The rich spices of Moroccan cuisine linger on the tongue long beyond the end of any visit. To recreate those flavors in one’s own kitchen can prove a daunting task; however, the country’s signature dish — couscous — has become a worldwide favorite, meaning a taste of your trip can be found in a variety of restaurants or as a viable option for the everyday grocery shopper.
In Morocco, it is likely ordered as traditional seksu or kesksu with a meat or vegetable stew spooned on top. In Sicily, it is typically served with seafood. The grain is popular throughout West Africa, Sahel, France, Spain, the Canary Islands, Portugal, Madeira, Turkey, Bulgaria, Greece, Malta, Cyprus, areas of the Middle East and India, leaving infinite possibilities for creative couscous.
The origins of couscous remain up for debate. Some historians believe the granules made of semolina wheat began in China, much like pasta. Others favor the belief its origins trace back to East Africa. The most heavily favored — and the most plausible — explanation points to North Africa. Cooking tools used in the preparation of couscous and dating back to the ninth century were unearthed in this area of the world. The dish was disseminated to the entire region in the 11th century before making its way to Andalusia and the Mediterranean.
The first written reference to couscous was found in the anonymous 13th-century Hispan-Muslim cookbook Kitāb al-ţabīkh fī al-Maghrib wa’l-Andalus. A Marrakesh recipe for alcuzcuz fitīyānī is described as “made for the young” and “known all over the world.” While today prepared with delicious, aromatic meats, fishes, vegetables and spices, its humble beginnings were as food for the hungry nomad; cooked with sour milk and melted butter, it was a hearty dish that left diners full.
By the 16th century, references to the food were found in French writing. Portuguese immigrants from Morocco brought the cuisine to South America, and today couscous enjoys international acclaim and renown.
Not in dispute is the process of making the North African staple food. Couscous, a pasta, is comprised of husked and crushed, but unground, semolina flour. The semolina flour comes from the hardest part of durum wheat; its small pellets resemble farina, polenta or grits. The semolina is sprinkled with water and rolled into tiny granules. The intense process includes sprinkling the granules with flour and running them through sieves until all the semolina has been formed into couscous.
To recreate the tastes of your visit to Morocco in your own kitchen, the packaged versions from the grocery stores won’t suffice. Authentic couscous should be prepared in a couscoussiére or a heat-proof colander inside a stockpot. Steam with water until liquid is absorbed; do not cover, as condensation will make the pasta mushy.
A meal is never as amazing as that first bite, but with the popularity of couscous worldwide, a taste of Morocco is never out of reach.
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