The French love couscous. But what is it—grain, pasta or neither?by Wendell Steavenson / March 20, 2018 / Leave a comment
Couscous came to France in the 60s with the Pied Noirs who left Algeria after the war of independence. It is now consistently cited in the top five most popular French dishes along with boeuf bourguignon, choucroute and moules frites.
I went for lunch at Les Trois Frères in the 18th arrondissement, a restaurant established by three Algerian brothers more than 30 years ago and now run by their sons. It’s a popular, typical neighbourhood restaurant: burnished nicotine-stained ceiling, a long wooden bar propped up by regulars, an old lady with a grey chignon who fed her small dog under the table, a table of men gesticulating over a bottle of wine.
The chalkboard menu was classic French: “Croque M, sauté de veau Marengo, filet mignon,” but their most popular dish is couscous.
On Thursday evenings they serve it free when you order a €2 glass of wine. I spooned broth and merguez sausage and falling-apart carrot and courgette over my couscous, and began to suspect that the French fondness for couscous was because it was close to being a familiar pot-au-feu with added pasta.
Then I wondered, as it crumbled sloppily in my mouth: is it a pasta? Or a grain? What exactly is couscous anyway?
I went to ask Fatema Hal, a culinary ethnographer and chef-proprietor of the Moroccan restaurant Mansouria in the 11th arrondissement. “Ah,” Fatema said, her explanation first digressing via the Romans who were the first to plant wheat in the Maghreb and then debunking the myth that Marco Polo (“a fabulist!”) brought pasta from China to Italy. “Couscous is semolina rubbed together with water and a little flour.”
“No wonder it’s confusing,” I said. “Grain or pasta? It’s a bit of both.” Semolina, Fatema explained, is the coarsely milled “middlings” of wheat, the hard starchy part, after the bran and the germ have been flaked off. Couscous can be dried in the sun and easily transported and stored (convenient for the nomadic Berbers among whom it originated); it can then be quickly reconstituted with hot water and steam-cooked over an open fire.
Fatema came to France from Morocco to study when she was 18 years old. She opened Mansouria in 1984, when Moroccan food was little…