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 known. Over the past 30 years she has watched the change in her diners. In the early days she said, the French were accustomed to going to restaurants and judging the dishes like a Michelin inspector. Slowly they began going to restaurants to discover.
She ordered for me and I dug into a plain mound of couscous and found nuggets of chicken that were rich and fragrant with raisins, cinnamon and almonds. There was lamb with barley couscous, nutty and wonderful. (Couscous can be made from any coarsely milled grain, including rice and corn.)
Fatema has made couscous with caviar, “the texture of the two together is sublime,” and with truffles. Elsewhere in Paris young chefs are making couscous with smoked morteau sausage from the Jura instead of the standard merguez, using Sardinian fregola—large couscous balls—and mixing it with seafood. “Without curiosity,” Fatema said, “we cannot develop.”
You can tell the story of couscous in France as a nice little multicultural tale of how French culinary chauvinism was opened up by immigrant influences. “When we leave our country, we adapt,” Fatema told me, “when French people come here, to my restaurant, they adapt. I have created my own little country here.”
But the taste for foreign flavours remains limited in France. Vietnamese pho is seen as an ethnic speciality despite the long French connection to Indochina; sushi is gaining ground, but Japanese restaurants also serve yakitori “brochettes,” sushi with cheese and a sweetened soy sauce syrup.
In January, Florian Phillipot, a senior figure in the Front National appeared on Twitter eating couscous at a restaurant and was pilloried by supporters for his unpatriotic choice.
Philippot retweeted his support for the restaurant and the dish, calling his critics “cretins.” He ended up resigning.
My favourite couscous place is called Au Vrai Moka, just the other side of the Peripherique near the famous flea market at St Ouen. They only serve couscous once a week, at Thursday lunch, because otherwise “it’s not fresh, it’s not good,” the chef and proprietor, Kaci, told me when I went to see him prepare the couscous one Wednesday afternoon.
We rubbed the semolina with oil, sharp and sugary against our palms. Then he poured hot water over it and raked his fingers through the mass, so the white foamy starch rose to the surface and could be poured off. “We leave this one hour,” he said, “then steam it.” Tomorrow, it would be steamed again.
For the broth he filled a giant pot with onions, leeks, celery, carrots, lamb shanks and shoulder and beef bones, seasoned with handfuls of couscous spice mix, ras el hanout and sweet red pepper powder and put it on low and slow for five or six hours.
I went back the next day with a friend. The couscous was light and fluffy-tender, the soup warming, the lamb brochettes were pink and the lamb shoulder was rendered soft as flannel.
We talked about photography and projects and projections; art and the image; Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa, the fall of Mosul, journalism, reportage, images, social media, sharing—we spooned spoonful after spoonful of couscous and soup and meat and soft cooked carrot and courgette. We ate happily, heartily.
We talked so much it was suddenly past three and the lunch crowd had gone. Because couscous is communal, a dish for gathering. It is a bridge between cultures; between Africa and Europe, but also—and this is perhaps why the French love it so, between a family-style serving and restaurant-formal individual plating. It turns out couscous is a dish that you go out for and still feel right at home.