Couscous sometimes called kusksi or kseksu – is a traditional North African dish of small steamed granules of rolled semolina that is often served with a stew spooned on top. Pearl millet, sorghum, bulgur, and other cereals are sometimes cooked in a similar way in other regions, and the resulting dishes are also sometimes called couscous.

Couscous is a staple food throughout the Maghrebi cuisines of Algeria, Tunisia, Mauritania, Morocco, and Libya. It was integrated into French and European cuisine at the beginning of the twentieth century, through the French colonial empire and the Pieds-Noirs of Algeria.

In 2020, couscous was added to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list.

Couscous is traditionally made from semolina, the hardest part of the grain of durum wheat (the hardest of all forms of wheat), which resists the grinding of the millstone. The semolina is sprinkled with water and rolled with the hands to form small pellets, sprinkled with dry flour to keep them separate, and then sieved. Any pellets that are too small to be finished, granules of couscous fall through the sieve and are again rolled and sprinkled with dry semolina and rolled into pellets. This labor-intensive process continues until all the semolina has been formed into tiny couscous granules. In the traditional method of preparing couscous, groups of people come together to make large batches over several days, which are then dried in the sun and used for several months. Handmade couscous may need to be rehydrated as it is prepared; this is achieved by a process of moistening and steaming over stew until the couscous reaches the desired light and fluffy consistency.

In some regions, couscous is made from farina or coarsely ground barley or pearl millet.

In modern times, couscous production is largely mechanized, and the product is sold worldwide. This couscous can be sauteed before it is cooked in water or another liquid. Properly cooked couscous is light and fluffy, not gummy or gritty.

Traditionally, North Africans use a food steamer. The base is a tall metal pot shaped like an oil jar, where the meat and vegetables are cooked as a stew. On top of the base, a steamer sits where the couscous is cooked, absorbing the flavours from the stew. The steamer’s lid has holes around its edge so 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 archaeological evidence of early diets (including couscous), possibly because the original couscoussier may have been made from organic materials that could not survive extended exposure to the elements.

The couscous that is sold in most Western grocery stores is usually pre-steamed and dried. It is typically prepared by adding 1.5 measures of boiling water or stock to each measure of couscous and then leaving it covered tightly for about five minutes. Pre-steamed couscous takes less time to prepare than regular couscous, most dried pasta, or dried grains (such as rice). Packaged sets of quick-preparation couscous and canned vegetables, and generally meat, are routinely sold in European grocery stores and supermarkets. Couscous is widely consumed in France, where it was introduced by Maghreb immigrants and voted the third most popular dish in a 2011 survey.

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