Couscous is one of the world’s most extraordinary foods, more delicate than any gnocchi, light as a snowdrift.
It’s also terribly misunderstood.
More than just the stuff that comes out of a box, couscous is a whole world of wonderful dishes: sublime stews spooned over the ethereal granules. They can be as luscious as pappardelle with rabbit ragu or as carefully harmonic as a great pesto. But they also have exotic allure. It might be long-simmered lamb and pumpkin with ginger and saffron, or loup de mer with quince, or perhaps veal and chicken with zucchini and almonds. Chickpeas frequently make an appearance, as do raisins, almonds, dates and spices such as cinnamon and coriander.
“You can push the parameters of couscous the same way you can push pasta,” says Paula Wolfert, author of “Couscous and Other Good Food From Morocco.” “The difference is the couscous grain. Pasta can’t compare with it in delicacy.”
It’s odd that couscous has never caught on here in L.A., despite the Moroccan restaurants that have been part of our dining scene since the ‘70s. A town that can fall so hard for pasta ought to be able to see the glory of couscous.
A man who’s keenly sensitive to the possibilities of couscous is Adel Chagar of Chameau restaurant, probably L.A.'s leading Moroccan chef these days. Most Moroccan restaurants stick to tried-and-true favorites, but he has an inventive, contemporary take on the cuisine he inherits. He puts fashionable duck in his otherwise hyper-traditional bestila (he makes that savory pie with warqa, the crisper hand-made North African cousin of filo). He turns preserved lemons into a dip, serves merguez sausage with chickpea fries and offers almond beignets with lemon cream and honey ice cream for dessert.
The decor of his Fairfax Avenue place is just as contemporary as the food -- think Morocco through a psychedelic kaleidoscope. A whimsical representation of a camel’s eyelash runs the length of the ceiling. No hand-washing ritual or belly dancer here. And the menu is seasonal. At the moment, one of Chagar’s most impressive dishes is an aromatic lamb shoulder tagine that he serves over delicate vegetable couscous.
Alongside his couscous entrees, he also has side-dish versions of couscous flavored with raisins or pearl onions, none of which is traditional. “Well, of course, this is why we’re not in Morocco,” he joshes.
Michel Ohayon, proprietor of the 27-year-old Koutoubia in Westwood, was the first Moroccan restaurateur in our town to let diners choose their own dishes, rather than forcing everybody at a table to order the same things. But Koutoubia still represents the grand, traditional style of Moroccan restaurant, with the pillows and the belly dancer and the mint tea poured into tiny cups from on high.
And the dishes on the menu are mostly classics, though he has served specials like lamb with fresh fennel. The most traditional element of all is his mother, Gilberte, who cooks the couscous most nights, as she has for decades, with the expertise of a lifetime’s experience.
“My grandmother taught me to make it in Morocco,” she says. “When you steam it two times, it’s very healthy. It’s so soft, you don’t have to put anything on it -- just sugar and cinnamon if you want.”
North African staple
In North Africa, couscous is the centerpiece of the traditional Friday family lunch. It’s always the last thing served at a banquet or a party, where it occupies the place of dessert, the course that makes sure every guest’s appetite is completely satisfied.
And in some parts of Morocco, it’s even more basic than that. The local word for couscous in those places is ta’am, which literally means “food.”
As a culinary region, North Africa is a mosaic of regional styles that don’t always fit neatly into national borders. But Morocco is the only Arab country that was never absorbed by the Ottoman Empire, so for centuries it has continued to have its own kings, who have sponsored an impressive court cuisine. As a result, Moroccan couscous, which is represented in most of our North African restaurants, tends to be served with rich stews aromatic with multiple spices, particularly in Marrakesh. Saffron is the most glamorous of them, but ginger, cinnamon, coriander and turmeric add their fragrance.
Algeria is an agricultural country with a robust, rustic cuisine, and the stews that accompany its couscous are typically less refined than in Morocco. During the 1960s, there was a craze for Algerian restaurants in Paris, and as a result, people who have fallen in love with couscous in France expect the Algerian hot sauce harissa with North African food, even at Moroccan restaurants. The practice of serving couscous, stewed meat and broth in separate bowls, rather than on a single plate, is also Algerian. As for Tunisia, it has the richest fishing grounds of any Arab country, so it makes a specialty of fish couscous dishes.
Couscous with seven vegetables (couscous a sept legumes) is a North African classic, assumed to be Moroccan though it’s also made in Algeria. There’s a lot of dispute about the correct seven vegetables that have to be included: Everybody seems to agree on tomatoes, turnips, carrots, zucchini and pumpkin, but what about peppers, cabbage, eggplant or fava beans? People also argue about which Moroccan city originated it: Fez, famous for its subtle and sophisticated cuisine, or Rabat, where seven-vegetable couscous is considered the “national dish.”
Fez is certainly the home of some wonderful cooking, but Chagar -- who happens to be a Rabati -- is skeptical of its claim. “Fez is one of the oldest cities,” he says, “so they think everything comes from there.”
Steam works magic
If we saw couscous in this setting, as the fluffy, ethereal accompaniment to richly flavored North African stews, we’d treat it with proper respect. Unfortunately, we’ve come to think of it as a convenience food -- a pre-cooked grain that you pour from the box into a bowl and just add hot water. The result is edible, but it’s a pale shadow of real couscous.
The essential thing about real couscous is that it is steamed. Not soaked in hot water, as the recipe on the couscous package tells you to do. Steaming makes all the difference.
Why is couscous steamed? Because of the way it’s made, by sprinkling drops of water into a bowl of durum semolina and stirring it until granules form. It’s not kneaded at any point, so the granules are not held together by gluten, the way pasta is.
This means couscous can’t be boiled without turning into mush, but it’s also the reason for its delicacy. The couscous granules have none of the rugged texture that comes from gluten and, when they’re steamed, they can swell much more than pasta ever could.
“I can get 16 to 18 cups of cooked couscous out of a pound of dry by steaming,” says Wolfert. “But following the box instruction -- just leaving the couscous to soak in hot water -- I get only six cups.”
Six cups versus 16. That’s the difference between something that’s merely edible and something that has passed the ordinary bonds of food, becoming supernally light and fluffy.
During the 19th century, a company in colonial Algeria took the fateful step of marketing something called couscous rapide. Cooks had always dried some of their couscous for using later, but for this new product the granules were steamed before drying, so that the starch in the semolina was already cooked, as in bulgur wheat.
Still, if the cook steamed couscous rapide properly, it produced a good, fluffy result, so it became a pantry staple in North African households. And restaurants, for that matter.
But they don’t soak it in hot water. They begin by moistening the granules with cold water. “The couscous grains should never touch hot water,” Chagar says. “That makes it soggy.”
Then they steam it. In North Africa, this is done in a special pot called a couscoussier, where the couscous cooks in a perforated pot set over the stew that it will be served with.
Steaming over the stew is done in North Africa because it saves on firewood, a crucial consideration in the local economy. Some people say the couscous also picks up a subtle flavor from the stew, but Wolfert dismisses this.
“I no longer believe in steaming over the stew,” she says. “You have much better control over your ingredients if you can watch them as they cook.” From a cooking standpoint, it’s better to cook the stew in one pot and steam the couscous over water in another.
It’s easy to improvise a couscoussier by fitting a colander or Chinese steamer over a spaghetti pot. Remember that the couscous should never touch hot water, so be sure there’s at least half an inch of space between the colander and the water’s surface.
The two parts of a metal couscoussier fit tightly, but if you use a colander you may have to create a seal, as Moroccans do when they use clay couscoussiers. In the Times Test Kitchen, we got a steamer basket to fit quite snugly without help; if it’s not a good fit, take a strip of cheesecloth, moisten it, sprinkle it generously with flour and shake it off. Fit this around the rim of the pot and seat your colander on top of it. The steam will turn the flour into a paste that makes an effective seal.
Before steaming, the couscous granules are moistened with cold water and allowed to rest, then rubbed between the fingers to break up any lumps and moistened with a little oil or butter so they’ll stay separate as they cook. When steam starts coming out of the colander, transfer the couscous into it and steam for 20 minutes.
Then take the couscous out and, when it’s cool enough to handle, repeat the process of moistening and separating. Steam the couscous again at least once. “Cook it as much as you can without it becoming soggy,” says Chagar. “At Chameau, we steam it three times.”
After steaming it the last time, moisten it with broth and let it sit 10 minutes before you serve it.
Obviously, this takes longer than pouring the package into hot water. But it’s not really that much work, and the result will be much more enjoyable. (Speaking of enjoyment, Moroccans say that under-steamed couscous -- and this would go double for pour-it-into-hot-water couscous -- swells up in your stomach. “Think about, it,” Wolfert says. “That grain could have swelled to 16 or 18 cups. It’s got room to grow, so it’s going to grow somewhere. It’s going to grow in your stomach.”)
If the idea of two or three 20-minute steamings with a little work in between sounds daunting, cookbook author Anya von Bremzen suggests that you could make the stew the day before -- it would even improve overnight, as stews tend to. Because couscous tends to be a complete meal, with meat and vegetables, that leaves nothing but the couscous to do the next day.
When the couscous is done, arrange it on the serving plate, moisten with a bit of flavorful broth and arrange the meat and/or vegetables in the middle.
You’ll be able to enjoy one of the great delicacies: a perfumed stew accompanied by an elegant mound of ethereal granules that seem to drift into your mouth on their own.