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Couscous: A North African Staple

For the Jews of North Africa couscous is as homey as apple pie.

By Claudia Roden

Today in North Africa, there are two types of commercially processed grain sold in packages—the precooked one, which is sold abroad, and one that is commercially “rolled” but not precooked. In 1993, I visited a couscous factory in Sfax. It was during an Oldways International Symposium which took us on a fabulous gastronomic tour of Tunisia. We were received with flags and welcome banners, and treated to a tasting of dozens of sumptuous couscous dishes—both savory and sweet—and to a demonstration by Berber women in exotic dress of the old traditional ways of rolling couscous by hand. Then the owner of the factory took us in small groups to see the processing of the grain—the grinding, steaming at great pressure, and drying. Earlier, American symposiasts had insisted that even the commercial grain needed to be steamed twice. When I asked the manufacturer what he advised, he said, “Once it has absorbed an equal volume of water, all you need really is to heat up the grain, either in a saucepan, in the oven, or a microwave, and to break up any lumps. If people steam it, it is because they are used to doing that. It is a ritual part of the culture.”

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