The Moroccan couscous that appears on almost every dinner table in the country every Friday is a far cry from the “just add water” grains I used to buy in British supermarkets.
Essaouira – “This is not couscous,” a Moroccan friend told me while we perused pre-packed lunches in the chilled food section of the Marks and Spencer near Victoria station in London. Looking at the plastic pot of cold couscous adorned with cooked peppers and raisins, I had no idea what she meant.
Four years later, when I see “Moroccan couscous” advertised in British supermarkets, I feel strangely frustrated and want to tell other shoppers that they are being duped.
Moroccan couscous does not come in plastic packaging with soggy grilled peppers and three dry raisins: Moroccan couscous is beautifully steamed vegetables, fluffy grains, and tender meat.
True Moroccan couscous is a family united around a table.
During the summer, my husband’s nieces and nephew spend their school holidays with their grandparents; my father-in-law’s brother and his family come to spend the month in our town; and my husband’s maternal grandmother and aunts travel south to visit their blad (countryside where their family come from).
The family home is full of noise, full of movement, laughter, and practical jokes. And, on Fridays, it is full of couscous.
My husband’s great-aunt rolls balls of couscous with one hand, no cutlery needed; his grandmother takes out her false teeth to tuck into the soft, steamed vegetables and caramelized onions; and the children mix couscous grains with lben (lassi or buttermilk).
Couscous, and the family unity that comes with it, is a tradition that I want my son to grow up enjoying, and I cannot always expect someone else to do the cooking. So, I have had to learn how to make couscous like a Moroccan mum.
My first couscous lesson was with my husband’s aunt in Casablanca, and was taste-tasted by her very exacting husband following his Friday prayers. I must admit, he did have some notes but overall was very generous and seemed to think my couscous skills had potential!
Since then, I have honed my couscous making tactics and burned the tips of my fingers several times. You will understand why if you keep reading!
Everything you need to make couscous like a Moroccan mum
From watching lots of Moroccan mums cooking and reading a lot of recipes, I have learned that no two recipes or ingredient lists are the same. Depending on the region, the season, and the family there are a lot of variations. My recipe follows the method my mother-in-law uses, with one or two of my additions.
Making couscous is not simple and, I am afraid, requires some key equipment. (I also recommend making sure someone is available to help with the washing up afterwards!)
First, you need a large dish, or gasaa—this is important for separating the couscous grains so that they remain fluffy and do not stick together.
You will also need a couscous pot (a huge steamer).
I prefer to use wholemeal couscous, but the steps are the same for white or wholemeal. My mother-in-law, who makes delicious couscous, usually does half and half as she says the texture is better this way.
Couscous grains can be bought in different sizes: Fine, medium, and large. I tend to use the medium as I find it easier to work with.
Although I have to admit to being a rather random cook in that I rarely follow recipes and have been known to start cooking without even checking I have all the ingredients, I have to recommend reading through all the steps of the recipe before starting as the method requires a lot of concurrent activity.
Time for a trip to the souk
This recipe requires quite a few ingredients. I like to add a lot of vegetables as both my husband and I prefer the vegetables to the actual couscous. Also, they are fantastic for weaning babies; our son loves the carrots and pumpkin.
500g of couscous
1 kg of lamb meat, preferably on the bone and cut into easily shareable chunks
5 or 6 large carrots
A large hunk of pumpkin (or a whole butternut squash if you cannot get pumpkin)
A quarter of a cabbage
2 white onions (or 1 large one)
A large handful of chickpeas (dried or canned)
A big blob of butter
A generous bunch of parsley
2 or 3 cloves of garlic
Black pepper and salt
One or two saffron threads
Now put your apron on
As I mentioned before, there are a lot of steps to this recipe and timing is everything. Cooking like a real Moroccan mum takes a lot of concentration!
- If you choose to use dry chickpeas, you need to put them to soak overnight to make sure they are ready when you start cooking.
- Chop the carrots and zucchinis lengthways; make sure the pieces are not too small. Cut the pumpkin or butternut squash into sizable chunks, leaving the skin on. Cut the cabbage roughly, and put all the vegetables aside for later.
- Dice the onion and the garlic and then put them in the bottom of the couscous pot with the meat and a generous glug of oil. Cook on medium heat until the onions are soft (4 or 5 minutes).
- Grate the tomatoes into the onion, and throw in the chopped parsley, and heat gently for another few minutes; keep stirring.
- Stir in the ground spices—about a teaspoon of each, but leave the saffron out for now. I tend to be very generous with the black pepper to give the vegetables a slight kick.
- Now you can add the carrots. Cover with water and bring to a boil.
- While the sauce comes to a boil, start preparing your couscous. Spread the grains over the platter, or gasaa; carefully pour a cup of water over the grains, and add a drizzle of olive oil. Using the tips of your fingers, separate the grains by rubbing them together, making sure the water and oil have reached all the couscous.
- Pour the couscous into the top section of the couscous pot, and place it over the vegetable and meat mix with the lid on. Steam for about 15 minutes; you should see steam rising from the grains when you take the lid off.
- Pour the couscous back onto the gasaa and sprinkle with some cold water and a little more oil. Separate the grains with your finger tips. You can use a fork if you prefer not to burn your fingers!
- Add the zucchinis and pumpkin, or butternut squash, and cabbage to the vegetable mixture. I also like to add a little more seasoning at this point.
- Put the couscous back into the steamer, cover, and leave to steam for another 30 to 40 minutes.
- Pour the couscous back onto the gasaa—it should have increased in size considerably—and repeat the process of separating the grains with your fingers or a fork. Add the butter and season well.
- Add the chickpeas and the saffron threads to the meat and vegetables.
- Steam the couscous for a final 10 minutes, and then spread it over the gasaa, and make sure there are no lumps. Using a ladle, pour some of the liquid from the vegetables and meat over the couscous. I like to use quite a lot of stock to keep the couscous moist and flavorful.
- Make a small indent in the middle of the couscous mound and place the meat on top. Now place the vegetables and chickpeas on top of the couscous and meat. They should look like a little castle, covering the couscous.
- Ladle more sauce over the top, and add another handful of finely chopped parsley for decoration. Pour the remaining sauce into two or three bowls. I always put the bowls of sauce on the table, too, so people can add more as they are eating.
Your couscous is ready to go—all you need is a spoon for every diner. I usually add tfaya (onions and raisins caramelized in butter and honey) on the top of the couscous for a little sweetness, but it is not necessary.