Couscous: 10 things you didn’t know about this UNESCO dish of intangible cultural heritage

By Camille Lafrance

Posted on Friday, 30 April 2021 19:58
Couscous was added to UNESCO’s list of intangible cultural heritage on 16 December 2020 © ADAM AMENGUAL/The New York Times-REDUX-REA

Where did couscous come from? How should it be cooked? With or without sugar? We delve into the answers about this tasty dish, which is now a part of UNESCO's list of intangible cultural heritage.

Couscous was added to UNESCO’s list of intangible cultural heritage on 16 December 2020. Morocco, Algeria, Mauritania and Tunisia all campaigned for it to be added to this list.

These four Maghreb countries have continued to emphasise their differences by creating variations of this ancestral dish – with vegetables, chicken, lamb’s head, octopus, snails or onions. The only constant in all these traditional dishes is a semolina base, a sauce and steam.

So what is the original recipe? Where did it come from? How did this dish travel and evolve around the world? Which spices should be used?

We’ve got the answers right here for you.

1. Not necessarily made from durum wheat!

Couscous refers, above all, to a technique that consists of transforming a cereal into more or less fine granules, by rolling the semolina. Once it has dried, it will keep for a long time without rotting. Over the centuries, the durum wheat base was often replaced by barley in the Maghreb (meltouth), manioc or millet in the Sahel and Cameroon, and by maize among the Fulani people.

According to Marianne Brisville, a historian at the Université Lyon-II and member of Ciham (Unité Histoire, Archéologie, Littératures des Mondes Chrétiens et Musulmans Médiévaux), new variants already began to appear during the medieval period, such as fityānī, which was prepared in Marrakech and made from breadcrumbs.

2. A battle over its origins 

Although Morocco, Algeria, Mauritania and Tunisia agreed to submit a candidacy together to UNESCO, they are still in disagreement over where couscous comes from.

Researchers also don’t share an opinion.

Some historical sources mention an appearance in the Sahel, in the south of present-day Algeria, while others refer more widely to the Maghreb, from the Zab to Marrakech, via the Atlas Mountains.

According to Sihem Debbabi Missaoui, a professor at the Université de la Manouba in Tunis, couscous was mentioned for the first time in Tunisia during the Hafsid period (1228-1574). However, at the time, borders did not exist and one archaeological dig can often reveal another.

More broadly, some attribute the dish’s origin to the Berbers, others to sub-Saharan Africa. And the competition between countries goes further. Every year, people from all four countries attempt to cook “the biggest couscous in the world.”

3. From Africa to the Vatican

Couscous has always travelled from Africa to elsewhere. Recipes have been found in the East dating back to the 13th century, says Brisville. The dish only became known in Christian Europe – at least by its elites – from the 15th century onwards. Pope Pius V’s private cook even wrote about it!

It is said to have become part of Spain’s royal cuisine at the beginning of the 17th century, and then came to Italy via North African Jews, who also brought the famous “couscous boulettes” to France.

Some people attribute the introduction of merguez to the French, while others point out that beef sausages also existed in North Africa. However, France’s “royal couscous”, which mixes different meats, is still often perceived as heresy on the other side of the Mediterranean.

4. Squabbles over names

The etymology of the word couscous has also been the subject of much debate.

The dish was referred to as taʿam (food or cereal in Arabic) as early as the 11th century, according to researcher Mohamed Oubahli. Linguists link the word to the Arabic root kassa or kaskasa, which means to grind, others to the Berber words siksû and kisksû, which would have been later Arabised.

Mentions of the term kuskusū were found in texts dating from the 12th century onwards, and then that of kaskas, which referred to the perforated container used for cooking the dish, in the 17th century.

5. A plethora of recipes

This squabble over names is also fuelled by the names of the different recipes: maghlouth (a mixture of barley and wheat semolina), firfish or farfoush (with fennel leaves), borzgane (white couscous with lamb and dried fruit) and osbane (with stuffed tripe and guts).

In certain regions of northern and southern Tunisia, the word barkoukish often refers to a couscous made with large cooked grains. In the Aurès region of Algeria, it is called berboûcha or aberboûch.

6. Couscous from the sea

No precise date is known for when fish and other seafood started being added to couscous, but Tunisians generally take credit for the idea.

“In a poor society, people cooked with what nature offered,” says Missaoui, “and Tunisians in the Sahel region (coast) lived on the fish they caught, since meat was scarce and expensive.” This coastal region still prepares steamed sardine couscous or sardine balls, while in Tunis, you can find fish and quince couscous.

However, seafood couscous is not solely associated with Tunisia, warns the researcher. Her neighbours are familiar with Bônois fish couscous (popular in Annaba, in Algeria), and “Amazigh couscous”, which is prepared with cornmeal and fish and is popular within the Moroccan region of Souss, in Essaouira and Safi.

7. A festival of spices

Dill, turnip tops, khobiza (mallow)…Herbs are what make each couscous dish unique. The most common spice used is ras el-hanout (a spice mix composed of cinnamon, ginger, coriander, cardamom, nutmeg, pepper, etc.). Others prefer to add cumin or harissa.

8. With or without sugar?

Recipes from the Middle Ages included plums or nuts. Today, the most common sweet couscous dish is mesfouf. In Tunisia, it is prepared with cream and dried fruit. It can be served with mint tea or a glass of lben or rayeb (fermented and curdled whey and milk), and is sometimes flavoured with orange blossom.

9. A festive dish

These sweet variants are often served on the last evening of a wedding.

As chef Nordine Labiadh writes in his book Couscous pour Tous (Solar Editions, 2020), “there is a couscous dish for every celebration.” More generally, the dish is used to celebrate life’s major events: births, funerals and other sacred festivals.

10. Instructions on how to eat couscous 

According to Labiadh, if the couscous is presented in a collective dish, each person must eat the portion in front of him or her by rolling some of it into a ball the size of a dumpling using their index and middle fingers and bring it to their mouths with their thumb.

Each guest’s portion is accompanied by vegetables, meat or other ingredients, and the surplus is placed in the middle of the dish.

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