Couscous (pronounced “KOOS-koos”) is a popular food prepared from tiny granules of durum wheat. The Couscous grains are then cooked by steaming them until they have a light, fluffy consistency that goes well with a variety of dishes.
What is Couscous?
Similar to macaroni and spaghetti, Couscous is made from semolina flour, but instead of mixing the semolina with water and/or egg to form a dough, Couscous is made by rubbing the semolina between moistened hands until the flour combines with just enough water to form hundreds of tiny grains. This is a long and tiresome process, which was mechanizes over time in factories like the one of Martino in Italy to set a new standard of modernity and excellence. The process continues until the grains combine into a gooey mass, and once mastered – produces Couscous that is light and fluffy in texture, and cooks fast and easy.
After the Couscous grains are formed they need to be dried and then can be steamed over a stew, usually made from lamb. A special pot called a Couscoussière is used for this purpose. Steaming Couscous requires sealing the top of the Couscoussière to its bottom with rags dipped in flour paste, and then interrupting the steaming several times to rub the softening Couscous grains to insure that they remain separate. It is an involved process that takes time and effort to produce Couscous of high quality and upright values.
Fortunately, thanks to modernization and the use of a new mechanizes approach to the production of Couscous, it is no longer necessary to go through all that labour. Companies like Martino have expanded on the rich traditions of Couscous making to introduce modernity and contribute to the broad availability of instant Couscous. After being steamed, it is then dried again before it is finally packaged. All this processing that Martino has taken years to perfect ensures the range of Couscous products we carry only need to be soaked in boiling water for as little as 10 minutes to produce that fluffiness that everyone loves.
Couscous doesn’t have a lot of flavour on its own, but it works well as a base for both vegetable and meat dishes. It also works well in salads and can be flavoured with herbs like coriander, basil or mint, or even studded with fruit like raisins or apricots. Martino’s high-quality Couscous products are all very neutral — and nutritious — base for all sorts of dishes.
How Couscous is Made?
The key to preparing authentic Couscous products as disclosed by Martino’s proud traditions, is patience and care. Experience will prove the best guide, but there are all ways to master the preparation of Couscous produces amazing results every time.
There are two basic steps in preparing Couscous before the cooking process: forming the Couscous and humidifying and drying the Couscous.
Forming the Couscous
That is preparing Couscous from “scratch”, is rarely done anymore, even in its native countries as there are so many products that it’s much easier to cook with first quality grain, unique organoleptic and nutritional products like the ones offered by Martino.
Pre-made Couscous is sometimes also pre-cooked and comes with clear directions for preparation that make cooking it easy. Couscous is always steamed and never boiled.
In some countries, the rolling and rubbing process to form the Couscous is done in a platter called a gasca, which is a large earthenware faience platter traditional in Fez, but sometimes made of wood. In Algeria, this platter is known by the same name, as well as lyān. In one of its native countries – Morocco, the Couscous is then dried in a midūna, a latticework basket of palm or esparto grass. Afterwards it is transferred to a tabaq, a finer kind of basket. After drying a bit, the Couscous is returned to the midūna for more rolling. The Couscous is then sieved in three stages through sieves with smaller holes called the ghurbal qamiḥ, ghurbal kusksi, and ghurbal talac in Morocco and Tunisia, and the kharaj, rafaḍ and tanay in Algeria. These numerous sieves form a uniform grain. The Couscous is then left for four or five days to dry in the sun on a white sheet with occasional light sprays of water. It must be completely dry before storing. Today, modern North African and Italian Couscous factories like Martino’s do all of this by machine, including the drying process. This creates uniformity across the entire product range and guarantees the highest possible quality.
The second basic step, which is the only step you need to be concerned with for the Couscous you buy, is:
The moistening process before cooking
The end goal is to have tender, light Couscous swollen with the steam vapours of the particular broth the recipe calls for.
This can be achieved when you add the remaining Couscous and continue raking with your fingers, adding water and oil as needed. Continue in this manner until all the grains are moistened. The Couscous should be evenly wet, but not soggy, and uniform in size, about 3 millimeters in diameter. You may need to shake the Couscous through a flat sieve, breaking apart any pellets with your hand. A few additional sieves can separate all pellets. The final size of each pellet should, ideally, be about 1 millimeter in diameter and the pellets should be separate from one another. Continue rubbing and raking until you have achieved this.
Couscous is then ready to be cooked. It can be prepared in a simple pan or in a special kind of cooking ensemble called a kiskis, known by the French word Couscousière in the West, except in Italy, where it is called a Couscousiera.
Kiskis, the special pan for your Couscous
A kiskis consists of two parts: the bottom portion is a pot-bellied vessel for the broth and the top part fits over the bottom part and has holes in its bottom for the steam to rise through for cooking the Couscous. In North Africa, they are often made of earthenware or aluminum. High-end kitchenware stores, such as Williams-Sonoma or Sur la Table, sell aluminum Couscousières. You can make a makeshift Couscousière by placing a colander over a like-sized pot. The Berbers of Morocco call this bottom portion the ikineksu, while the top potion is the tikint, the bottom portion of the kiskis or Couscousière is called a makfūl in Tunisia, a pignata in western Sicily, and a qidra in Morocco and Algeria. The top portion is also called a kiskis in Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia.