What is Moroccan Couscous & how to prepare it?
What is Moroccan couscous & how do you prepare it? Couscous is well known to be the signature food of North Africa, this North African national dish had even caught the attention of the Nasrid royalty in Granada!
There are numerous names and pronunciations for couscous around the world. In Arabic it’s pronounced kuskusi, while it is also known as seksu or kesksu in Morocco which means “well rolled“, “well formed” or “rounded“. Many Moroccans also call it ṭa`ām which literally means food.
In Egypt and most of the Middle East, couscous is a known dish that is cooked occasionally, but in Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco and Libya, (known as Maghreb Al Arabi region) couscous is a staple food eaten much more often, usually every Friday’s.
How is it made?
Technically couscous is a form of pasta, with one main difference; while pasta is made from wheat flour, mixed with water and then formed into shapes. Couscous, on the other hand, consists of durum wheat that is crushed into granules. So despite popular belief that couscous is a type of whole grain, it is actually a pasta made of semolina and wheat flour that is moistened and tossed together until it forms little balls.
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 which are too small to be finished granules of couscous and fall through the sieve are again rolled and sprinkled with dry semolina and rolled into pellets. This process continues until all the semolina has been formed into tiny granules of couscous. This traditional method & process of preparing the couscous is labour-intensive, so there used to be groups of women that came together to make large batches over several days, these batches were then dried in the sun and used for several months, sobhan Allah!
Here is a short video demonstrating the method of the traditional forming/rounding of the couscous:
Couscous that is sold in most Western supermarkets has been pre-steamed and dried; the package directions usually instruct to add 1.5 measures of boiling water or stock and butter to each measure of couscous and to cover tightly for 5 minutes. The couscous swells and within a few minutes, it is ready to fluff with a fork and serve. Hence why pre-steamed couscous takes less time to prepare than regular handmade Moroccan couscous.
Here is a video example of the factory process:
Properly cooked couscous is light and fluffy, not gummy or gritty. Since couscous is made from durum and wheat flour, it doesn’t have much of a taste, it’s very similar to pasta and perfect to mix with any spices & ingredients. Traditionally, North Africans use a food steamer (called a كِسْكَاس kiskas in Arabic or a couscoussier in French). The base is a tall metal pot shaped rather like an oil jar in which the meat and vegetables are cooked as a stew. The steamer sits on top of the base where the couscous is cooked, this allows it to absorb the flavours from the vegetable & meat stock. You can also use a standard pot with a steamer insert and if the holes are too big, you can line it with a damp cheesecloth. Standard pots are sometimes too small to carry the veggies though!
How to traditionally steam Moroccan couscous
Authentic Moroccan couscous, is always steamed in a couscoussier, shown above, these can come in different sizes, so be sure to check you have the right size for the ingredient capacity.
The traditional steaming method is always the prefered way to go for extra light, fluffy couscous that’s perfect for absorbing the dish’s flavourful gravy. However, as with many authentic preparations, this method is slightly more time consuming as it requires 3 stages of steaming, it is a pretty simple process & definitely worth the extra effort. Steaming the couscous doesn’t add any actual cooking time to the dish’s preparation, but each steaming will require about 5 minutes of prep work.
It’s good to note at this point that if you are making couscous for a salad or side dish, one cup of dried couscous equals 2 1/2 cups of cooked couscous, so for best results use 1/2 to 3/4 cup of couscous as an average serving.
- Start by adding roughly about 1/4 cup oil to the couscous, this should be adjusted depending on how much couscous your cooking, these measurements are normally for 1kg. Empty your dry (non-instant) couscous into a large deep bowl. Moroccans usually use a gas’aa, but you can use something similar to this. Toss, rub, and stir the couscous with your hands to distribute the oil as this helps prevent any clumping.
- Add about 1 cup of water to the couscous, and toss the couscous and rub it between your hands until the water is evenly distributed. You may see the couscous already broadening a little this is normal, but it needs to steam in order to become tender.
- Lightly oil the interior of the steamer. Transfer the couscous to the steamer loosly, taking care not to compress it.
- Place the steamer on top of the base of the couscoussier. The couscous meat, veg and gravy will be stewing in the bottom at the same time.
- Steam usually can escape from where the steamer and base meet, so you’ll want to seal the joint. So us Moroccans usually wrap and tie a long piece of a damp cloth over the joint and it sticks in place as the steam dries it out. If you can’t find a suitable cloth you can easily use a long piece of kitchen plastic film and tightly wrap it around where the steamer joins parts.
- Once you see steam rise from the couscous, allow to steam for a full 15 minutes.
- Once the couscous has completed its first steaming, empty it from the steamer into your large bowl. Use a spoon to break it apart, and allow it to cool a few minutes.
- Sprinkle 2 cups of water with a tablespoon of salt. Toss the couscous and rub it between your palms to break up any balls or clumps. My mum does this while it’s hot, but if you’re like me and can’t handle the heat, you can use these great heatproof gloves.
- Put the couscous back into the steamer — again, loosely so that you don’t pack it and steam a second time for another 15 minutes, timing from when you see the steam rise from the top of the couscous. Remember to seal the joint if you notice steam escaping from the sides.
- Now the couscous has completed its second steaming, you should empty it into your large bowl again. Repeating the breaking up process, and allow to cool slightly.
- Separately add 3 cups of water this time, tossing and mixing the couscous with your hands after adding each cup. The couscous should be light, fluffy now, but should continue to soften during the last steaming and from adding the soupy gravy during serving time.
- Transfer the couscous back into the steamer loosely again, piling it in lightly and steam for 1 last time for another 15 minutes, again timing from when you see the steam. don’t forget to reseal the edges of the couscoussier.
- Now because of the volume of couscous, it will take slightly longer for the steam to emerge. So some Moroccan cooks don’t add all the couscous for the final steaming in a single quantity. They might place 1/3 or 1/2 of the couscous in the steamer, and add more when they see the steam rising.
- After the third steaming and you have broken up all your couscous back into the large bowl, toss in 2 tbsps of butter and a couple of ladles of meat/veg gravy.
- Once thoroughly mixed your couscous is ready to serve. The meat and vegetables are arranged on top, and more soupy gravy is poured over. Some prefer the couscous less wet than others so my mum takes it easy at this point but always serves extra gravy on the side in a gravy boat.
How is it served?
In Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, and Libya, couscous is generally served with a meat or chicken broth that includes vegetables such as carrots, courgettes, aubergine, turnips, parsnips, pumpkin, cabbage & sweet potato. It almost always includes chickpeas and seasonal vegetables too! This stew-like Tagine can be made spicy or mild depending on what region it’s from.
7 Traditional Moroccan Couscous Dishes you have to try
Couscous with Seven Vegetables –
This is an all-time most common favourite variation of Moroccan couscous. A much-loved comfort food, many families serve for Friday lunch. I will always remember that feeling when we’ll eagerly gather around the table to enjoy it as a family after Jumm’ah (Friday congregational prayer). It’s also referred to as Couscous Bidaoui, in reference to the Arabic name for Casablanca, where this version of the dish originated.
Couscous Bi’Tfaya –
This couscous dish is more occasional and enjoyed on special occasions or with guests. It typically includes organic free-range chicken that’s cooked until soft and succulent, placed on top of a ring of fluffy couscous, generously soaked with its tasty gravy then topped with a flavoursome caramelized onion and raisin garnish called tfaya. The gravy is commonly accompanied with chickpeas & frequently garnished with roasted or fried Almonds and boiled eggs.
Couscous Bil’Rass –
Translated as couscous with head, it’s usually a sheep’s or goats head. This is a famous Moroccan street food mainly found in the markets of Marrakech, where they offer couscous as a side dish to accompany their roasted sheep heads. Sheep heads & tongues are a Moroccan delicacy, it’s not one of my preferences but I’ve never tried it. It’s popular enough to mention nonetheless.
Couscous Royal –
So, this couscous is famously known as the Royal, I’m assuming it’s the king of all couscous because it comprises of a selection of different meats rather than one. The meats that are most commonly included in this variation are, chicken, Lamb or beef or both and must certainly include Merguez Sausage which is a tasty North African lamb sausage, with a burst of spice and earthy flavour!
Couscous Bil’Gueddid –
In place of fresh meat or poultry, dried meats such as gueddid (salted and sundried cultured meat pieces) kind of like what the west would call a jerky, can be used. This is especially common in the days following Eid Al Adha, or at certain other times of the year, such as the Day of Ashura.
Couscous Bi Seffa –
This is a sweet version of couscous that comprises of extra soft and fluffy couscous mixed with melted butter, sugar and cinnamon then garnished with nuts, dates, raisins and more sugar and cinnamon 😉 It’s often accompanied with some chilled Leban(buttermilk/yoghurt drink) the pair complement each other perfectly!
Couscous With Buttermilk – Saikouk
Saikouk is another way Moroccans like to enjoy couscous, especially in the hot summer days when it is served chilled. It is traditionally prepared with barley couscous & buttermilk, some might prefer to add a little sugar but its most commonly consumed without, plus that’s what makes this dish super healthy and good power food. Buttermilk can be traditionally referred to as Rayeb, Leban or Rayan. It is a type of fermented milk similar to plain liquid yoghurt with lots of benefits of its own.
Uncooked couscous should be stored in a cool place in a well-sealed container. It’s said to be able to last up to two years raw. However, cooked couscous will last about 3 days in the fridge, saying that though, it could possibly lose its freshness sooner if it is combined with other ingredients that spoil faster.
Unfortunately, couscous doesn’t offer the same nutritional benefits as a whole grain such as brown rice, bulgur and barley. It’s more similar to pasta, with a very small amount of fibre and protein. Maybe if you choose whole-wheat couscous, the fibre content will double. But bare in mind this may take longer to cook if it’s raw.
You can, however, get different grains such as barley, bulgar wheat and oats that come as couscous substitutes. Bare in mind that when cooking with different grains, this will affect how much water is absorbed by the grain as well as the length and number of steaming sessions. For example, fine couscous might require less water than medium or large; barley couscous requires more water than semolina etc.
I really hope you enjoyed and benefited from this post, please feel free to leave any comments or further info and suggestions in the comments section.
Wa alaykoum assalam