If there’s a single word capable of conjuring up North African or Maghrebi flavors, then that word surely has to be couscous. Without going into the matter of who first had the idea of mixing water and bran to create the granules for couscous, it is true to say that the dish comes from the plains and mountains of North Africa, from the area between the South Mediterranean and the Old World.
The term ‘Maghrebi’ defines everything that comes from the Maghreb, the northwest region of Africa that corresponds, largely, to the modern state of Morocco. For the Arab world, this huge region is counterpoised to the Mashreq, which comprises all the countries situated between the east of the Maghreb (Libya) and Iran (Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the Arab Peninsula and Iraq).
At the end of September, couscous was celebrated at San Vito lo Capo, a pretty little sandy bay in the west of Sicily. For some years now, couscous professionals have been meeting here to present their own versions of the dish and, hopefully, to carry off first prize in the competition. This carefree event attracts a multitude of visitors, fun-loving as only southern Italians know how to be. This year’s competitors came from Morocco, Tunisia, the Ivory Coast, Senegal, Palestine, Israel and Italy.
From Mashreq to Maghreb each country and region has its own flavors and aromas, some familiar, some exotic. Couscous is an emerging dish in the panorama of ‘ethnic’ or ‘world’ food, and Moroccan, Tunisian, Algerian and Libyan variations now served virtually all over the planet. This is a dish that has traveled since time immemorial, adapting to every place into which it has been introduced and to local produce.
In actual fact, there’s no such thing as a Moroccan couscous as opposed to a Tunisian couscous. Couscous is simply the granule, prepared with bran and water, that provides the base for the dish and accompanies the seasonal produce of the land. Along the coast, you often find fish couscous, whereas inland the dish is generally served with lamb and vegetables—and sometimes even sweet as a dessert. In short, it is a dish that can be made with any ingredients that happen to be available.
In the Middle Ages, Arabs took couscous and all their many other delicacies with them on their voyages and invasions, hence different versions grew up country by country. In the East, in Lebanon and Syria, it is possible to find a type of couscous known as Moghrabieh, which simply means ‘of the Maghreb’. The granules are bigger—about the size of a chickpea—than those used in a normal couscous, and are accompanied by chicken and meat, chicken stock, lots of baby onions, flavored with a special blend of spices with a prevalence of cumin and caraway seeds.
The ‘globalization’ of couscous also emerged in the different interpretations of the dish served up by the competitors at Couscous Fest 2002. Yet you could still tell Mashreq from Maghreb. Or, better still, it was possible to appreciate the difference between tradition and innovation.
Cooks from Maghreb tended to produce versions of couscous faithful to ancestral traditions, whereas those from the Mashreq let themselves go in combinations and preparations and interpretations, free from the constraints of tradition or old-fashioned preparation techniques.
The ‘traditionalists’ stood out for the perfect texture of their couscous. Here was couscous as it has always been cooked—and eaten. Leading the way for the traditionalists was, of course, Morocco, which won a jury prize for its sweet, cinnamon-flavored ‘bride’s couscous’. The Tunisians also exalted tradition with a melon-based summer couscous, thereby demonstrating that the dish depends not only on typical local ingredients, but also on seasonal produce. Senegal’s couscous was also traditional, but entirely different, made with baobab and cassava leaves, while the granules for the couscous from the Ivory Coast were even made with cassava flour.
The innovators obviously had no such ancestral, unchangeable traditions to turn to. Palestine and Israel shared the special mention for the most innovative recipes.
Palestine served maftul, a cuscus made with bulgar wheat flavored with sumach and pomegranate, both typical local delicacies. The Israeli chefs, on the other hand, came up with a lamb couscous in which the meat was served in a French-inspired wine sauce.
Italy, which won first prize, entered a revisited version of the fish-based couscous traditionally made in Trapani and elsewhere in the west of Sicily. Served in fine crepes of grilled Parmigiano, it gave a sensationally Italian slant to the dish.
In short, thanks to all these wild and wonderful variations on the simple theme of bran and water granules, Couscous Fest 2002, at San Vito lo Capo, proved to be an exemplary exercise in how the table can bring people of the most diverse extractions together in peace.
Kamal Mouzawak is a contributor to Saveurs du Liban et d’ailleurs, Lebanon’s most important f&w monthly.
Adapted by John Irving