements in its own silver bowl. The cost of the dishwashing alone must have added up, though I suspect I was mostly paying rent.

Underneath it all, couscous is another of humankind’s brilliant survival techniques. We forget this now that most of the stuff shows up in a box from HEB.

North Africans invented couscous to use the part of the durum wheat that was too hard to be ground into flour with a
millstone. Instead, they mixed in a little water, formed small pellets by rubbing them between their hands and added just enough dry flour to keep them separate. As for sizing, they shook the couscous through a sieve – if it stayed, it was big enough. If it fell through the holes, it was re-shaped correctly with the next batch.

As an admirer of the Mexican tradition of women of two or even three generations gathering in the kitchen to gossip and make tamales, I was happy to know that North African women traditionally do much the same. After hand-rolling the couscous, they let it dry in the sun – a commodity in generous supply across the North African desert – and then use it to feed their families for months.

When it’s nearing time for dinner – unless your couscous is modern, from a box with instructions – you pull out your very own “couscoussier,” obviously a French word for a pot for making the stew that you’ll ladle over the top with a steamer on top for the couscous. The design is ancient, perfect for making a two-component meal over a single open fire, perhaps in an oasis on a long journey across some very warm sands.


If you like your food a bit spicy, North Africa certainly has a delicious punch in the taste buds for you – the red pepper mash called harissa, which by itself is hotter than most things we eat in this country. We think an easily adjusted layer of heat from one of our most popular salsas does the job just fine. And it adds a nice, slightly familiar edge to these flavors from faraway.

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 boneless chicken breast halves, cut in bite-sized pieces
4 boneless chicken thighs, trimmed of fat, cut in bite-sized pieces
1 onion, chopped
2 carrots, chopped
2 stalks celery, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 can chick peas (garbanzos) with liquid
1 tablespoon Italian or Mediterranean seasoning
1 tablespoon lemon pepper
1 tablespoon dried parsley flakes
1 teaspoon garlic powder
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon (optional)
6 cups chicken broth
1 cup Fischer & Wieser’s Hot Habanero Salsa
6 cups cooked couscous

In a large pot or Dutch oven, Heat the olive oil. Cook the chicken pieces together over medium-high heat until golden brown and almost cooked through, then remove them to a platter or bowl. Caramelized the onion, carrot and celery until softened. Add the garlic and stir for only 1 minute, being careful it doesn’t burn. Pour in the chick peas and their liquid. Return the chicken to the pot. Sprinkle with the Italian seasoning, lemon pepper, parsley, garlic powder and cinnamon, stirring to coat. Add the chicken broth and salsa. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for about 20 minutes to let flavors develop. To serve, spoon the chicken stew over warm couscous with plenty of the liquid. Serves 6-8.

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