Moroccan vegetable couscous: today's includes winter squash, fresh fava beans, chickpeas, cabbage, turnips and potatoes

Happy Couscous Day, or how in Morocco, Friday = Couscous

02/27/2015 by Ellen

Couscous Friday: Culinary Traditions in Morocco

TGIF!  Here in Morocco that translates to two very important events: Friday prayer service and couscous.  Similar to the Sunday roast tradition for Christian families in the West, families throughout Morocco gather on Fridays, to join together in prayer at their neighborhood mosque and return home to enjoy a hearty meal of couscous.  While “couscous” in the United States and other Western countries typically refers to pre-packaged “instant” grains, in Morocco couscous is an institution unto itself.  Semolina grains are steamed and fluffed several times over a broth-based stew, each time handled with care and receiving different treatment, such as additional water, salt, oil and/or “smen” (clarified and aged butter). The end result is tender individual grains which serve as a delicate base for a delicious stew.

And the award for Moroccans’ favorite meal goes to …. Couscous!

If mint tea is considered the national drink of Morocco, couscous vies with tagines for the title of the national dish of Morocco and is woven into the cycle of life in Moroccan families. While couscous can be ordered in Moroccan restaurants, the best versions are considered to be prepared in homes. In addition to the Friday tradition of eating couscous, this special meal is commonly prepared after the birth of a child, for his or her “sbouaa” (naming ceremony) and for a young male child’s circumcision. It is often given as “sadaqa” (charity) to the poor and/or construction workers if building or buying a new house, or when purchasing a new vehicle.  Couscous is also prepared by grieving families to offer to visitors and fellow mourners wishing to pay their respects to the recently departed.

Brief History of Couscous

There is some debate over the origin of couscous, though it is most commonly attributed to the Berbers, general term for the indigenous people of North Africa. Berbers were more commonly nomadic tribes, so couscous, a dry grain which would not spoil easy and which could be prepared with minimal equipment and seasonal ingredients, was the logical choice for a satisfying and nourishing meal. Couscous in its various forms later spread throughout the region with the Arab conquest, and become even more popular worldwide when former colonial powers, such as France, Spain and Portugal, brought this dish back to their respective countries. Recipes for this distinguished dish can be found in cookbooks as early as the 13th century. There is equal debate about the meaning behind the name itself.  Some say it comes from the sound emitted from the “couscoussier” (French term for the steamer and base pan combo used to prepare couscous).  Others say it comes from an Arabic term to describe the raking of the grains between steamings – still others claim the name is derived from a verb in Arabic meaning  “to pound small”, referring to the size of the grains.

Dari brand Moroccan semolina couscous with couscoussier steamer

Traditionally semolia grains for couscous were rolled by hand, pushed through a sieve to size, then dried. Today most Moroccans buy pre-packaged couscous; Dari and Tria are popular brands. A couscoussier (a steamer and base pot combo) is used for preparing Moroccan couscous.

Couscous / seksu / kseksou – however Moroccans call it – it’s all delicious 

While the flavor of the couscous stew may differ in the Maghreb region – Algeria favors a tomato-based broth, and Tunisians definitely serve their couscous spicy! – all are served over steamed and plumped semolina.

In Morocco the most popular versions of couscous include chicken, beef or lamb, and are topped with either several types of vegetables, or “tfaya”, a sweet and savory mixture of caramelized onions, raisins and chickpeas.  Moroccan couscous is not typically spicy, though some families may choose to add a small chili pepper or two to the stew while it simmers. Instead, the flavor imparted to Moroccan vegetable couscous comes from freshly ground spices such as ginger, a hint of turmeric, and black pepper, along with smen. For tfaya couscous, cinnamon and honey star as the key flavors.  Some Moroccan cooks will chose fine-grained semolina; others prefer medium-sized grains.  Whole-wheat semolina is served by more health-conscious Moroccan wives, and yet others will prepare their weekly couscous with barley. Regardless of the type of couscous, in Moroccan homes it is always served in a shallow glazed clay platter called “gsaa” alongside glasses of freshly churned “lben” (buttermilk).  A summertime variation of the traditional Moroccan couscous is “saycouk”, where steamed semolina is cooled and then topped with cold buttermilk and sweetened with sugar.

Moroccan Vegetable Couscous with Lamb, Served with Buttermilk and Eaten with Spoons

Moroccan Vegetable Couscous with Lamb, Served with Buttermilk and Eaten with Spoons

Try your hand at making couscous at home

If you insist that instant couscous is delicious, please, I urge you, try the steamed version. Once you’ve had a taste of it, you most likely will never go back!  I highly recommend MoroccanFoodAbout.com for detailed recipes featuring authentic Moroccan dishes.  In particular, the post on Vegetable Couscous takes all the guesswork out of steaming the semolina; the end result will rival that of any Moroccan woman.  Except my mother-in-law. And my sister-in-law. Because quite honestly, they cook theirs with tons of love for me, and that is worth its weight in gold.

Now, if you’ll please excuse me, I have a steaming lamb-vegetable couscous in front of me to eat.

Cooking classes are a great add-on to Mint Tea Tours’ private tours throughout Morocco. We partner with the best cooking schools in Morocco, in cities such as Fes and Marrakech, and everything in between.

Can’t get enough of Moroccan food? Contact us today to build a personalized itinerary around cooking classes throughout Morocco, where you can learn to make traditional dishes with local flavor, such as fresh fish in Essaouira or Berber basics in the Atlas Mountains.

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