Couscous: The World's Pasta
Couscous is one of those foods that is so deceptively simple, you could eat it your entire life without giving it much thought. That was certainly the case for me until a trip to Sicily some years ago brought me face to face with the dish’s fascinating intercultural legacy.
Though it’s sometimes mistaken for a grain, couscous is a type of steamed pasta made from semolina, the nutritious, coarsely ground middlings of durum wheat. Its mild flavor and light, fluffy texture pair well with a wide variety of foods, making it highly adaptable to the cuisines of different cultures.
There are a few theories about where the name originated—it may be derived from the Berber word seksu, meaning “rounded” or the Arabic word kaskasa, which means “to pound into small pieces.” In Tunisia, it’s called kousksi, in Alergia kesksu, and in Morocco seksu.
Sicily has a unique relationship to the Arab world thanks to a legacy which is distinct both geographically and culturally from mainland Italy. Nowhere is this culinary tradition stronger than in Trapani, a city on the island’s westernmost coast. Couscous alla Trapanese (Trapanese couscous) is easily found on restaurant menus, where it’s served with a saffron and cinnamon-laced broth, then topped with fish and sprinkled with almonds. But how did couscous, a Maghreb dish which originated with Berber communities in North Africa, make it to Sicily?
In the 9th century A.D., Sicily was invaded and colonized by the Aghlabids, an Arab Muslim dynasty that ruled modern-day Tunisia and eastern Algeria. Ancient Sicily, which had been an underpopulated Roman province most notable for the grain it produced for the Republic, flourished under Arab rule. Their superior irrigation systems, remnants of which still exist intact under Palermo, paved the way for advanced agricultural methods. Eventually, crops like oranges, lemons, rice, almonds, sugar, and durum wheat were introduced to the island. Stroll through any pastry shop in Sicily today, and you’ll notice the presence of these ingredients in iconic sweets like cannoli. Likewise, the saffron, cinnamon, and almonds used in Trapanese couscous have parallels in Arab cuisine, and all owe their presence in modern-day Sicily to 9th-century Arab colonizers. Importantly, the same durum wheat used to make couscous also served as a precursor to the durum wheat pasta which lies at the heart of Italian cuisine today.
Although scholars aren’t certain exactly when couscous was introduced to Sicily, they have a good idea why it became a staple throughout North Africa and the Mediterranean during ancient times. Couscous was (and remains) a highly transportable dish, requiring few utensils to prepare and serve. It is ideal for sharing, and a little goes a long way nutritionally speaking. It can also be dried and stored for long periods, though in Sicily and throughout the Arab world it is still made by hand. Small amounts of water are worked into semolina flour, which is rubbed together to form small balls then oiled before being steamed in a double-chambered boiler called a couscousiere. This process produces larger, softer grains than the dried, pre-steamed variety available in stores.
Though the preparation of couscous itself remains fairly standard across cultures, recipes vary significantly. In Tunisia, where couscous is the national dish, it is typically served with a tomato-based sauce and a fragrant spice blend which includes coriander, caraway, garlic, and crushed chiles. In Southern Tunisia, toppings might include tripe, herbs, and hard-boiled eggs, though meat and fish are also common. In Morocco, typical ingredients also include almonds, dried fruits, cinnamon, and caramelized onions, which are also hallmarks of Sicilian cuisine. Couscous also factors heavily in the traditional cuisine of the Jewish people of North Africa.
Within the last two decades, couscous has gone global thanks in part to an overall trend toward healthy eating and interest in the benefits of a Mediterranean diet. Recently, efforts have been undertaken to have couscous included on UNESCO’s list of intangible cultural heritage. Researchers hope the dish’s unique culinary heritage will highlight the bonds between Tunisia, Algeria, Libya, and Morocco.