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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.”