Cuscus, cuscussù, couscous, kiskusu, seksu… all variations on the unique dish found from Sicily to North Africa. In the Taste Workshop “Terra Madre Network: Sicily and Algeria Cous to Cous” you’ll have the opportunity to meet two couscous experts and hear two great stories linked to the dish. Sid Alì Lahou is a chef and founder of a co-op that produces couscous from organic Algerian ingredients and Mairlù Terrasi is a chef and owner of the restaurant Pocho in San Vita lo Capo, which features a couscous dish typical of Trapani.
Master of an Ancient Ritual
“Couscous is an exercise in waiting. You need patience, time and tranquility,” says Marilù Terrasi. It is a celebration that she repeats every Sunday morning for guests at her restaurant in Makari, a small town close to San Vito lo Capo in the Trapani province.
Marilù graduated with a degree in philosophy before continuing her studies as a researcher at Palermo University’s Institute of Folk Traditions within the Faculty of Literature and Philosophy. She combines her studies, passion and theatrical talent to spread Sicilian art and folk culture around the world. Today, among many other activities, she is the chef and owner of the restaurant Pocho, which is named after the mascot of her theatre company. The theatrical experience is part of the nightly dinner service, with Marilù coming out of the kitchen to entertain her guests with traditional folk songs and stories.
“My studies allow me to live the mystery of couscous that intrigued me as a girl, and now I can appreciate the effort it takes to enter a world that only begrudgingly opens itself to foreigners.” Mostly unknown in Palermo, couscous is a typical dish of the Trapani province and it is with patient determination that Marilù mastered this rite that is the keeper of ancient secrets: “It was only when I learned to incocciare – to mix or knead the dough with just the right amount of water based on the size of the grains to be obtained – that I understood why the older women made me watch for so long. Besides, what recipe could they give me?” These days she is the one who passes on this knowledge; in Makari and around Italy she is called to teach the procedure that has its own special language, from the names of the utensils used to the ingredients themselves. “The grain has to be incocciata in a mafararda – a terracotta bowl with high, flared sides – by sprinkling a little bit of water with your left hand while with the right you kneed the grain, pressing it down while stirring until you get the grains to the right size. The couscous is steamed in a couscousiere sealed with a paste of flour and water called cuddura that keeps the steam locked in and which, after cooking, becomes cudduredde, small rings of pasta that help to appease impatient children when dipped in the fish broth.” The grain must be cooked and then has to sit for about an hour in the mafararda wrapped in a thick woolen cloth, before it can be enjoyed with accompanying dishes. Marilù suggests fish broth and mixed fried fish…
Here is recipe to produce couscous that approximates the traditional recipe of Trapani.
Ingredients for eight people:
1 kg of coarse semolina
salt, pepper, chili powder, cinnamon, bay leavescloves to taste
1 lemon – peel only
water as needed
1 kg of mixed fish for broth
2 liters of tomato sauce
Almond pesto: 150 g of almonds, bunch of parsley and1 head of garlic blended with olive oil
optional: fish for frying to accompany the dish
Slowly pour the coarse semolina into a large bowl – traditionally a terracotta mafararda – kneading it around in a circular motion with your right hand and sprinkling it with a little water with your left hand to form small pellets. Dress the now incocciata semolina with oil, salt, pepper, cinnamon and chopped parsley to taste and one onion finely diced. Place the semolina in the couscousiere (a large double boiler with holes in the bottom of the upper pot allowing its contents to steam – may be improvised by placing a metal colander lined with cheese cloth over a pot and covering) placing a few bay leaves and pieces of lemon peel between layers of semolina. Steam for roughly an hour, making sure to add a bunch of fresh herbs, cloves and some of the fish for broth to the boiling water.
In the meantime prepare the fish broth:
Fry one sliced onion in abundant olive oil. Add the tomato, salt and pepper, a pinch of chili pepper, cinnamon and the almond pesto. Cook for 20 minutes and towards the end add the kilo of mixed fish that has been previously cleaned.
When the couscous has finished steaming move it to a large bowl and pour over half of the broth and some of the fish, cut into small pieces. Cover with a woolen cloth and let sit for 45 minutes.
Serve with the remaining broth and top with fish fried in a good olive oil if desired.
To vary this dish, substitute the fish in the broth for pork, lamb, legumes or vegetables and vary the spices used.
The Many Flavors of Couscous
Sid Alì Lalhou is a passionate and atypical Berber producer; self taught, he is now a chef and head of a co-op that produces up to three tons of semolina every day for 14 different types of couscous: wheat, oats, rice, rye, corn, a mix of two cereals, flavored with lavender, thyme or mint, and even gluten-free. All of them are rigorously organic and made following traditional methods by women involved in the co-op. “Dressed in the traditional colorful clothing of the Berbers, the women work sitting on the ground, “hugging” large terracotta jars with their legs in which they mix the grains sprinkled with water. The couscous is then strained and steamed in a bare room on stoves fueled by propane tanks,” explains Sid. In the winter the process takes five or six days, while in the summer it goes quite a bit faster as they place the couscous on the terraces to dry in the sun. Sid participated in Terra Madre 2010 and decided to organize an event for Terra Madre Day a few weeks later. “It was wonderful to learn that all over the world there are passionate and capable people who work every day to spread a certain approach to food. In Algeria I had the impression of being alone, but through Slow Food I discovered that extraordinary initiatives exist all over, from Mauritania to Senegal, just to mention Africa. I started to work on compiling a list of associations and producers who are committed to the defense of local, traditional products in Algeria and during this work I discovered lots of interesting initiatives that should be encouraged.” Now Sid can’t wait to come together with Marilù at Salone del Gusto and Terra Madre and compare their couscous: “I went to San Vito lo Capo in 2005, when I won an international couscous contest with a recipe that uses organic barley semolina with vegetables, tomatoes, zucchini, carrots, green beans and a little beef. At the Taste Workshop I’ll present barley couscous with leeks and chickpeas; it’s going to be mouthwatering!”
Sweet Seffa Couscous
Ingredients for six people:
1 kg of couscous
50 g of chopped almonds
50 g of chopped walnuts
100 g of raisins
40 g of honey
50 g of dates
50 g of dried apricots
50 g of almond flour
50 g of butter
2 spoons of olive oil
Prep Time: 20 minutes
Cooking time: 20 minutes
Soak the almonds, walnuts and raisins in hot water for two hours.
Remove the raisins and steam them for 15 minutes.
Soak the couscous, drain and let it stand for 15 minutes.
Steam the couscous for ten minutes and then moisten with salt water.
Mix the couscous with the almond flour, nuts and raisins. Steam the mixture again for ten minutes. Remove from heat, mix well and add oil and butter. Drizzle the couscous with honey and then decorate with the dates cut in half, apricots and a few almonds, walnuts and raisins.
In Algeria this dish is often served with a glass of ighi (buttermilk).