10 things you didn’t know about this UNESCO intangible cultural heritage dish


Couscous was inscribed on UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage list on December 16, 2020. Morocco, Algeria, Mauritania and Tunisia have all campaigned for it to be added to this list.

These four Maghreb countries have never ceased to emphasize their differences by creating variations of this ancestral dish – with vegetables, chicken, lamb’s head, octopus, snails or onions. The only constant in all these traditional dishes is a semolina base, a sauce and steam.

So what’s the original recipe? Where is he from? How has this dish traveled and evolved around the world? What spices should I use?

We have the answers here for you.

1. Not necessarily made from durum wheat!

Couscous refers above all to a technique which consists in transforming a cereal into more or less fine granules, by rolling the semolina. Once dry, it will keep for a long time without rotting. Over the centuries, the basis of durum wheat has often been replaced by barley in the Maghreb (meltouth), cassava or millet in the Sahel and Cameroon, and by corn among the Fulani.

According to Marianne Brisville, historian at the Lyon II University and member of Ciham (History, Archeology, Literatures of Medieval Christian and Muslim Worlds Unit), new variants already began to appear during the medieval period, such as fityānī, which was prepared in Marrakech and made from breadcrumbs.

2. A battle over its origins

Although Morocco, Algeria, Mauritania and Tunisia have agreed to jointly submit an application to UNESCO, they still disagree on the provenance of the couscous.

The researchers do not share an opinion either.

Some historical sources mention an appearance in the Sahel, in the south of present-day Algeria, while others refer more broadly to the Maghreb, from Zab to Marrakech, via the Atlas mountains.

According to Sihem Debbabi Missaoui, professor at the University of Manouba in Tunis, couscous was first mentioned in Tunisia during the Hafsid period (1228-1574). However, at the time, borders did not exist and an archaeological excavation can often reveal another.

More broadly, some attribute the origin of the dish to the Berbers, others to sub-Saharan Africa. And competition between countries goes further. Every year, people from all four countries try to cook “the biggest couscous in the world”.

3. From Africa to the Vatican

Couscous has always traveled from Africa to elsewhere. Recipes have been found in the East dating back to the 13th century, Brisville says. The dish did not become known in Christian Europe – at least by its elites – until the 15th century. Pope Pius V’s private cook even talked about it!

It is said to be part of the royal Spanish cuisine at the beginning of the 17th century, then came to Italy via the Jews of North Africa, who also brought to France the famous “couscous balls”.

Some attribute the introduction of merguez to the French, while others point out that beef sausages have also existed in North Africa. However, the “royal couscous” from France, which mixes different meats, is still often seen as a heresy on the other side of the Mediterranean.

4. Quarrels over names

The etymology of the word couscous has also been the subject of much debate.

The dish was called taʿam (food or cereal in Arabic) from the 11th century, according to researcher Mohamed Oubahli. Linguists relate the word to the Arabic root kassa Where kaskasa, which means to grind, others with Berber words siksû and kisksû, which would then have been Arabized.

Term mentions kuskusū were found in texts from the 12th century, then that of kaskas, which referred to the perforated container used for cooking the dish, in the 17th century.

5. A plethora of recipes

This name quarrel is also fueled by the names of the different recipes: maghlout (a mixture of barley and wheat semolina), fir Where distant (with fennel leaves), borzgane (white couscous with lamb and dried fruits) and osbane (with tripe and stuffed casings).

In parts of northern and southern Tunisia, the word barkoukish often refers to couscous made from large, cooked grains. In the region of Aurès in Algeria, it is called berboûcha or aberboûch.

6. Couscous from the sea

No precise date is known as to when fish and other seafood began to be added to couscous, but Tunisians generally take credit for the idea.

“In a poor society, people cooked with what nature offered,” says Missaoui, “and Tunisians in the Sahel (coast) region lived off the fish they caught, because the meat was scarce and expensive. This coastal region still prepares couscous with steamed sardines or sardine dumplings, while in Tunis you can find couscous with fish and quince.

However, seafood couscous is not only associated with Tunisia, warns the researcher. Its neighbors know the Bônois fish couscous (popular in Annaba, Algeria), and the “Amazigh couscous”, which is prepared with cornmeal and fish and is popular in the Moroccan region of Souss, Essaouira and Safi.

7. A spice festival

Dill, turnip greens, khobiza (mauve)… Herbs are what make each couscous dish unique. The most commonly used spice is ras el-hanout (a mixture of spices composed of cinnamon, ginger, coriander, cardamom, nutmeg, pepper, etc.). Others prefer to add cumin or harissa.

8. With or without sugar?

Recipes from the Middle Ages included plums or nuts. Today, the most common sweet couscous dish is mesfouf. In Tunisia, it is prepared with cream and dried fruits. It can be served with a mint tea or a glass of lben Where rayeb (fermented and curdled whey and milk), and is sometimes flavored with orange blossom.

9. A festive dish

These sweet variations are often served on the last night of a wedding.

As chef Nordine Labiadh writes in his book Couscous for all (Solar Editions, 2020), “there is a couscous for every party”. More generally, the dish is used to celebrate the great events of life: births, funerals and other sacred festivals.

10. Instructions on how to eat couscous

According to Labiadh, if the couscous is presented in a collective dish, everyone must eat the portion in front of them by rolling part of it into a ball the size of a dumpling using their index and middle fingers and bring it to his mouth with their thumb.

Each guest’s portion is accompanied by vegetables, meat or other ingredients, and the excess is placed in the middle of the dish.


About Wesley V. Finley

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