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What is Couscous?

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Couscous Salad

Couscous Salad

Photo by Bethany Moncel

Couscous is a small granular pasta made from semolina flour. Although couscous has become a trendy ingredient in the western world over the past decade, it has been a staple food in North Africa for centuries. It is so popular, in fact, that it is even considered the National Dish of Morocco.

How is Couscous Made?

Traditionally, making couscous consisted of hand rolling semolina that has been combined with water until it formed pellets. These pellets were then dried in the sun and stored until needed. This method is very labor intensive but has been the primary means of making couscous for generations. Most couscous available on the commercial market in the western world is produced mechanically.

How is Couscous Cooked?

Couscous must be hydrated prior to eating and is therefore either steamed or boiled. Steaming is the preferred method of preparation as it creates a light, fluffy end product. Boiling tends to cause a sticky or gummy end product. A combination method of boiling and steaming, similar to cooking rice, is also quite common.

Flavored broths or stocks are often used to cook couscous in order to add flavor. Couscous can also be steamed above a simmering stew to capture and infuse the flavors of the stew.

How is Couscous Served?

Couscous is an excellent starchy bed for saucy stews because it absorbs moisture and flavor so well. Couscous can also be made into a pilaf, of sorts, with almonds, dried fruit, and spices. Couscous can be tossed with grilled vegetables, cheese, and fresh herbs for a hearty salad.

In many countries, couscous is also served as a dessert. Couscous is combined with honey, dates, and sesame or simply milk and sugar for a simple treat.

Where to Buy Couscous

Couscous can be found in ethnic grocery stores, particularly those specializing in African or Middle Eastern ingredients. Health food stores often stock couscous and it can many times even be purchased in bulk. With the popularity of couscous increasing in the United States, many national grocery chains are beginning to carry couscous. Couscous can usually be found in the grain aisle near the specialty rice, near boxed pilaf mixes, or in the pasta aisle.

Couscous Varieties

In the United States, the most common variety of couscous on the market is “instant” couscous. This couscous has been par-steamed and then dried prior to packaging. Cooking instant couscous only requires the addition of boiling water, which the couscous granules quickly absorb.

Whole grain couscous has also been popping up in the market. This couscous is also made of semolina flour but includes the entire grain, making it higher in fiber and other nutrients. Whole grain couscous may have a slightly different flavor and texture than regular instant couscous.

How to Store Couscous

Couscous should be stored in the same manner as other semolina pasta. Keep couscous in a cool, dark place in an air-tight container to keep out bugs and other mites. Heat and moisture can promote mold growth and cause staling.

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