Couscous: Long-Term Maghreb Staple Still Going Strong
(Encyclopedia of the Orient [http://lexicorient.com/e.o/]; Detroit News – 08/08/02; BBC News – 04/06/04; Biloxi Sun Herald – 11/11/04)
The word 'couscous' may have come from the Berber word seksou. Other possible origins include the Arabic word kaskara -- which means to pound small -- the Arabic word kiskis for the steamer pot it is cooked in or from the actual sound of the steam rising during cooking.
Couscous spread from the Maghreb to Egypt, sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. The dish was brought in the 13th century to the Iberian peninsula, where it became popular among the Moors. A period of Muslim rule from 829 to 1063 may be responsible for couscous turning up in Sicily. Portugal brought the food in the 16th century to its Brazilian colony, where it is a popular breakfast item today.
The low-fat source of complex carbohydrates is becoming increasingly popular in America and other health-conscious Western nations. Other reasons for the surge of Western demand is growing vegetarianism, the current popularity of Mediterranean cuisine, the influx of Maghreb immigrants, the ease of preparation and couscous's adaptability to many flavours and dishes.
Couscous consists of two parts semolina and one part mixture of flour, salt and water. Preparations begin with handfuls of the semolina being sprinkled with salty water. Flour is added while the portions are fluffed on a clay tablet by hand. Small grains are separated during the process. Oil is added when the grains reach the right size, which makes the couscous ready for the addition of meat and vegetables.
While some poor and rural areas still employ the traditional means of baking couscous, many people buy the product already formed. Another option is to make several-weeks supply at once and store it in a dry place until needed. Tunisians add the spice harissa to make the grains spicy and red in colour.
Couscous remains a popular North African ingredient because it is inexpensive and versatile. The food, which the region associates with nationalism and cultural identity, is often served on Fridays. During family feasts and celebrations, the inclusion of couscous represents solidarity. The food is also a key part of diffas, multi-dish feasts served during festivals. By serving couscous at festivals such as those marking the end of Ramadan, the food is associated with abundance.
The appeal of the dish is evident in a catering college in Tizi Ouzou, Algeria, breaking an unofficial Tunisian record by preparing the world's largest couscous in June 2004. The "Guinness Book of World Records" was on hand to ratify the record dish, enough to serve 22,000 people. The couscous contained 2,600kg of dry semolina, meat from 100 sheep and 1.5 tonnes of vegetables. The kiskis, which sat on a three-tonne stove, was 4.3m wide and 8m deep.
Couscous's reign of popularity could be threatened by upstart quinoa, an ancient Incan ingredient enjoying resurgence. The grains are nuttier, more bitter and less chewy than its competitor -- although they are the same size and colour. The main weapon of quinoa in the grain battle is that its higher level of protein and lower level of carbohydrates makes it more nutritious than couscous and other cereal grains. The disadvantage of the interloper is the bitter-tasting resin that coats its seeds, though the effect can be mitigated through rinsing it underwater before cooking.
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