What Is Moroccan Couscous?

Eugene P.

Moroccan couscous consists of specially formed, fine-grained semolina that has been steamed before being served in a mound with vegetables and meat on top. Semolina grains used in Moroccan couscous are smaller than those in couscous from other regions. The dish is traditionally cooked all at once in a special kind of steamer pot called a couscoussier, with the couscous in the top and the other ingredients in the bottom. This variety of couscous has been made for hundreds of years, during which time the basic recipe has not changed. This meal remains an important part of Moroccan cuisine.

Moroccan couscous is sometimes flavored with star anise.
Moroccan couscous is sometimes flavored with star anise.

"Couscous" is the name given to grains of semolina that have been rolled in flour until they are large enough to properly cook and eat. It is cooked in water or steamed. The exact origins of couscous are unclear, but most references point to a Western or Northern African origin. As the popularity of couscous spread across the world, different types and sizes emerged. Israeli couscous, a baked pasta-like food, is different from most other couscous.

Paprika is among the basic spices in Moroccan couscous.
Paprika is among the basic spices in Moroccan couscous.

The most authentic way to cook Moroccan couscous is to use a special pot called a couscoussier. This two-tiered pot holds liquid in the lower level and the couscous steams in the upper portion. The Moroccan variety of couscous is steamed over broth, a deviation from how other types of couscous are made by adding water directly to the grains.

Another traditional cooking technique used when making Moroccan couscous is to put the meat and vegetables for the dish into the bottom part of the couscoussier. They are braised and then cooked with water or stock. The couscous is placed in the top half of the pan and steamed while the rest of the food cooks underneath. This imparts a very rich flavor into the grains.

A key element of the cuisine of the region, and a key element of Moroccan couscous, is the mix of spices that are added to the meal. Morocco traditionally was a center for trade with a wealth of spices from around the world to use in cooking. These spices would often be combined into mixtures that were as individual as the people who were creating them. Cumin, paprika and turmeric are the basic spices for Moroccan couscous, but spices such as anise or coriander could be added, as well.

The meat potion of the dish could be nearly anything. Some recipes call for mutton and others call for chicken or pork. Couscous has a subtle flavor and will take on the character of the meat over which it is steamed. Moroccan couscous does not have to have a meat component and can easily be made with only vegetables steamed under the grains.

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