Algerian Couscous: ‘The Food’
Algerian Couscous: ‘The Food’
May 30, 2007 -- Any Algerian who has the opportunity to taste American couscous would be surprised. The American version of couscous does not resemble that which has existed in North Africa for centuries.
Couscous is to North Africans what pasta is to Italians and rice is to the Chinese. Berber (native North Africans) by origin, it is the main dish of the most happy events (like wedding feasts) and even the worst.
It has also something of spirituality. In many North African homes, the week could not end without Friday afternoon’s bowl of couscous, served after the prayer with a cup of whey. The association of couscous with these festivities also attaches it to the concepts of abundance, fertility and barakah (God’s blessing). If somebody, for example, escaped miraculously from a misfortune, he would hurry to thank God by organizing a waada, in which he has to distribute bowls of couscous to the poor people.
Algerians, at the heart of the Maghreb (a region in the northwest), pride themselves on the authenticity of their unpretentious, robust couscous. In Algiers, couscous is simply called al taam (the food). This name is certainly symbolic of the importance of couscous in the country.
Making couscous is traditionally a female activity that involves much work. On a big flat plate, the woman in charge puts a handful of freshly ground hard wheat, sprinkles on salted water and a bit of flour, and with her palms rolls the grain until the couscous granules appear.
She sifts these with sieves of different diameter to obtain granules of similar size. Finally, couscous is sun-dried and stored or cooked. But now that a lot of Algerian women are working, they generally order it from women specialized in rolling of grains or just buy packages in the groceries.
North African couscous is not boiled but steamed to avoid a pasty texture. The traditional North African method is to use a steamer called a kiskas in Arabic or couscoussiere in French. Couscous should be steamed two to three times.
It is moistened with water and oil (preferably olive oil) before cooking. Every 10 or 15 minutes the couscous is taken out of the pan to add oil or butter and to work it by hand to avoid lumps. When properly cooked, the texture is light and fluffy; it should not be gummy or gritty.
The couscous available in most Western supermarkets has been pre-steamed and dried. The package directions usually instruct to add a little boiling water to it to make it ready for consumption.
This method is quick and easy to prepare by placing the couscous in a bowl and pouring the boiling water or stock over the couscous, then covering the bowl tightly. The couscous swells and within a few minutes is ready to fluff with a fork and serve. That’s probably why the taste of the American couscous seems so different from the North African one.
A versatile dish, couscous can be mixed with vegetables and legumes — mostly zucchinis, carrots, turnips and chickpeas. The meat served with the couscous differs from one region to another.
While Algerians make couscous with every kind of meat (chicken, lamb, beef, turkey, rabbit and even camel), Tunisians prefer it with fish and hot salsa (harissa). In addition, Algerian couscous includes tomatoes and a great variety of legumes and vegetables, and the Moroccan couscous uses saffron.
Generally, traditional Algerian cuisine, a colorful combination of Berber, Turkish, French and Arab tastes, can be either very mild or packed with flavorful seasonings. Ginger, saffron, onion, garlic, coriander, cumin, cinnamon, parsley and mint are essential in any Algerian pantry. The cuisine of North Africa presents colors, perfumes and flavors.
Maghreb is also known for its tagines (meats cooked with chickpeas and vegetables) and for its endless sauces. The word “tagine” refers not only to a popular dish in North African cuisine, but also to the earthenware pot used to make it.
The tagine pot is almost like a mini oven in itself. Shaped almost like a vase, the bottom is round, much like a skillet. The top continues up, like a coned smokestack with a wide mouth. This keeps the right amount of heat inside. They are used to make what is essentially a meaty stew. Spiced meats and plenty of vegetables (and sometimes fruit) are placed inside the tagine and very slowly cooked over a charcoal fire. It is the kind of dish that opens the doors of the Eastern delights.
Traditional Algerian Couscous
Makes 6 to 8 servings
Couscous: (makes 5 to 6 cups):
2 cups of traditional couscous (not the instant kind found in most grocery stores)
2 cups water (about)
4 tablespoons vegetable or olive oil
1 tablespoon vegetable or olive oil
1 pound eye of round or other cut of beef, cut into 6 to 8 pieces the size of a deck of cards
1 medium onion, chopped in 1/4-inch pieces
1 1/2 teaspoons cumin
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 cup tomato paste
1 cup dried chickpeas that have been soaked in cold water overnight, or 1 can well-rinsed and drained
2 medium turnips, cut into pieces 4 to 5 inches long by 1 inch wide
4 or 5 large carrots, halved lengthwise and cut into pieces 4 to 5 inches long
2 or 3 large zucchini, cut into pieces 4 to 5 inches long by 1 inch wide
Method: Place the couscous in a large bowl. Pour 1/4 cup of water over it and work it through with your fingers, breaking up any lumps. Add 1 tablespoon of oil and work it through with your fingers. Let stand 15 to 20 minutes.
Repeat this process three or four times.
Line the insert of a two-tiered vegetable steamer with lightly oiled cheesecloth. Fill the bottom pan about halfway with water, making sure it doesn’t touch the bottom of the insert. Bring to a boil. Steam the couscous for 15 minutes, then remove from the steamer and put into a bowl. Let it cool enough to break up any lumps and fluff the couscous with your fingers.
Repeat the steaming process two or three more times, letting it cool and fluffing the grains between each steaming.
Meanwhile, make the sauce. Heat 1 tablespoon oil over medium heat in a large pan or Dutch oven. Season the meat on both sides with salt and pepper. Sear the meat until brown on both sides. Remove the meat, add the onions and cook until translucent.
Add the meat back to the pot, along with the cumin, cinnamon and tomato paste. Add water to cover. Bring to a simmer and add the chickpeas, turnips and carrots. Add water to cover and bring back to a simmer. Add the zucchini. Simmer for 20 to 30 minutes, or until the vegetables are tender but not overcooked.
Season to taste with salt and pepper.
To serve, mound the fluffed couscous in the middle of a platter and arrange the meat and vegetables around the edges. Spoon the chickpeas in the middle. Spoon some sauce on the couscous and sprinkle with cinnamon.
Pass the sauce separately, as well.
If you have a big enough pot and steamer insert, the couscous can be steamed over the sauce.
The sauce can also be made with chicken, lamb or mutton.
Couscous: ‘The Food’