Israeli couscous is more than just couscous made in Israel. The couscous that is most familiar to most chefs and, by extension, to most diners hails from North Africa, particularly Morocco. The African version, like Israeli couscous, is served as the foundation for stews or cold salads. Both Israeli couscous and its more familiar cousin are a type of pasta composed of wheat flour and semolina, although Israeli couscous, according to some gourmands, has more personality.
In North Africa, this tiny pasta is called berkukes. A master of disguises, it goes by the name of matfoul in Palestine and takes a bow in Lebanon, Jordon, and Syria as well. The better-known and more traditional couscous is smaller, yellow, and irregularly shaped as a result of the fact that it is a dried pasta product.
Sautéed garlic, onions, and vegetables form the foundation for a properly prepared ptimim, as it is known in Hebrew. These sautéed vegetables might be supplemented with meat such as goat, sausage, or chicken. After these foods have cooked, the couscous jumps into the pot for a quick fry, after which enough water is added to steam the pasta bits.
Pearl, or Israeli, couscous watches its figure, being formed into perfectly shaped, tiny globes. Home cooks who are familiar with it already know it begs to be used in soups or salads and makes a perfect side for meat or vegetarian main dishes. Instead of being dried, Israeli couscous is toasted and boasts a chewy nuttiness as a result.
The combination of toasting and their perfectly round, pearl-like shapes means this type of couscous offers cooks a different textural base than traditional dried couscous. This type of couscous has no objections to being reheated, having a strong enough sense of self not to disintegrate into mush, as can its North African counterpart. It retains not only its shape with reheating but its delightful dense chewiness too.
This dish was first used as a substitute for rice during a time when it was scarce. Israel’s Mizrahi immigrants depended upon rice in nearly every meal, and its absence created dietary unhappiness. At the request of the government, rice-shaped ptitim was invented by the Osem food company, and soon after, the round version was added.
Similar to orzo and risotto, Israeli couscous has become an international star. It is available in many international gourmet food groceries and restaurants, and top chefs vie with one another to create uniquely original recipes. This is ironic, given that, in Israel, children are its biggest fans, especially when it’s made with tomato paste. In fact, manufacturers have responded to the fan base by offering it in the shape of stars and little hearts on the home front.