Couscous Origin / Couscous History: In this article & Podcast we look at the history of couscous, exactly how couscous is made and what it is made of, plus the difference between Israeli couscous, pearl couscous and other varieties.
Couscous (pronounced “KOOS-koos”) is a durum wheat based, granular starch – though it can be made from other grains. It’s boiled or steamed and makes up an essential part of North African, Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisine, as well as being popular worldwide in modern times.
The exact details of what couscous is, is somewhat complicated and something that we are going to cover in depth in this episode. What we do know is, it’s so good they had to name it twice… I’m stealing bad jokes from the movie Pineapple Express there.
But first, Let’s discuss couscous origin… (Podcast episode and transcript below)
Couscous Origin & Couscous history Podcast
IN THIS EPISODE:
- What exactly is couscous? The surprising story of how its made and what it’s made of.
- The history of couscous and Israeli couscous – Plus many other types of Couscous.
- Plus, the Couscous debate, is it pasta or not?
Disclaimer: The below is a partial transcript of our podcast episode on couscous history & couscous origin stories. It has not been fully edited for grammar.
Couscous Origin & Couscous history
The earliest origin of domesticated wheat is believed to be in the middle east and Nile Valley of Egypt around 9,600BC. This spread to other parts of Europe, the Mediterranean and North west Africa over the next few thousand years.
Durum wheat, specifically, might have become a thing from around 7,000 BC due to artificial selection by humans of specific wheat that was free-threshing – essentially meaning it was very easy to get the grains out just by shaking the ears of wheat.
From the time of cultivation, and even before, it’s almost certain that humans were experimenting with ways to use wheat to make food. The earliest evidence of milling is from 6000BC, though flour could have been made in a more rudimentary form before that.
Prior to flour, wheat grains could have simply been boiled, or cracked and then boiled.
The exact date of couscous origin is unknown. As couscous is made from ground wheat, it seems unlikely it could have been made any earlier than 6,000BC. Of those scholars who have conjectured an origin period, it’s actually much more recent.
In “The surprising apparition of couscous in Medieval Andalusie”, Lucie Bolens estimates that the Berber people, who were mostly nomadic people of North west Africa (Libya, Algeria, Morocco and the Sahara desert) were preparing couscous as early as 238BC.
But other authors, like, Charles Perry in “Couscous and it’s cousins” believed it may not have been a part of Berber food culture until the Zirid dynasty and the rise of the Almohadian dynasty between the eleventh and the thirteenth centuries.
Around about the 13th century, Berber dynasties were taking power from arabic and moorish rulers across north africa and into the Iberian peninsular – Spain and portugal. It’s thought that this is a time where Berber cuisine could have been spread to other peoples, rather than just within their own communities. Two Arab cookbooks available from that time, the anonymous Kitâb al Tabij and also the Fadalat al Jiwan by Ibn Razîn al Tujibî, include couscous recipes. We talked about this cookbook in our Madrid episode too, as it is said to show evidence for some classic Spanish dishes, like cocido.
Though some believe that couscous spread also to the middle east from North Africa, there is an alternate theory that as Christianity pushed out the muslims from Spain in the 15th century, they also pushed out the sephardic jews – also something we talked about in the Madrid episode – and it’s possible they took couscous with them out of spain and to the middle east. There are some reasons why that is not a great argument in my opinion, more on that later.
Another theory is that couscous first came to Sicily, in the 9th century under muslim rule of the island. There is no direct evidence of this, but it is possible, only assuming that the muslim rulers of North Africa had adopted couscous from the Berbers, and it’s not clear that happened until later.
The summary is really that no one has much evidence of anything until the 13th century when it’s listed in Moorish spanish cookbooks. But, everyone seems to agree it is of Berber origin and spread from there.
We hope to do another episode focusing on Berber cuisine and history more in depth. but, for this episode, I want to delve more into exactly what couscous is and how it has evolved across the world. It’s a little more tricky than you’d think and the internet is full of contradictions, but I’ve done my best to pick out the incorrect info and try and build a complete picture of Cous Cous and what it is compared to other similar products.
What is Couscous?
Couscous is a partially ground grain, being that, unlike flour, which is finely ground, couscous is coarsely ground. It is most commonly made from durum wheat, which is the same type of hard wheat used to make semolina and semolina flour – that is popularly used to make pasta. But, couscous can also been made from other grains like barley and millet.
The confusion starts right from the beginning. Semolina is coarsely ground durum wheat, but so is couscous. So what is the difference between this, and also other coarsely ground wheat products, like bulgur wheat. It gets even more confusing when some people say that couscous is a pasta because, like pasta it is made from semolina and water.
Before I explain the primary differences, you need to understand how wheat is turned into these various product, so first, a crash course in wheat and milling.
The modern milling process is very effective at separating the constituent parts of every grain of wheat. So what are the constituent parts?
For simplicity, my crude analogy of a grain of wheat. Think of it like a wheat egg, with a yolk, white and shell.
Wheat germ = The Egg Yolk – except the germ is much smaller, relatively, than an egg yolk, at only 3% of the volume of the grain. But its Very high in protein (23%)
Endosperm = The Egg White – makes up 83% of the grain, lower in protein, maybe 7-10%
Bran = The Egg Shell – 14% of the grain. High in fibre and 16% protein
When whole wheat grain is first ground, these constituent parts separate, and can be filtered in the production process so you are left with three products, rather than whole wheat.
Processed White flour is made entirely from endosperm – the egg white, which is also the vast majority of the volume of each grain. the inner part of the endosperm tends to break down into smaller pieces than the outer part, so finer grains from the endosperm can easily be separated and milled down to make fine flour.
It’s at this stage where we have semolina – the course by product of initial rolling. Once separated from the germ and bran, this course endosperm can be sieved to separate the coarser and finer grains of semolina, and then packaged. That’s semolina.
Couscous is made from the semolina. The traditional hand made method that is still used in some Berber households, is to first sprinkle the raw semolina with salt water and a some ground flour. Then to roll the grains by hand, with your palms, to turn the damp semolina into rounded little couscous grains as bits of flour bind to the outside of each grain of semolina.
The semolina/flour mini balls are then steamed for some 30 minutes at a time, in between each steaming, it’s rinsed with cold water and then the process of moving your hands through to break up lumps and keep grains separated is repeated. This cook then handle process is done a few times until the grains are fully soft.
The final product, made from semolina, is couscous.
So here is the big confusion. Couscous is cooked semolina and flour. Couscous is not a raw product, it is a finished product. When you buy couscous in the supermarket, you are buying cooked semolina that has already been processed, and then re-dried, so that you can make instant couscous just be re-hydrating it quickly.
We were lucky to take a cooking class in Essaouira, Morocco, and follow this complete process from start to finish to “make couscous”, and it wasn’t explained at the time, that the process was not about taking a long time to make a more delicious couscous – it was actually an essential procedure to turn raw semolina into an edible product!
And it was super tasty! And this same process, or something very similar has been followed for thousands of years. more on that shortly.
So, if couscous is just ground up wheat that has been cooked, what is the difference between this and other wheat products like bulgur?
Once again, bulgur is normally made from durum wheat, but can also be made from other types. Durum is actually latin for “hard”. So, this is just hard wheat, which has higher gluten than some other wheats. Which is why it is great for making bread and pasta.
With bulgur, the whole wheat grains are par boiled without being ground at all. After cooking, the grains are dried out, then instead of grinding them, some of the bran is removed and then the remaining grains are cracked. So the final product contains some of the bran and germ, not just the endosperm. So it’s got more whole goodness and fibre in it than couscous. It’s really not couscous.
Is couscous a pasta?
Pasta is typically made with finely ground semolina – or 00 durum flour – or a mix of 00 flour and coarser semolina, to give more texture. Pasta, or at least the type made without eggs, is flour and water rolled and then cooked with water. They do bare some resemblance, and some sources quote couscous as a type of pasta.
Supposedly, when the semolina is hydrated, different elements of the endosperm fuse together to make each individual little granule of couscous. So, effectively, tiny bits of pasta.
I mean, instant couscous, is semolina & flour mixed with water, cooked with water, then air dried ready for sale to be boiled at home?
As we’ve seen often in the past, definitions for things seem to vary depending on which dictionary you read. Which is likely part of the reason no one can agree if couscous is pasta. Here are a few for pasta:
“a food made of flour, water, and sometimes egg which is formed into a variety of shapes that are hard when dry and soft when cooked” – Cambridge dictionary
This definition would not exclude couscous as it is simply any shape formed from flour and water.
“Pasta is a type of food made from a mixture of flour, eggs, and water that is formed into different shapes and then boiled.” – Collins
“A dish originally from Italy consisting of dough made from durum wheat and water, extruded or stamped into various shapes and typically cooked in boiling water.” – Oxford
Well, couscous is almost certainly not from Italy, that aside, this definition suggests it is extruded or stamped into shapes, so not exactly the essence of couscous, unlike other pastas, but you might argue it is “Shaped” by people or machines, so either of these could still fit.
Though every ounce of my being tells me its not pasta, it sort of fits in the definitions.
But with every other form of pasta, the flour is hydrated to make the dough, then cut into shapes – ie. big dough, cut to little shapes. Not flour moulded into tiny individual grains. Also, the water is cold, and pasta dough is not pre cooked before being dried. The final boiling is the cooking process for pasta, not just a re-hydration process. If making fresh couscous, rather than re-hydrating instant couscous, there is no boiling, it’s done with steam – though that could still be argued as the use of boiling water to cook them…
It’s confusing! So, if it’s not in the pasta family, which family is it in?
Even more confusing, What about Israeli couscous?
The difference between Israeli couscous, pearl couscous and more
Let’s talk about Israeli couscous origin. Well, I’m probably going to blow a few minds here, but the quite famous “Pearl Couscous” and Israeli couscous are not the same thing!
Pearl couscous actually refers to Lebanese couscous, which is much bigger than Israeli couscous, being about the size of a dried chickpea, before being cooked.
It’s called Moghrabieh, and is also is a form of rolled semolina or cracked wheat, rolled with flour. So like couscous, but it is much larger. The word moghrabieh in Arabic means “from the countries of Morocco Tunisia & Algeria” and refers to the lebanese couscous as well as a dish made with them.
It’s likely this style came to Lebanon, Syria & Palestine along with North African pilgrims, possibly traveling to Mecca. I mentioned at the start of this episode that one theory suggested couscous came from spain to the middle east via relocation of sephardic Jews. But, as it was muslim countries that adopted couscous style cuisine sooner in the region, the pilgrims story seems more likely in my opinion.
In North Africa a similar large couscous grain is called berkoukes – The literal translation of the word being “Coarse Couscous”. This could have been an alternative to couscous long into history in Africa. That name though, was likely changed in the middle-east to reference its place of origin.
But in Palestine, they often make yet another variant, maftoul, which is slightly smaller than Lebanese pearl couscous and is supposedly made from bulgur cracked wheat and flour, rather than with semolina.
Back to Israeli couscous, it’s called p’titim, and comes in smaller sizes than the other versions I just mentioned. It also has a completely alternative origin story. Rather than being an ancient dish from North Africa, Israeli couscous may have only started life in the 1950s…
Understanding the origin of Israeli couscous will also help to explain why it is not pearl couscous… As the internet is full of people confusing the two. Because, unlike all the others varieties of couscous, Israeli couscous is not couscous, this one is definitely pasta. And, it’s not exactly Israeli either…
Due to mass migration of Jews to Israel in the 1950’s from East Europe, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion needed to find new staple food sources to supplement and be cheaper than rice, and which could be mass produced quickly. The Osem food company were tasked with the job.
The original Israeli couscous, called p’titim, which translates roughly from Hebrew as “little crumbles.”, were made from a wheat paste, just like pasta, which was originally mass produced into pellets the same shape as long grain rice and were hence nicknamed “Ben-Gurion’s rice”.
Rather than air drying the grains, they were toasted to dry them out.
After rice supply increased and became cheaper, the substitute rice was no longer needed, and the shape was changed to pellets more similar to maftoul, the Palestinian couscous, and farfel, the little, toasted egg noodles used in Eastern European Jewish cuisine.
The Osem food company even makes versions like SpaghettiO-style rings and small stars, though the couscous shape proved most popular. For 40 years, p’ititim was really only popular in Israel.
But in 1993, Israeli-born chef Mika Sharon, invited the executive chef of New York’s Tribeca Grill over for dinner, and when he saw Mika’s daughter eating p’ititim, he asked to try some and became instantly excited to add this exotic dish to the Tribeca Grill menu.
To keep avoid customer confusion, he served the P’ititim under the name “Israeli couscous”, and it was a hit, becoming popular in trendy restaurants across the country and being featured in food mags nationwide too. The name caught on and P’ititim pasta, became branded israeli couscous – even though no one in Israel calls it that. So, it comes from Israel, but the name does not… And it’s pasta.
But what about the other types of couscous, we’ve discussed. Are they pasta? They are not made from a dough or paste. They are simply rolled and formed from flour and water?
I really can’t prove it. But I don’t want them to be pastas. I think they should just get to be couscouses…
What do you think? Tweet us @foodfuntravel