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COUSCOUS : The Tunisian Variations

Say North Africa to a food lover and chances are he’ll say couscous. In Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, it is by far the most popular food. It is famous, it is simple, it is soothing and it is delicious.

Take a container with a perforated bottom, fill it with a thousand tiny grain pellets, place it above a bubbling stew and voila ! The vapors from the stew will both swell the granules and flavor them. Eat the pellets and the stew together, and the result is happiness.

Some people think of couscous as a grain. Not so; it’s basically a way of treating grain. You can steam whole-barley or green-wheat kernels as couscous, or even green barley shoots. But many people make their couscous from ground semolina, in which case it’s something more akin to pasta.

They blend fine semolina flour and coarse semolina with a little water, roll it into little lumps and then press them through a sieve to form minute and uniform balls. These balls are rolled around on another sieve to remove excess flour. They can be steamed and eaten right away, or they can be steamed, dried and stored. The dried form is the couscous “grains” you buy at the store.

In North Africa, making couscous by hand is a tradition handed down from mother to daughter, and the average family eats couscous about twice a week, making it a staple. But since making it by hand takes time and many modern North African women work, the old method is rapidly falling out of favor.

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On a recent trip to Tunisia I had a chance to visit the world’s largest and most modern couscous factory, Couscousseries du Sud, located in Sfax, the second city of Tunisia and a major port. I didn’t know quite what to expect--perhaps a thousand women in neat factory rows making couscous all at once. Instead, I found a completely automated plant run by men, an almost nightmare maze of broilers, vats and chutes that turn out tons of couscous a week.

In the United States, Tunisian couscous is not as well known as the Moroccan style, but as I discovered, it can be very good. Chile peppers sound the predominating note. One of my favorites is a red and green specialty called kuski mfawwar , which combines fennel and carrot tops with celery leaves and powerful flavors such as red pepper, scallions, coriander, caraway and garlic. Use two pounds of greens for every pound of couscous and you will discover how much flavor and earthiness they can contribute.

Kuski mfawwar has many variations. In Sfax, they make it with malmouth , or grilled and cracked barley grits, instead of couscous grains, and I have also tasted it with whole-wheat couscous. But the best version is a recipe given to me by Aziza ben Tanfous, curator of the Sidi Zitouni Museum on the island of Djerba, who learned it from her grandmother. Since it tends to be slightly dry, you may want to serve it the traditional way, with glasses of buttermilk.

The special texture and lightness of small-grain couscous makes it an ideal substance for desserts. A delicious nut, date and custard dessert uses a fine-grain couscous known as mesfouf which, when steaming, swells to the size of the medium couscous available in stores. Often Tunisians will substitute coarse-grain semolina, and that is what I have used. You can find coarse semolina at a Middle Eastern grocery.

Dessert couscous is more popular in Tunisia than in Morocco. In Morocco it is rich with butter and sugar, and eaten warm or even hot. Tunisian couscous is less sweet and is served cool or even chilled, often mixed with fresh fruits in season such as small grapes, or pomegranate seeds mixed with seedless black raisins.

The recipe for the sweet couscous below comes from Sfax. What I especially like about it is that, while Tunisian sweet couscous dishes tend to be a little on the dry side, this one is moist due to a layer of creamy pudding.

There is also a large couscous known as mhammas. Pellets about the size of Italian acine de pepe are rubbed in olive oil, steamed for a full hour, then dumped into a sauce so that they continue cooking until they become soft. Their silky and almost sodden texture is much appreciated in many southern parts of Tunisia.

I found any number of delicious fish couscous recipes in Tunisia too. A particularly appetizing one is prepared on the island of Djerba in a three-tiered steamer. Slices of bluefish, embedded in a mixture of chopped mint, parsley, Swiss chard and fennel leaves are steamed over a cinnamon-and-cumin scented broth. The couscous, steaming in solitary splendor on top, absorbs the aromas from the two tiers below. In southern Tunisia, dried fish, octopus and bits of pungent lamb jerky called qadid (spiced, dried and preserved in oil) are often used, with cubes of apricots mixed in to punctuate the salty flavors.

The most popular home-style couscous on Djerba uses red pepper, coriander, tomatoes, fresh green chile, lamb, olive oil, qadid and dried baby sardines called ouzef , which add a distinctive fishy flavor that acts as a taste stimulant and catalyst. You can eliminate the sardines but not the lamb jerky, which gives the dish its unique flavor and a mildly crunchy texture.

Many modern Tunisian couscous dishes are hot and spicy, with lots of fiery harissa, ground coriander, cumin and garlic. Older ones, which tend to taste both mellow and exotic, are often made with quince, raisins and a curious blend of dried rosebuds, black pepper and ground cinnamon. Lately it has become popular to mix the two styles.

In Morocco, you can find couscous that is both spicy and sweet, the two contradictory tastes interacting and tantalizing the tongue. There is the simplest Berber couscous--tossed with fresh favas, then downed with buttermilk--and the most lavish palace version in which pigeons, stuffed with various fillings, are nestled in the grain.

There is a spicy couscous in which chiles and ground pepper sound the predominating note, and there’s the great classic sweet Moroccan couscous of Fez, in which onions, raisins, chick peas and lamb are served together in perfect harmony.

Tunisians tend to steam their couscous covered, while Moroccans and Algerians do not. As a result, the Tunisian version tends to be more tender and moist; the Moroccan and Algerian, a little fluffier and lighter.

Tunisian couscous is also presented differently. Tunisian cooks moisten their steamed grains with lots of broth and often mix the ingredients into the grains so that the dish comes to the table like a pilaf or paella. Moroccan and Algerian cooks prefer to moisten the grains lightly, with thin broth, then make a well in the center for the remaining broth and vegetables. Restaurants usually serve the various ingredients separately so that each diner can take what he likes. But in the home, couscous, like most North African food, is traditionally presented in one large bowl or platter.

The popularity of couscous just grows and grows. Many countries have come up with native versions of the North African original. There is keskes in Senegal, cuscuz in Brazil, kuskus in northern Greece and Turkey, and even cuscusu in Trapani, Sicily, for which the sauce is the local fish soup. In Lebanon and Jordan, they make a couscous of large round semolina pellets cooked with onions and chicken and call it mughrabiyya , which means “from the Mahgreb,” the collective noun for Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia.

COUSCOUS WITH GREENS (Kuskim Fawwar)

1/2 pound dill and fennel fronds

1/2 pound parsley

Handful carrot tops and celery leaves

1/2 pound green onions and leeks

1/2 cup olive oil

1 cup chopped onions

3 tablespoons tomato paste

2 tablespoons crushed garlic

2 teaspoons sweet paprika

2 teaspoons salt or more to taste

2 teaspoons ground coriander or Tabil (Twabil)

1 teaspoon ground caraway

1 1/2 to 2 teaspoons red pepper flakes, preferably Aleppo, Turkish or Near East pepper for best flavor

2 1/2 cups medium-grain couscous

1 fresh green chile, stemmed, seeded and minced

1 sweet red pepper, stemmed, seeded and cut into 6 pieces

6 cloves garlic

Rinse dill and fennel fronds, parsley, carrot tops and celery leaves under running water. Drain and chop roughly.

Rinse and chop green onions and leeks. Fill bottom of couscous cooker with water and bring to boil. Fasten on perforated top. Add greens, green onions and leeks. Steam, covered, 30 minutes. Remove from heat. Cool, uncovered. When cool enough to handle, squeeze out excess moisture and set aside.

Heat oil in 10- or 12-inch skillet and add onions. Cook 2 to 3 minutes until tender. Then add tomato paste and cook, stirring, until paste glistens. Add garlic, paprika, salt, coriander, caraway and red pepper flakes. Saute slowly until mixture is well blended. Add 1 cup water, cover and cook 15 minutes.

Remove skillet from heat. Stir couscous into contents of skillet until well blended. Add steamed greens, leeks and green onions. Mix well. Fold in chile, sweet red pepper and whole garlic clove. Fill bottom of couscous cooker with water and bring to boil. Fasten on perforated top. Add contents of skillet and steam, covered, 30 minutes.

Turn out couscous onto large, warm serving dish. Use long fork to break up lumps and fish out whole garlic cloves and red pepper slices. Stir 1 cup water into couscous. Taste to adjust for seasonings. Cover with foil. Let stand in warm place 10 minutes before serving.

Decorate couscous with red pepper slices in star pattern and place whole garlic cloves on top. Serve with glasses of buttermilk. Makes 6 servings.

Each serving contains about:

536 calories; 859 mg sodium; trace cholesterol; 20 grams fat; 77 grams carbohydrates; 15 grams protein; 1.66 grams fiber.

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In 1492, when the last Moorish kingdom fell in Spain, not all the Andalusian Moors fled to Morocco. Some sailed into the bay of Tunis to settle south of the city in a town called Testour. They introduced their own spice usages to the Tunisian culinary spectrum, the most important being a spice mixture called twabil, used in recipes for salads, stews and couscous. (A confusing note: In the Tunisian dialect, word tabil or twabil--which means “spices” in Arabic--is often applied to ground coriander alone, but it’s also the name of the following spice mixture.)

Tabil (Twabil)

(Tunisian Spice Mixture)

2 tablespoons ground coriander seeds

2 teaspoons ground caraway seeds

1/4 teaspoon garlic powder, optional

1/2 teaspoon ground red pepper

1/4 teaspoon crushed fennel seeds

1/4 teaspoon crushed anise seeds

1/4 teaspoon ground cumin

1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric

1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

Mix coriander, caraway, garlic powder, red pepper, fennel, anise, cumin, turmeric and black pepper in bowl. Store in tightly covered jar. Makes about 3 1/2 tablespoons.

Each teaspoon contains about:

5 calories; 1 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 0 fat; 1 gram carbohydrates; 0 protein; 0.37 gram fiber.

COUSCOUS WITH DATES AND NUTS (Mesfouf)

2 cups low-fat milk

2 egg yolks

Sugar

Salt

2 tablespoons cornstarch

Few drops vanilla

1 teaspoon rose water

1 cup coarse-grain semolina

1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 cup blanched almonds

1/2 cup finely grated walnuts

1/4 cup seedless black raisins

8 pitted dates, chopped

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

2 tablespoons grated pistachios

Bring milk to boil in medium saucepan. While milk is heating, place egg yolks, 3 tablespoons sugar and dash salt in mixing bowl or work bowl of food processor. Beat until pale-yellow and thick. Add cornstarch. Beat until smooth. Gradually pour hot milk into egg yolk mixture. Pour back into saucepan, set over medium heat and cook, stirring constantly, until boiling. Continue to stir vigorously until custard is smooth, about 45 seconds.

Remove from heat and continue to beat vigorously 30 seconds longer. Stir in vanilla and rose water. When cool, place sheet of plastic wrap directly on pudding to inhibit formation of skin. Keep in refrigerator until ready to use.

In bowl mix coarse semolina and olive oil. Blend well. Heat plenty of water in bottom of couscous maker and bring to rolling boil. Fasten perforated container on top. Scatter grains over holes (they will not fall through if steam is rising). Steam, covered, 30 minutes.

On baking sheet toast almonds in 250-degree oven or in microwave until golden brown. Grate almonds and walnuts. Mix with raisins and chopped dates. Set aside.

Transfer entire container to bowl. Remove cover, moisten grains with 1 cup boiling water, allowing water to drain off. Return container to couscous maker and cover tightly. Steam semolina another 10 minutes.

Dump semolina grains into wide bowl, add another 1 cup boiling water and 1 tablespoon of butter. Stir with fork until butter melts. Leave grains to cool.

Sprinkle grains with 1/2 cup cold water and dash salt. Toss gently. Dip fingertips into cold water and rub out lumps. Fork in 2 tablespoons sugar or more to taste. Smooth out grains and leave to dry in cool place. Makes about 4 cups. Up to this point, recipe can be prepared 3 hours in advance.

To assemble dish: Spread layer of rose-scented pudding on bottom of a 10-inch or 12-inch round serving dish. Spread half of steamed semolina over pudding, scatter nut mixture evenly on top. Top with remainder of semolina. Press pistachios through fine sieve and run lines of pistachio over top. Cover with plastic film and set in cool place until ready to serve. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Each of 6 servings contains about:

466 calories; 90 mg sodium; 102 mg cholesterol; 23 grams fat; 56 grams carbohydrates; 12 grams protein; 1.22 grams fiber.

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This delightful couscous, the most popular one on the Tunisian island of Djerba, is eaten “from one day to the next,” said the local cook who taught it to me. Made with fine-grained couscous, it is flavored with red pepper, coriander, tomatoes, fresh green chile, lamb, olive oil and two unusual ingredients: qadid (a lamb jerky that contributes a pungent flavor and a pastrami-like texture) and ouzef, dried baby sardines with a distinctive fishy taste that acts as a taste stimulant and catalyst. You can eliminate the dried fish, but not the jerked meat, which gives the dish its unique flavor and a mildly crunchy texture.

This couscous can be made in advance and reheated, uncovered, in small quantities in the microwave.

DJERBIAN HOME-STYLE COUSCOUS

4 strips Qadid

1/2 pound onions, thinly sliced

1/4 cup olive oil

1/4 cup reserved oil from Qadid

2 lamb shoulder chops, trimmed of excess fat and cut into 1/2-inch pieces

2 tablespoons tomato paste

3/4 cup crushed canned or fresh tomatoes

2 teaspoons crushed red pepper flakes, preferably Aleppo pepper or Near East pepper, for best flavor

1 1/2 teaspoons Tabil (Twabil)

1 teaspoon ground caraway

Fine sea salt

2 1/2 cups couscous

1 1/2 cups diced carrots

1 1/2 cups diced potatoes

15 dried baby sardines, soaked in warm water 10 minutes and drained, optional

1 cup green peas, shelled or thawed

3 tablespoons chopped parsley

2 to 4 tablespoons minced green chile to taste

In bowl soak Qadid in warm water until soft, 10 minutes. Drain and discard bones. Cut meat into small chunks.

In bottom of couscous cooker heat 3 tablespoons olive oil and oil from Qadid. Add onions and lamb and saute 5 minutes. Cover and cook over low heat until meat gives off moisture and reabsorbs it. Add Qadid and tomato paste. Cook, stirring, until meat is well coated and glossy.

Add crushed tomatoes, Tabil, caraway and 1 cup water, cover and cook 15 minutes. Then add 1 quart water and bring to boil.

Meanwhile, rinse couscous in sieve, spread on baking pan. Let stand until grains swell, 5 to 10 minutes.

Break up lumps by raking couscous through your fingers. Lightly oil inside of perforated top and fasten onto couscous cooker. Seal 2 containers, if necessary, with strip of wet cheesecloth. When steam is rising through perforated holes, pile couscous into top container, cover and steam couscous 20 minutes.

Transfer steamed couscous onto baking pan. Gradually break up large lumps of couscous with long spoon while sprinkling couscous with 1 teaspoon salt and 1 1/2 cups cold water. When couscous is cool enough to handle, break up any lumps with moistened fingertips. Allow couscous grains to swell 5 minutes. Then sprinkle with 1 tablespoon olive oil and lightly rake couscous grains with fingertips.

Add carrots, potatoes and drained fish to simmering broth. Make sure there is enough water to cover all solids by 1 inch. Bring broth back to boil. Fasten on perforated top, pile couscous into top container, cover and steam 15 minutes.

Lift top container, slip in peas, parsley and green chile to simmering broth, return top container and steam another 5 minutes.

Tip couscous into wide serving dish. Taste cooking liquid. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Broth should be just thick enough to lightly coat back of wooden spoon. Add contents of cooker to couscous and gently toss to combine. Cover and let stand 15 minutes before serving. Makes 6 servings.

Each serving contains about:

899 calories; 1,518 mg sodium; 43 mg cholesterol; 53 grams fat; 81 grams carbohydrates; 26 grams protein; 2.55 grams fiber.

Note: Dried baby sardines, size of whitebait, can be found in Asian food stores, where they are called niboshi (in Japanese), ca com (in Vietnamese), joetkal (in Korean) and chao pai (in Chinese). Look for bright, shiny-skinned firm fish, which will keep indefinitely in dry place. Though it is not necessary to remove heads from Tunisian ouzef (unless they are sandy), it is wise to do so with Asian substitutes, because, according to Jacki Passmore, author of “The Encyclopedia of Asian Food and Cooking,” some fish heads will turn bitter when cooked.

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Qadid is a sort of North African confit, where lamb is preserved in olive oil. The spicing and drying of the meat is similar to the treatment given to Turkish bastourma. The resulting flavorful, pastrami-like flesh is used by Tunisian cooks to infuse aroma, spicy flavor and richness to an endless number of recipes, including dishes of beans and lentils, bread, couscous and even scrambled eggs. Shoulder chops have just the right amount of bone and flesh for preserving. The preserving oil, called dhen, should not be discarded because it makes an excellent fat to use for Tunisian soups and stews. Tunisian cooks insist Qadid will keep a year if well stored, but I have never kept it for more than two months.

Tunisian Spiced and Preserved Meat (Qadid)

1 1/2 pounds lamb shoulder

1/2 cup coarse sea salt

1/2 head crushed cloves of garlic

2 teaspoons crushed red pepper flakes

1/2 teaspoon ground caraway

1/2 teaspoon ground coriander

1/2 teaspoon dried mint, pressed through sieve

3 cups olive oil or more as needed

Cut each chop into 3 or 4 long strips. (Use cleaver to crack through bones.) Rub flesh with salt and garlic. Stack strips in deep bowl, cover and refrigerate overnight.

Following day, dry meat with paper towels, rub with red pepper, caraway, coriander and mint and set on cake racks in 175-degree oven to dry, about 8 hours. Meat is ready when dry to touch but still supple enough to bend slightly.

In deep skillet or saucepan heat olive oil, add meat and fry until light crust forms on all sides. Remove from heat and allow meat to cool in oil. Divide meat between 2 (1-pint) Mason jars. Cover with frying oil and top off with fresh oil to completely cover meat by 1 inch.

Store in refrigerator. As you remove pieces of Qadid, add fresh oil to keep all remaining pieces from being exposed to air.

Always soak Qadid in water to remove excess salt before cooking, about 15 minutes. Makes 15 to 20 strips Qadid.

Each of 15 strips contains about:

434 calories; 1,575 mg sodium; 22 mg cholesterol; 46 grams fat; 1 gram carbohydrates; 7 grams protein; 0.1 gram fiber.


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