Winner of the James Beard/ KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year 2000 and Winner of the Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food 2000.
June 1, 2023
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Mangia Bene

Couscous is a staple food in the Maghrib that requires very little in the way of utensils for its preparation. It is an ideal food for both nomadic and agricultural peoples. The preparation of couscous is one that symbolizes “happiness and abundance,” in the words of one culinary anthropologist.

One of the first written references to couscous is in the anonymous thirteenth-century Hispano-Muslim cookery book Kitāb al-ṭabīkh fī al-Maghrib wa’l-Āndalus. There one finds a recipe from Marrakesh, alcuzcuz fitīyānī, a couscous made for the young and described as “known all over the world.” The fact that the name is given with the Arabic article al- is a flag to the linguist that the original couscous preparation probably was not an Arab dish, but a Berber dish, because the Arabic words siksū, kuskus, and kusksi, which all mean “couscous,” do not take the article. In any case, we know that the Naṣrid royalty in Granada ate couscous, as mentioned in a culinary poem by the qāḍī (magistrate) of Granada, Abū cAbd Allah bin al-Azrak. “Talk to me about kuskusū, it is a noble and distinguished dish.” There is a recipe for couscous in another Hispano-Muslim cookbook, the Kitāb faḍālat al-khiwān of Ibn Razīn al-Tujībī, a book from either the late eleventh or thirteenth century.

The famed Arab traveler Leo Africanus (c. 1465-1550), also mentioned couscous with some delight: “Of all things to be eaten once a day it’s alcuzcuçu because it costs little and nourishes a lot.” The thirteenth-century Kitāb al-wuṣla ila l-ḥabīb fī waṣfi aṭ-ṭayyibāti wāṭ-ṭīb, written or compiled by a Syrian historian from Aleppo, Ibn al-cAdīm, identified as the grand-nephew of Saladin, the great Muslim warrior and opponent of the Crusaders, has four recipes for couscous; three are called shucaīriyya and the fourth is called Maghribian couscous. Shucaīriyya is a word used today in Lebanon to mean a “broken vermicelli” or to refer to the rice-shaped pasta called orzo.

 (Photo: Berber woman preparing couscous in Essaouira, Morocco)

These very early references to couscous show that either it is not unique to the Maghrib or it spread with great rapidity to the Mashraq (the eastern Arab world). I believe it is unique to the Maghrib and was invented there and that its appearance in the Levant is a curiosity. Personally, I agree with Professor Lisa Anderson of Columbia University, who suggests that the “couscous line” in North Africa is the Gulf of Sirte. In Tripolitania to the west, they eat couscous; and in Cyrenaica to the east, they eat Egyptian food. Couscous was only a curiosity east of the Gulf of Sirte. In the Mashraq, one form of couscous is also known by the word maghribiyya, indicating that it is recognized as a food of the Maghrib (the western Arab world). Even today couscous is not eaten that much by Libyans of Cyrenaica and western Egyptians, although it is known by them. But in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Tripolitania couscous is a staple. There is little in the way of archeological evidence of early use of couscous, mainly because the kiskis was probably a basket made from organic material set over a marmite-like terracotta bottom vessel and never survived. Some shards of a marmite-like vessel have been found in the medieval Muslim stratum at Chellala in Algeria, but the dating is difficult. Interestingly, the couscous recipes from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are no different from the ones today.

I believe couscous entered Tunisia sometime in the twelfth century, by virtue of the monumental studies of Zīrīd (972-1148) and Ḥafṣid Tunisia (1228-1574) by historians Hady Roger Idris and Robert Brunschvig, who found no references to couscous in twelfth-century Zīrīd Tunisia and many references by thirteenth-century Ḥafṣid times. The great Arab writer al-Muqaddasī (writing circa 985-990) never mentions couscous, although he is noted for writing about the foods he encountered. But couscous is mentioned in connection with many saints of Ḥafṣid times including Ibn Naji’s description of burkūkis as a large-grained couscous with meat that is virtually identical with the maghribiyya mentioned in the recipe Kaskasu bi’l-Laḥm. There is also an admiring description in the writings of Ibn Faḍlallah of Tunisian pilgrims in Mecca in the fifteenth century who magically produced a plate of couscous, accompanied with melted butter, beef, and cabbage.

By the fourteenth century, there are many references to pasta secca and couscous. In Pedro de Alcala’s Vocabulista, published in Granada in 1505, he mentions kouskoussou as a hormigos de massa (coarse-ground wheat dough). Al-Maqqarī, a historian writing in Damascus in the seventeenth century and our principal authority for the literary history of Muslim Spain, relates a story told in the fifteenth century of a man in Damascus who helps someone from the Maghrib who fell sick. In a dream the Prophet tells him that he should feed the sick man kouskoussoun, a word used as a noun. A century earlier the famed Arab traveler Ibn Baṭṭūta (1308-1378?) also mentions couscous.

One of the earliest appearances of couscous in northern Europe is in Brittany, when Charles de Clairambault, the naval commissioner, in a letter dated January 12, 1699, tells us that the Moroccan ambassador, cAbd Allah bin cAisha, and his party of eighteen had brought their own flour and made couscoussou with dates and that it was a delicious dish they made for Ramadan. But couscous made its appearance much earlier than that in Provence, where the traveler Jean-Jacques Bouchard writes in 1630 of eating in Toulon a “certain kind of pasta which is made of little grains like rice, and which puffs up considerably when cooked; it comes from the Levant and is called courcoussou.” Unexplained, and most interesting, is his identification of the couscous coming from the Levant and not North Africa.

Couscous is served with meat, fish, vegetables, and spices. Cooked simply with sour milk and melted butter, it left the hungry traveler feeling full and was the traditional food of the poorest, namely the nomadic Berbers. For centuries, black African women were employed as couscous cooks, a phenomenon that might be indicative of the sub-Saharan African origins of couscous. Even today in Morocco the dada--young black Saharan and sub-Saharan women who serve as domestics, especially as cooks--are often employed to prepare couscous. The Tuareg, a Muslim Berber tribe of the Sahara, also employ young black servant women to make couscous. Black slaves were also prominent as cooks in medieval Egyptian households and up until the nineteenth century. In Muslim Spain, too, black slaves would prepare meals in aristocratic homes while the wives would prepare the food in poorer homes.

The Berbers, to whom the invention of couscous is often attributed, call couscous sekrou or seksu and so do Moroccans of Arab origin, while it is known as maftūl or maghribiyya in the countries of the eastern Mediterranean and suksukaniyya in the Sudan. Various Berber tribes of Morocco have different names for couscous. The Abu Isaffen called it shekshu, while the Rif call it sishtu and the Beni Halima call it sisu. In Algeria, couscous is called kisksū or ṭacam, meaning “food” or “nourishment,” indicating the importance of couscous as a daily staple. Even in western Sicily I have come across couscous called by this purely Algerian Arabic expression. In Tunisia, couscous is called kiskisi, kisskiss, kuskusi, or kusksi. Very large couscous grains are called muḥammaṣ or burkūkis, while very fine grains, usually used for sweet couscous dishes, are called masfūf.

There are also local names for certain kinds of couscous preparations, such as burzqān in Béja, Tunisia, where a fine-grain couscous is mixed with fresh butter, mutton, saffron, and chickpeas, sprinkled with hot milk, and garnished with raisins, almonds, pistachios, hazelnuts, and walnuts. Malthūth is a barley couscous used by the poor. It is sorted carefully, cleaned, and grilled in a kind of platter called a ghanācā. It is then pounded, sieved, and dried in the open air. A second sifting collects the barley. A further sieving through a finer sieve allows for the larger grains to be retained, dashīsha, as it is called in southern Algeria, also the name of a porridge made of pounded wheat and butter. The smaller grains that have fallen through can be used for barley couscous or caṣīda or bazīn, a kind of polenta with a sauce of bell peppers, chiles, tomatoes, harīsa, onions, and a little meat. In southern Tunisia, ground fenugreek is sprinkled on the couscous.

  (Photo: Moroccan couscous)

The best and most famous couscous is made from hard wheat. Hard wheat couscous was probably invented by Muslim Berbers in the eleventh or twelfth-century Maghrib. The argument that couscous was invented in Spain, an argument based on the fact that the first written recipe for couscous is from an Hispano-Muslim cookery manuscript, is not compelling. Evidence is mounting that the process of couscous cookery, especially steaming grain over a broth in a special pot, might have originated before the tenth century in the area of West Africa where the medieval Sudanic kingdom thrived, today encompassing parts of the contemporary nations of Niger, Mali, Mauritania, Ghana, and Burkina Faso. Even today in the region of Youkounkoun of Guinea and Senegal, a millet couscous with meat or peanut sauce is made, as well as a rice couscous.

Millet was also used for couscous by the Kel Ahaggar, a nomadic people of the desert of southern Algeria, who probably learned about it in the West African Sudan, where it has been known for centuries. Ibn Baṭṭūṭa journeyed to Mali in 1352, and in today’s Mauritania he had a millet couscous: “When the traveler arrives in a village the negresses take out millet, sour milk, chickens, lotus-flour, rice, founi [Digitaria exilis Stapf.], which resembles mustard grains, and they make a couscous.” Ibn Baṭṭūṭa also mentions rice couscous in the area of Mali in 1350. Millet couscous was never as popular as hard wheat couscous because it took longer to cook and didn’t taste as good.

This claim for the African origins of couscous was originally proposed by Professor É. Lévi-Provençal, in his monumental Histoire de l’Espagne Musulmane and is suggested in the early Arabic sources on West Africa. Other studies, such as Professor Robert Hall’s, using the tenth-century work of Ibn al-Faqīh’s Mukhtasar kitāb al-buldān, also seem to support this suggestion. In West Africa, one finds sorghum, founi, black fonio (Digitaria iburua) ,and finger millet (Eleusine coracana), a cereal of Nigeria (also cultivated in India) made into couscous. The Hausa of central Nigeria and the Lambas of Togo call this couscous made with black fonio, wusu-wusu. Sorghum was a popular grain for making couscous, and the Moroccan Berber word for sorghum, illan or ilni, is the same as the word in the West African language of Songhai, illé, lending further circumstantial evidence for an African genesis for couscous.