Durum wheat is grown primarily in the Middle East, southern Europe, North Africa, the former Soviet Union, North America and India. When coarsely ground, it yields the semolina flour used to make couscous. This staple has connected communities worldwide through celebrations and meal rituals for more than 800 years. Recently, it was credited for bridging differences among four countries through recognition of shared values and food traditions. In 2020, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Mauritania came together to establish couscous as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
Couscous is made by rolling moistened semolina into a crumbly mixture, sifting it through a sieve to the desired size, then steaming and drying it. Some couscous, such as moghrabeih and maftoul, is rolled into pea-sized or larger pellets. Not technically couscous, Ptitim — popularized as Israeli or pearl couscous — is a pasta product invented in the 1950s as an affordable rice option in Israel.
The word couscous represents both an ingredient and an iconic dish. Its origins trace back to the Berber ethnic group of Numidia and it is referred to by multiple names across North Africa and the Middle East, including seksu or kseksu, meaning “well-rolled grains,” or kuskus, related to a word meaning “to pound small,” or names that seem to mimic the sounds of “skss, skss” made from sifting semolina through a sieve.
In the Kitchen: Substitute rice, pasta or other grains with couscous to plump up salads, add body to soups and stews, soak up flavorful sauces or create contrasting textures for vegetables, legumes, poultry and meat dishes.
The mild flavor of couscous complements fish, savory breakfast porridge and desserts and softens pungent ingredients including saffron, turmeric, harissa and ras el hanout spice blends.
Steaming couscous ensures tender, separated grains. Traditional pots for steaming couscous include the couscoussier, which cooks meats and vegetables in a liquid below an upper section designed to steam the couscous. A double boiler fitted on top with a fine sieve is a fine substitute.
Couscous can be simmered in a liquid and drained; however, for lighter, fluffier textures, add 1 cup couscous to 1 cup of a boiling liquid in a pot or a dish heated in a microwave, then stir, cover and set aside for 5 to 7 minutes or until water is absorbed and then fluff with a fork. This cooking method is most often used for the types of couscous that are readily available in the U.S., since they have been pre-steamed and dried, and need only to be reconstituted in boiling water. Use a pot or microwave dish that is large enough for couscous to expand by three to four times its original volume.
Couscous makes an easy, festive centerpiece for family dinners and parties. In North Africa, it’s traditionally integral to the main dish and is served in a large, shallow dish, such as a Moroccan gasaa, with ingredients placed in the middle and sauces spooned on top.
In the Clinic: Like other wheat products, couscous is available either as a refined grain or made with whole-wheat flour, so its nutrient content can vary. The wheat endosperm, which is left intact in both forms, contains the carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin, giving a golden hue to couscous made from semolina flour.
A ½-cup serving of plain, cooked couscous contains about 90 calories, 1 gram of fiber and 3 grams of protein. This portion is an excellent source of selenium, meeting nearly 40% of the recommended daily value. Selenium, an essential trace mineral, is a component of enzymes and proteins called selenoproteins that support thyroid gland function and DNA synthesis and protect against infection and oxidative cell damage.
People with celiac disease should avoid eating semolina couscous, which contains gluten; however, some gluten-free varieties are made from corn, sorghum, buckwheat, millet and fonio, a type of millet.
In Quantity: Semolina couscous is commonly found in grocery stores in a medium-grain size and available in coarse or fine granules in many Middle Eastern markets, online stores and foodservice vendors.
One cup of raw couscous can yield 4 cups cooked, depending on the type of couscous and cooking method. For larger quantities, 1 pound raw can yield nearly 9½ cups cooked.
To limit oxidation and rancidity, store uncooked couscous for up to a year in a dry, cool space in an airtight container. For large batches or when preparing couscous in advance, cool in shallow containers and refrigerate or freeze immediately to reduce the risk of toxins forming from bacillus cereus. Store cooked couscous for up to four days in the refrigerator or frozen for up to four months.
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Couscous: A Carb for Sharing | Food & Nutrition Magazine is written by Michele Redmond for foodandnutrition.org