Kaskasu bi'l-Khudra (Couscous with Vegetables)
Photo: Clifford A. Wright
What is Couscous?
Couscous is made from two different sizes of the husked and crushed, but unground, semolina of hard wheat using water to bind them. Semolina is the hard part of the grain of hard wheat (Triticum turgidum var. durum), that resisted the grinding of the relatively primitive medieval millstone. When hard wheat is ground, the endosperm--the floury part of the grain--is cracked into its two parts, the surrounding aleurone with its proteins and mineral salts and the central floury mass, also called the endosperm, which contains the gluten protein that gives hard wheat its unique properties for making couscous and pasta--that is, pasta secca. Couscous is also the name for all of the prepared dishes made from hard wheat or other grains such as barley, millet, sorghum, rice, or maize.
Although the word couscous might derive from the Arabic word kaskasa, “to pound small,” it is generally thought to derive from one of the Berber dialects. It has also been suggested that the word derives from the Arabic name for the perforated earthenware steamer pot used to steam the couscous, called a kiskis (the French translation couscousièr is the word English-speaking writers have adopted), while another theory attributes the word couscous to the onomatopoeic--the sound of the steam rising in the couscousièr, the most unlikely explanation.
Kaskasu bi'l-Khudra (Couscous with Vegetables)
Difficulty: Labor Intensive
Yield: Makes 6 servings
Preparation Time: 2 1/2 hours
This simple Algerian couscous is made only with couscous and vegetables, called simply enough kaskasu bi'l-khuḍra, meaning the same, although another version from Setif, in eastern Algeria, adds lamb shoulder and chicken legs to the mix. This recipe calls for instant or precooked couscous which is what the box label will say. For more on couscous and Algerian food see, in the Food History section, under “Algeria,” “Algerian cuisine and its intricacies.”
2 cups instant (partially precooked) couscous
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, grated
2 large garlic cloves, very finely chopped
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon harīsa and more for garnish (see recipe under “Tunisia”)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
5 to 6 quarts water
1 cup canned chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1 large turnip (1 pound), peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes
1/2 pound pumpkin or winter squash, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes
6 thin carrots (3/4 pound), scraped and cut in half
4 small zucchini (3/4 pound), quartered
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
- In the bottom of a couscoussiere or a large pot that can fit a colander on top, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat, then cook, stirring frequently, the onions and garlic until soft and golden, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the tomato paste, cumin, cinnamon, cayenne pepper, harīsa, salt, and pepper and stir and cook for 1 minute. Pour in 2 quarts water and the drained chickpeas, bring to a boil over high heat, and add the turnip and pumpkin. Reduce the heat to medium-high.
- Put the couscous into the top part of a couscoussiere or a colander lined with cheesecloth. Place on top of the bottom part or the large pot, if using a colander, and cover with the lid. If using a colander and there is a space between the colander and the pot, wrap with a wet kitchen towel to seal the space. Steam the couscous for 20 minutes. Once you see steam rising from the couscous, add 1 tablespoon butter and 1 teaspoon salt and stir and fluff with a fork and continue cooking, covered.
- Add the carrots to the broth and replenish it with some water and bring back to a boil leaving the top part off. Add the zucchini to the broth and place the top part back on top and cook until all the vegetables are soft, about 20 minutes. Remove the top part with the couscous, fluff the couscous with a fork, then carefully (so they don't break apart too much) remove the vegetables with a slotted spoon and set aside in a bowl. Add some more water to the broth, replace the top part or colander and continue steaming the couscous, covered, until soft and fluffy, 50 to 60 minutes more. Add the reserved vegetables to the broth 10 minutes before the couscous is finished.
- Transfer the couscous to a serving bowl and fold the remaining butter into the couscous. Once the butter is melted, stir with a fork until all the grains are glistening. Mound the couscous attractively in a large serving bowl or platter. Transfer the vegetables and broth to a tureen for serving. When diners serve themselves, have each person place three serving spoonfuls of couscous into a bowl. Top with vegetables and two to three ladlefuls of broth. Add a teaspoon of harīsa if desired and let the bowl sit to absorb some broth before eating.
A Short History of Couscous
Couscous is a staple food in the Maghrib that requires very little in the way of utensils for its preparation. It is an ideal food for both nomadic and agricultural peoples. The preparation of couscous is one that symbolizes “happiness and abundance,” in the words of one culinary anthropologist.
One of the first written references to couscous is in the anonymous thirteenth-century Hispano-Muslim cookery book Kitāb al-ṭabīkh fī al-Maghrib wa’l-Āndalus. There one finds a recipe from Marrakesh, alcuzcuz fitīyānī, a couscous made for the young and described as “known all over the world.” The fact that the name is given with the Arabic article al is a flag to the linguist that the original couscous preparation probably was not an Arab dish, but a Berber dish, because the Arabic words siksū, kuskus, and kusksi, which all mean “couscous,” do not take the article. In any case, we know that the Naṣrid royalty in Granada ate couscous, as mentioned in a culinary poem by the qāḍī (magistrate) of Granada, Abū cAbd Allah bin al-Azrak. “Talk to me about kuskusū, it is a noble and distinguished dish.” There is a recipe for couscous in another Hispano-Muslim cookbook, the Kitāb faḍālat al-khiwān of Ibn Razīn al-Tujībī, a book from either the late eleventh or thirteenth century.
The famed Arab traveler Leo Africanus (c. 1465-1550) also mentioned couscous with some delight: “Of all things to be eaten once a day it’s alcuzcuçu because it costs little and nourishes a lot.” The thirteenth century Kitāb al-wuṣla ila l-ḥabīb fī waṣfi aṭ-ṭayyibāti wāṭ-ṭīb, written or compiled by a Syrian historian from Aleppo, Ibn al-cAdīm, identified as the grand-nephew of Saladin, the great Muslim warrior and opponent of the Crusaders, has four recipes for couscous; three are called shucaīriyya and the fourth is called Maghribian couscous. Shucaīriyya is a word used today in Lebanon to mean a “broken vermicelli” or to refer to the rice-shaped pasta called orzo.
These very early references to couscous show that either it is not unique to the Maghrib or it spread with great rapidity to the Mashraq (the eastern Arab world). I believe it is unique to the Maghrib and was invented there and that its appearance in the Levant is a curiousity. Personally, I agree with Professor Lisa Anderson of Columbia University, who suggests that the “couscous line” in North Africa is the Gulf of Sirte. In Tripolitania to the west, they eat couscous; and in Cyrenaica to the east, they eat Egyptian food. Couscous was only a curiosity east of the Gulf of Sirte. In the Mashraq, one form of couscous is also known by the word maghribiyya, indicating that it is recognized as a food of the Maghrib (the western Arab world). Even today couscous is not eaten that much by Libyans of Cyrenaica and western Egyptians, although it is known by them. But in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Tripolitania couscous is a staple.
This section is adapted from my book A Mediterranean Feast.