Cooking delicious and healthy couscous might seem like a breeze, or at least the store-bought packs of instant couscous will have you believe that! But speak to any serious home cook from across the Maghreb (Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, and Tunisia) and they’ll set the record straight. Radia Si Yousef (@radotouille), our dear Algerian food friend and blogger, joined us on our podcast to share how to cook couscous the right way:
“The perfect way to make the perfect couscous is to steam the grain. No, pouring hot water on it and letting it fluff. This is a big no-no, you do not prepare couscous that way. This is not couscous. You know this is my pet peeve of all time.
So yeah, as long as you do not do that, please, by all means, go follow the recipes that you want, and you are going to be very happy with the result. The grain you will obtain will be fluffy and nice and good, but if you just put hot water up on top of it, it’s just a mess, it’s soppy and it’s just no, uh-uh, no!”
Tune in to our chat with her using the player below (or read the show transcript) as Radia explains how to cook the perfect couscous, just as she does at home. Radia tells us about Algerian cuisine, the importance of couscous, and most importantly, walks us through the do’s and dont’s of cooking couscous and how to adapt the method if you don’t have the proper equipment (and yes, there’s even a microwave version!)
Links to all the good stuff on how to cook couscous the way Radia shared with us on the podcast!
- Radia’s recipe on her blog here
- Radia’s preferred brand of couscous available in Dubai, Dari Couscous
- Coucoussiere available online here
Want more of our scrumptious podcast episodes? Feast on our main podcast page here!
Subscribe on: Apple Podcast App | Spotify (available on AppStore and Google Play) | Stitcher (available on AppStore and Google Play) | Google Play Music (currently supported only for listeners in US/Canada) | Anghami
- Couscous in Algerian Cuisine
- An Overview of Algerian Cuisine
- The Role of Couscous in Algerian Cuisine
- What is Couscous and What are the Different Kinds of Couscous?
- How to Cook Couscous?
- How to Cook Couscous without a Couscoussier?
- Which Brand of Couscous to buy?
- How to use Instant Couscous?
- Couscous for Ramadan Suhoor and Other Variations
- What to do with Leftover Couscous?
- Special Kinds of Couscous
Arva: This show is brought to you by Dubai’s most gluttonous food tour company, Frying Pan Adventures and you’re listening to “Deep Fried.”
Hey there, I’m your host, Arva Ahmed and thanks for joining me on the show that’s inspired by flavors of the East. This podcast celebrates the flavors that we as storytellers, content creators and food tour guides with Frying Pan Adventures have discovered in Dubai.
And one of those flavors is Couscous. Now, couscous is always something I took for granted as a traditional, purely Moroccan staple. But thanks to Dubai being such a nexus of communities from around the world it’s a great place to bust some of these culinary misconceptions cause you meet all these cultures face to face.
So in season one of this podcast I was really surprised to learn that couscous is a part of Libyan cuisine and that revelation happened when we met the late Libyan-Palestinian author of “Under the Copper Covers”—Shireen bin Haleem Jaffer.
Now, a few weeks ago I reconnected with an old acquaintance from Algeria who lives in Mexico now. And it turns out couscous is a part of Algerian cooking too. So we’ve got Radia Si Yousef on the line.
She is originally from Algeria, lived in Canada, the U.S., the U.A.E. and now she’s in Mexico, which is why she likes to call herself a ‘professional expat.’ I got to know her from her food blogging days, many moons ago here in Dubai and she was also part of this amazing initiative that she had done with a bunch of friends to collect a medley of international recipes for this cookbook whose proceeds went to support children’s education in third-world countries.
From what I know of Radia, I can tell you that she’s incredibly passionate about cooking, traveling, and using food as a way of understanding cultures, which means she’s the perfect person for us to connect with for this podcast.
Hey Radia, thanks for joining us all the way from Mexico!
Radia: Thanks for having me Arva. How are you?
Arva: Doing good and so lovely to see you.
Radia: Great, I’m excited to tell you about couscous.
Arva: Well, before we get into couscous, first, can you paint a picture for us of what Algerian food is? You know, just broad brush strokes, like key flavors, ingredients, is it bread versus rice? What are some of the top dishes?
Radia: Sure. So, first of all, it’s definitely bread. It is a very carb-centered cuisine. We eat a lot of semolina and wheat-derived products. We eat a lot of sauces or stews that are served on the side with a semolina based product.
It can be the couscous that everybody knows, but it also could be a fluffy pastry kind of bread that is made out of semolina, as well. And then it’s cooked on a metallic stovetop, and then you break it into pieces and then you serve the sauce on top of it.
So the bread absorbs the sauce and the sauce is red, spicy, has chickpeas, lamb and everything, soaks all of that, and you eat it. And it’s so good. This is called…
Arva: Wow, that sounds amazing…
Radia: It is super good.
Arva: …It sounds like tashreeb, which is here in some of the cultures of the Middle East. What’s the name of that bread?
Radia: So this is called shakshuka, not to be confused with the chakchouka that you know, in the accent, with tomatoes, the breakfast dish. So we call that shakshuka and it’s delicious, it’s really good.
So that, we have reshtah. Reshtah is like a spaghetti, semolina spaghetti, a flat spaghetti that is steamed and then served with chicken broth with zucchini and chickpeas. It’s very flavorful, not, it doesn’t smack you in the face, but it’s really good as well.
And a lot of our dishes are like this, a lot of our dishes are made out of semolina that are served with a sauce or a broth that either has chicken or lamb in it, chickpeas, and spices. It is not necessarily spicy-hot, but it’s spicy-flavorful.
And then we have breads, a lot of breads, either wheat or flour breads. Some of them are baked in the oven, some of them are baked in the pan, some of them has yeast, others don’t. But it is literally breads at all meals, including breakfast. We eat a lot of breads and this is—so, Algerian cuisine is not for the carb-shy. No, you cannot.
Arva: It’s my kind of cuisine.
Radia: Yeah, it’s my kind of cuisine too. And then we eat a lot of lamb. We eat a lot of fish. Obviously, because we are a Mediterranean country, so Mediterranean fish. We have, we grow our olives. So we have a lot of olives and olive oil. Our olive oil is very special, it’s fruity, it’s not too strong, but it’s just so delicious.
Arva: That’s a revelation, I never thought of Algerian olive oil.
Radia: We do have a lot of Algerian olive oil, yeah, we do. And the Berbers, the Kabil, in the mountains of Algeria are the one well known for growing olives and making their own olive oil. So my mother-in-law always saves our share of olive oil and I bring it along with the couscous contraband in my suitcases.
Arva: Did you mention the Berber people?
Radia: Yes, I did.
Arva: Can you give us a little background on who they are because I’ve heard them in the context of Morocco, actually.
Radia: So it’s very interesting because North Africa, the natives of North Africa are the Berbers. So the Berber tribes were living there for years and years, and then Phoenicians came and then they settled in the East and they developed Carthage. And then they had the wars with the Romans. The Romans came and then the Arabs came and then Andalusia happened.
And so North Africa has had a lot of waves of different people coming and going and coming and going. And during these different waves, they left a little bit of traditions of food and culture, but the native of the region are the Berbers.
So, they grow the olives and then make olive oil the old traditional way. Nowadays, I guess not, but each family, they have their own share of the year and they split it amongst themselves. And it’s really good olive oil and I can tell you, all Algerians that live abroad, bring with them olive oil from back home. We all do that. I haven’t come across anyone who doesn’t, it’s really funny.
Radia: Yeah, and it just doesn’t cut it. You know why we, it’s just not the same taste, reminds you of home, you know, it’s comfort to you.
Arva: Of course.
Radia: We also have a lot of tagines, so surprising, yeah. We have a lot of tagines and the tagines are really a meal, a dish that has a protein and a vegetable on the side.
The tagine is the name of the vessel in which it is cooked, but really you can have tagine of anything and everything. You have a cauliflower tagine or an eggplant tagine or a fried potatoes tagine. And so you have your lamb or your chicken that has stewed with chickpeas and onions and spices. And then you cook depending on the variety of vegetables you are using, you put that on the side.
So if it’s cauliflower, you bread it, you fry it and then you put it in the sauce. So that breading around the cauliflowers soaks up the sauce and it gives it this really delicious crust, it is really good.
Arva: Cauliflower to a whole other level. If someone does not appreciate cauliflower, that sounds like the dish that would really inculcate them. And I can just imagine taking the bread, which you said is a staple in the cuisine and just mopping up all of those juices.
Radia: This is exactly how you eat it and it’s yeah, it is delicious, it’s rich and it’s, look, it’s a meat, it’s like a protein and a vegetable, so it’s kind of healthy.
Arva: Absolutely, let’s just forget about the deep-fried bit.
Radia: <laughs> Exactly, no but we, yeah, of—obviously, you know, half is, not…
Arva: Everything, everything in moderation.
Radia: Exactly, exactly.
And then we also have dates in Algeria. We have always this in the Sahara, that has the most amazing dates. Deglet Noor, it’s the date that we export, it is sweet and supple and juicy, it is really good, so it is often found in our pastries.
Arva: So, let’s switch gears to the actual topic of today. I think you’ve given us a very good sense of what the broader cuisine looks like. Can you talk to us specifically about couscous and what role plays in the cuisine?
I know you mentioned the Berber people. Does couscous as a dish go back all the way to the Berbers or is it something that has been introduced now? And what sort of role does it play in your meals?
Radia: Okay, so the couscous is the traditional dish of the Maghreb par excellence. By the Maghreb, as you said Libya, Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, Mauritania. You will find some sort of, form of, couscous in all that region.
And it is believed to be a dish from Berber origins. I say it is believed to, I’m going to explain to you why. They found a utensil that’s like a couscoussier, which is the dish in which we cook the couscous, in archeological sites in a city in Algeria and they dated that dish that, they dated that utensil to belong to the 11th century. So that we’re like, okay, this is the proof that in the 11th century, couscous was already been cooked in the region.
Then in this book that’s called “Kitab-at-Tabikh of the Maghreb and the Andalus,” which is usually referred to as the anonymous book because nobody knows who is the author, we only find translations of it. So that book dates of the 13th century and in the book we find recipes of couscous. So it is a given that from the 11th onwards, couscous was part of the food in the Maghreb.
However, there’s a food historian, her name is Lucy Boland, who researched it, she wrote a book on Andalusian cuisine from the 11th to 13th century and in her book, she has a theory saying that some pots found in tombs dated from the antiquity, we’re talking 238—149 BC. It was the reign of King Massinissa, a Berber King.
So she is claiming that some of these utensils that were found look a lot like dishes in which couscous was cooked. So with this theory makes you “well, was it really? Was couscous this old? Is it possible that in antiquity, the Berbers were cooking couscous?” And when you take just two seconds to think about it, at that time North Africa was called the granary of Rome.
All the wheat that was used in Rome came from that region. So you have Berbers, you have a lot of wheat, you know that they know how to handle that wheat. So for me, it makes perfect sense that it existed at the time.
Especially if you take into consideration the fact that some of the utensils in which we could couscous, up until now, are made out of this raffia, kind of a wicker, really soft material, like a basket if you will, in which we steam it, which by the way, gives a lot of, an incredible earthy flavor to the couscous. So these are organic materials, they will disintegrate, so you cannot find them.
And so, that theory is, which is—a lot of people believe it—would take you to the fact that in the antiquity Berbers were already cooking couscous. And so, I believe it, I like to believe it.
Arva: Alright, so let’s move from history into the actual structure and the definition of what couscous is. Can you talk us through what exactly is couscous and what are the different kinds that are out there?
Radia: Okay, so before I say anything, I just want to say that the couscous is the sultan of the Algerian table, it is the king. It is the one that you will find at every celebration, at every occasion, I’m talking weddings, funerals, family gatherings, guests. We eat it for suhoor during Ramadan.
It is a quick fix dinner when there’s nothing else in the fridge, there are rich versions and humble versions. It is such a versatile product that it transcends all, like, social-economical classes and backgrounds. Everybody eats couscous, you know? And so it is the name of the grade, but it’s also the name of the dish.
So the couscous comes from the hard wheat, it’s called durum wheat. It comes from that. Once they grind that durum wheat to obtain semolina, there is a small particle that stays in the mill. So that small particle, that’s very hard, that’s why it’s called hard wheat. And that wheat is the one that they make pasta with. It’s called also pasta wheat.
Anyway, so with that small particle. They add a little bit of water and they roll it with the palm of the hand to form little small grains, small balls, which is the couscous. So they roll it, it’s usually a women’s job, women’s, that’s you know, it’s a women’s activity.
And so I’d like to say that couscous gathers people because, yeah, you gather to make it and you gather to eat it. And so they roll with the palm of the hands these small little balls and then once they reach, let’s say the equivalent of two handfuls, they will sift it twice.
The first time, to separate the coarse grain from the medium one. And then they will sift it the second time to separate the medium from the thin one. And so you have three calibers of couscous and depending on the region that you’re from, depending on what you’re planning, what kind of couscous you’re planning on making, you would use one grain or the other.
It’s also like personal favorites and habits, but you have like these three calibers of couscous. This is how it is rolled, I’m talking about the grain. Once it’s done, it will be stored and then you use it whenever you want to use it. So this is where technology and the modern world catches up to that and now you can buy industrial couscous that has been processed, you know, rolled industrially, but this is the origin of the couscous. This is how we make it.
Arva: I think most of the stuff that we probably see in our supermarkets is not this intensive, laborious hand-rolled couscous. I think most of the stuff, as you mentioned, is the industrially produced one and there probably is a pretty marked difference in the flavor.
Now I want us to actually get into the technique of cooking the perfect couscous. But before we do that, let’s take a quick break and then we’ll come back and pick your brains on how to make that perfect couscous.
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We are back to this episode of Deep Fried, and we are talking about couscous with a food-lover from Algeria who is now based in Mexico, Radia Si Yousef, and Radia you were just about to tell us how we make that perfect couscous. Is there even something as the perfect couscous, like just the right, the epitome, the right way of doing it?
Even before I said that I’m a little bit, I realize I probably said it the wrong way because you just mentioned that couscous has so many different variations. So give us your take.
Radia: So, there is no right way or wrong way to do the couscous, to make couscous. There is no perfect recipe because, you know, as you perfectly know that each family has their own way of cooking things that are dear to their hearts, right?
So, even if it’s couscous with the sauce, or if it’s couscous with raisins or peas, it doesn’t really matter, as long as you steam the grain the right way, which is what I want to tell you about.
The perfect way to make the perfect couscous is to steam the grain. No, pouring hot water on it and letting it fluff. This is a big no-no, you do not prepare couscous that way. This is not couscous. You know this is my pet peeve of all time.
So yeah, as long as you do not do that, please, by all means, go follow the recipes that you want, and you are going to be very happy with the result. The grain you will obtain will be fluffy and nice and good, but if you just put hot water up on top of it, it’s just a mess, it’s soppy and it’s just no, uh-uh, no.
Arva: Alright, done, never going to do that.
Radia: No. So, the right way, well, the right way, the way we do it, you need, first of all, the couscoussier. Couscoussier is a big tall pot, like a pasta pot that is fitted on top with a basket. The basket has, it’s metallic, right, and it fits perfectly on top of that pot and it has little holes in the bottom, so this is the dish, this is the pot that you need to make couscous.
So, you need also, what we call a gassa’a. It is a flat bottom wooden tray/plate. It has little edges, it’s carved within a block of wood. And so what do you do?
You put the amount of couscous that you want to make, be it a kilo, two, five kilos. Depends on why you want to make couscous. Remember we make it for celebrations, so sometimes you make like 10 kilos of couscous and more. So, you put that quantity of grain that you want to make, you add a little bit of salt, a little bit of oil so that they don’t stick together, the grains, and then you cover it with water.
Then you tip that dish so that the water, the excess water, drains. You tip it over the sink and you put your hands so that the grains don’t fall with the water. And then you let it sit for 15 minutes.
After 15 minutes, you would see that it had soaked all the water. And then this is when experience kicks in because you know, when you see it, you know, if it’s enough, if it’s wet enough, if it can take more water.
There’s no, you can’t do that with proportions because it depends on the variety of the grain, it depends on how dry it is and how it has been made. So really, you need to put your hand in it and you need to make a lot of couscous to know how to make couscous, no shortcut to experience, you know? So once it has soaked up all the water, if it needs more water, you add a little bit and then you need to break it with your fingers.
You break it so that you achieve that sandy texture, no clumps, no lumps. Make sure it’s all separated. And then you fill the bottom of your pot with, like, to the half with water that you bring to a boil.
Arva: Your couscoussier, do you mean?
Radia: Yeah, the couscoussier. So you feel the bottom of the couscoussier with a half with water and you bring that to a boil.
And once it’s boiling you place the couscous in the basket, the top of the couscoussier, and you place it on top of the boiling water. So the steam coming from the boiling water will go through that basket. And as it’s coming through the grains of couscous, it will steam the grains. The idea is to trap that steam inside the pot.
So often we lock the intersection, the junction between the pot and the basket with a thin strip of fabric. We call it kafala, which means a locker, so that the steam doesn’t escape from the sides. You want to capitalize on all that steam coming from the boiling water. And so it steams and you can see it.
So the couscous, you see it in the beginning, it’s cold and then it starts to get hot and then you see the steam coming through the whole surface of the couscous. And it’s very, and that’s when that first phase of the process is ready. So it takes around 10 minutes, maybe. So once you see the steam coming throughout the whole surface of that basket, the first step is done.
You take that basket back and you flip it on that same wooden dish. So you flip it over and you see, it’s a big block of couscous and it’s going to be very hard. You’re going to let it rest for a few minutes and then you break it with your hands. You can break it with a wooden spoon, but in our culture, you have to put your hands in it, you have to show it some love.
This is how you connect with your food by just putting your hands in it, you know? And so you break it grain by grain, you make sure it’s fluffy. So it might need salt or water. So, we prepare a small pot with salted water and you sprinkle that water on top if it needs it.
And you cover it with a tea towel and you let it sit for, it can be all up to 30 minutes while you’re working on the sauce. If you’re making it with a sauce. And that process has to be repeated two to three times, depending on the grain that you’re using. If you’re using industrial couscous twice is enough, if you’re using a hand-rolled couscous then three times is the best way.
Arva: Oh, wow.
Radia: And then at the end of the last time, which happens right before service, is the way of reheating it. So at the end of the last one, that’s when you butter it. So you need to either use butter, you can use ghee, you can use olive oil, depending on, you know, preferences, regions, traditions. I like my couscous buttery, with a lot of butter.
And imagine the grain is really hot and you put that butter on top of it. So the steam from the couscous will melt the butter and you need to make sure all the grains are coated with butter, it smells so good. And here, again, you need to put your hands in it. You can do it with a wooden spoon, but it’s just not the same.
You need to make sure each grain is coated with that butter, okay. And you need to be very careful with not kneading here. We do not knead it. We just handle that very gently and carefully so that the grain stays fluffy and there are no clumps, and it’s just this beautiful product that you obtain.
So this is, that couscous is ready to be dressed with whatever you wanted to serve it with. And the beauty of the couscous is that, okay, the grain is there but then you can serve it with whatever nature gave you.
So sometimes it’s with seasonal vegetables. In the cities that are closer to the sea, they will make fish versions of it, like a sauce with fish. In the Sahara, where they use meat jerky, so they make couscous with meat jerkies and dates and so on.
So the fancy way of doing it, the way we do it for weddings, is with lamb, vegetables, chickpeas and a sauce that’s very flavorful and spicy. So, it cooks for a long time, so that the lamb is falling off the bone. We either use the leg, shoulder, or neck, depending on the occasion, like for weddings we’re going to use legs obviously, but for day-to-day, we would use the neck, the collar.
Once you get ready for service, you take a big plate of service with the couscous. You flatten it to layer it evenly. And then you put the meat in the middle, the vegetables around, the chickpeas, a little bit of sauce, and you place that on the table for people to share.
On the side, some more vegetables, some more meat, and then the sauce to put on top. I like my couscous saucy, but some people like it dryer, you know, and couscous is very often served with buttermilk or rayib, which would be something close to zabadi in Dubai, you know, like a whole-milk yogurt. We always serve it with these two or one or the other.
They say because it facilitates digestion, maybe there are some enzymes in the buttermilk that helps digesting couscous, I don’t know, I’m not a hundred percent sure. But you will always have rayib and buttermilk at a table with the couscous.
And it’s also often served with watermelon or melon at the table, especially in the summer. There’s like these associations of eating couscous with watermelon that’s just, it is there. That’s how we do it in Algeria and, yeah, this is the way you could make, like, a real traditional couscous with meat and vegetables.
Arva: Wow, that is so grand!
And I need to just take us from this really grand scenario to a scenario many, many decades ago. So you can see here, I’m trying to distance myself from the scenario that I was the protagonist in. So back in college, I used to make couscous, which now in retrospect, I wasn’t really making couscous at all.
Arva: Yeah, so I, and I stopped making couscous because whenever I would have it in a restaurant made by someone who actually knew what they were doing it would be this beautiful fluffy texture. And then at home, I would follow the packaged instructions for an instant couscous and it would just be dreadful.
I did once though, attempt to steam it and don’t even ask me how I burnt the couscous in the steamer. So I have been through many different iterations and just hearing you talk about the level of intuition and skill that goes in there, I mean, it really is a work of art to be able to perfect it.
Now, imagine though, I wanted to embark on this journey again and correct all of my past mistakes. I don’t own a couscoussier and I don’t own the wooden contraption you mentioned. How would I improv this at home before I reach a point where I think “oh my God, I’m making this enough times,” where I’m going to go out and invest in couscoussier.
Radia: Okay, so you don’t need the wooden dish, you can use a deep bowl. Really depends on the amount you’re making. So you can use a bowl to get it wet and fluffy, that is not a problem at all.
That’s number one, number two, if you do not have a couscoussier and you have no means of steaming, if you don’t even have, you know, like a bouillon kind of pot, we, they sell sometimes the pot that are shallower with a little steaming basket inside.
So if you don’t even have that, the microwave is a close second option, you can microwave it. It’s not perfect, but it’s a good shortcut, at least it steams.
So you cover it with water, you drain the excess, you cover with plastic wrap and you put it in the microwave for two minutes at a time, until it’s soaked all the water, until it’s fluffy. You fluff it with a fork every once in a while and it’s a very close second. I don’t microwave it, but I know that it works.
Arva: I was not even going to suggest that you microwave it, but I am so relieved that you put that out there as an option because I think a lot of people might be scared away with the number of process steps to getting to the perfect couscous.
But here you’ve given them that first intermediate step and then once you’re hooked onto it, you can go the whole route.
Radia: Yeah, and I would invest in a couscoussier just for the reason that it’s a great, great tool to have in your kitchen. You can steam anything. A lot of things that instead of boiling them, I steam them. It conserves more of the nutritional value and the basket is bigger, so you can do more quantities. So I use mine all the time, so…
Arva: …and you can put stock in the base of the couscoussier as well.
Radia: Yeah, that’s how actually the best couscous are made, that way. So, you steam the couscous on top of the sauce, on top of the broth, so it soaks up all the flavors from the meat and the spices and it’s really good.
Arva: …mmm. Well, the folks in Dubai are wondering where on earth you can go out and get a couscoussier—and I’m pretty sure you can probably order one online since Amazon seems to have everything under the sun—however, I have actually seen couscoussiers in the Moroccan neighborhood in town, and that would be Abu Hail in Deira.
So they have a place there, I think they have a couple of spots there maybe, that would stock a couscoussier, would actually stock couscous as well. When you were in Dubai Radia, was there a specific brand of couscous that you would buy from the grocery stores here? Would you just get yours from Algeria?
Radia: Yeah, so in Dubai, it was really nice because I could find what I needed in the jam’aiah, in the Union Co-op. And so they had a Moroccan brand in there. I think it was Dari that was really good, or Threa as well, that was really good. I bought the medium couscous at Union Co-op and I have never been disappointed, it was good couscous.
Arva: Okay, that’s really helpful to know. I’m gonna look up those names and then we’ll include it in our show notes, as well as on our blog at www.fryingpanadventures.com/blog
Radia: Yeah, so nowadays though, because I have no access to Arabic or Middle Eastern grocery stores because where I live in Mexico, I’m not even in the capital, I’m far, you know, a little bit ex-centre. I bring with me contraband olive oil and contraband couscous in my suitcases…
Radia: …and when I run—yeah, that’s what I do. So when I run out, what I do, I have no other option but to buy the instant couscous from the grocery store, the one that I despised so much, but…
Arva: <sharp intake> Ah! You said it, I was going to ask you about instant couscous.
Arva: Okay, so when life calls for desperate measures, even Radia resorts to instant couscous, I suddenly feel so much better about myself.
Radia: No, but I still steam it the right way, I don’t just pour hot water. I do the whole process! So yeah, I just, that’s what I do.
And so it’s really funny because they sell it in packages of 200 grams and I need a kilo for my family. So, I like, buy five or six of these and the lady’s like, looking at me funny, but well…
Arva: Yeah, but what does the package instructions say for an instant couscous? It sort of talks about cooking it like rice, I think, right? So you just cook it in water basically.
Radia: Not even. I haven’t, to be honest, I haven’t paid much attention lately, but last time I checked, it was: pour hot water on top of it, let it sit and then fluff it with a fork. Because it’s pre-cooked, so because it’s already pre-cooked in the process of making it, they’re like, okay, it’s like instant mashed potatoes, right.
Okay, it’s pre-cooked, you can just add hot water, but no, it’s not cooked enough. I don’t think ingesting raw wheat or not-cooked-enough wheat is good for you. You know what I mean? If you take a second to think about it, I really don’t think it’s good for you.
And it doesn’t, I’m sorry, it doesn’t taste good. I don’t think it does anyway, in my opinion. So I steam it and actually…
Arva: Well, your opinion is going to count over mine right now.
Radia: …and it turns out okay, I mean, it turns out good when I use it. It’s not really the fact that it’s instant, more than the fact that you don’t cook it. It’s just that you pour hot water on it, I think that’s what irks me the most.
Oh, and then nowadays you find like: couscous with herbs and mushrooms and I don’t know what. All this weird couscous, they are not for me, I can’t. It’s like couscous, you buy the grains, it’s simple and it’s plain. And then if you want to do something to it, you get inventive with the sauce or in the way you want to serve it.
But I don’t think couscous rolled in herbs, it’s not for me. Maybe some people like it, but it’s not for me, you know?
Arva: Well, that’s good to know.
Radia: I just want to add a couple of things. So, the couscous, when I tell you that we also eat it in Ramadan for suhoor, we don’t eat the same kind of couscous for Ramadan in suhoor.
The suhoor couscous is couscous that is just plain steamed, as I told you, but it’s steamed with either raisins or peas, like, the fresh peas, the green peas. And so that’s the couscous that we eat for suhoor. My dad would have that, wakes up early for prayer and then he would eat that right before, with a cup of milk or a cup of buttermilk and he’s happy.
There are also versions where they put, like, almonds and sugar, if you want to go like a dessert couscous, you can do that or dates. You serve it with honey, after a heavy meal, like a dessert couscous.
And my favorite, my mom used to make this when she had no ideas or no will to cook dinner. She would heat milk, slightly salt that milk and in that milk poach vegetables like zucchini and potatoes, something that cooks fast, okay, and then would serve that over the couscous. And that’s like the quick fix meal, and so…
Arva: Wait, sorry, just to clarify that quick fix meal, I mean, she just went through all the steps to make the couscous the right way though, right? That, that was her quick fixed meal?
Radia: That’s, yeah, but the step, but see, this is the thing. It is not this long, it is not this long. You can do it within an hour. What takes the longest for the couscous, is for the lamb to cook…
Radia: …and, so yeah, the steaming process, and I think also with experience you can just, you go through it, like, you just go through it then with habits, you just do it. It’s not as daunting…
Arva: …becomes muscle memory.
Radia: Yeah, it’s not as daunting as you might think.
And another favorite of mine is what do you do with the leftover couscous that’s sitting in your fridge?
Arva: I don’t know, you’d never have leftover couscous if you were in my house.
Radia: Sometimes you do, because it’s also a matter of proportions.
You need to have enough grain for the sauce. You don’t want to run out of sauce and you don’t want to, you know, so you have leftover grains. My dad, it’s something that they do in my dad’s family and actually I love it.
So, they pour coffee and milk in the morning, you know, like your morning coffee and milk? And they put that over the couscous and they add sugar to it and they eat it like cereal.
Radia: Yeah, we call that tobaa and I’ve looked and the more I look at it and I’m thinking, well, that’s a really the smart way of replacing cereals, like, it’s like Kelloggs Cornflakes made in Algeria, ‘couscous cornflakes,’ whatever you want to call it.
And I really love it and I’m telling you it is so good because of the little, the sugar grains that you put on top and the coffee and milk. That is a good way to recycle that couscous and it’s fulfilling, I’m not hungry the whole morning after that.
Arva: Wow, what a versatile ingredient. I have never heard of that.
Radia: Oh, and I can add another one to you.
Arva: Go for it.
Radia: We also have barley couscous in Algeria, that’s very healthy. It’s high in fibers and high in nutrients. So they roll it, it’s not as common, but you could find it exists, right, barley couscous. But then there is something that I want to tell you because I find that very interesting.
So in Algeria, the wheat is stored in silos. So after the crop, the wheat is washed and then it’s dried and then it’s stored so that they can take whatever quantity they need to grind it. And then they make either semolina for breads, or for couscous and so on, but it stays in the silo for a long time.
And these silos are like little holes dug in the gardens, I would say, that are treated and protected. But sometimes the water from the rain seeps in. So the longer it stays, towards the end of the…once there’s not a lot of wheat in that silo, the wheat starts to sprout, right?
And it changes color, it becomes kind of black, so that wheat, that is black, once it’s the end, they empty everything, dry it, grind it and make couscous out of it. And it’s black couscous, it’s called hamoon. It comes from the word in Arabic, ‘hmoom,’ which is the soot, like the soot in the chimney, because of the color. And that is a special variety of couscous. I have never eaten it, but my mom told me about it.
And so it’s…
Arva: …it’s sprouted, right, you’re saying? So it’s made out of sprouted grains.
Wow. So that probably means that the nutritional content is, like, through the roof.
Radia: Exactly, so nutritional content, high fiber content, and it’s much, much, much easily digested.
And right now, if you look it up, some diets that forbid carbs, that forbid breads, allow bread made out of sprouted wheat. So I’m thinking our Berbers probably knew what they were doing or maybe they were up to something. I find that very interesting, you know?
Arva: Oh my God! How many different kinds of couscous, amazing!
Radia: I wanted to add a disclaimer in there and I forgot.
Arva: Go for it.
Radia: So the disclaimer is, you know, how there is no right way or wrong way to do couscous? There are just family ways, each family will do it their own way.
So somebody might come to me and say “hey, why do you put potatoes in your couscous?” Well, I do it because my mom did it. And maybe my mom did because my brother was a picky eater, but who cares? You know, for me, couscous has potatoes.
So it’s important to understand that there is no right way or wrong way to make it. It’s just, as long as it’s made with love, then that is couscous.
Arva: Radia, can I just say that we have established that there is a wrong way? I have discovered the wrong way. You haven’t, I have.
Radia: <laughs> Now that’s funny.
Arva: Radia, you have opened our eyes to a whole new world of couscous. Never again are we going to commit—am I going to commit—the faux pas of cooking instant couscous the way it says on the package.
I can’t wait to try the incredible process that you’ve laid out and all of these different variations. That is mind blowing.
Radia: I’m glad I was able to share these things with you.
You know, for us, couscous is the Friday dish. Almost all families in Algeria have a couscous on the table on Fridays, because of prayers, Friday prayers, and then you eat it and then you go for a nap and then you enjoy the rest of your weekend.
And I try really hard to do it often, but I don’t do it every Friday, no, I’m just too stingy with my contraband couscous, so I make it for occasions.
Arva: Well, that being said, you have shared a family recipe for couscous haven’t you?
Radia: Yes, I did. It’s on my blog, but it’s in French.
But I will translate it and send it to you if you want? Or I can translate it and put it in the blog. Whatever works for you.
Arva: Well, we would love a translated version because just having heard how I make couscous when I have English instructions, I’m probably not going to be any good with the French ones.
Radia, it was so, so good to reconnect with you and just remembering how passionate you really are about food. So, thank you for joining us despite all of the time differences.
How do our listeners stay in touch with you over social?
Radia: Yes, I’m on Instagram @radotouille, that’s my handle and yeah, that’s the only social media I use nowadays.
Arva: Wonderful. Well, we’ll make sure to share that in our show notes.
We would love to hear from you, especially if you’ve got ideas for food topics of the East that you want us to cover. So just reach out, we’re always looking for new ideas.
And if you enjoy the show, please make our podcasting mission whole by rating, reviewing and sharing the show with your friends.
And before we head off, can I just say how much I respect cooking traditions, like what Radia described for couscous, which are based so much on intuition and on practice and on things that have been passed on from generation to generation. It reminds me of this wonderful quote that I read by an author called Linda Handley, where she says:
“If God had intended us to follow recipes, he wouldn’t have given us grandmothers.”