What is Couscous? Learn the History, Benefits, and Recipes
Couscous is a staple dish in Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, and Algeria. It’s also widely consumed in North Africa, the Middle East, Libya, and Egypt.
Couscous is commonly served with zabiha halal meat, fish, vegetables, and spices. Cooked simply with sour milk and melted butter, it left hungry travelers feeling full and was the traditional food of the poor, namely the nomadic Berbers.
In terms of texture, the main difference between flour vs couscous is that flour is finely ground, while couscous is coarsely ground.
Due to its texture and composition, it can easily substitute rice, noodles, and quinoa. The difference in taste comes from the fact that it has a pleasant neutral nutty flavor. Today, they can be made with durum semolina wheat or whole wheat
The region this delicious wheat comes from is historically known as the Maghrib region, containing countries such as Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Libya, Egypt, finally spreading to the rest of the Middle East.
The Berbers, to whom the invention of couscous is often attributed, call couscous sekrou or seksu and so do Moroccans of Arab origin, while it is known as maftūl or maghribiyya in the countries of the eastern Mediterranean and suksukaniyya in Sudan.
Various Berber tribes of Morocco have different names for couscous. The Abu Isaffen called it shekshu, while the Rif call it sishtu and the Beni Halima call it sisu. In Algeria, couscous is called kisksū or ṭacam, meaning “food” or “nourishment,” indicating the importance of couscous as a daily staple.
Even in western Sicily, you will come across couscous called by Algerian Arabic expressions.
In Tunisia, couscous is called kiskisi, kisskiss, kuskusi, or kusksi. Very large couscous grains are called muḥammaṣ or burkūkis, while very fine grains, usually used for sweet couscous dishes, are called masfūf.
There are a few popular varieties available in the market. The most common and easily bought in stores and groceries are the Moroccan.
It is also the finest or smallest in terms of spheres or granules. Compared to other types, Moroccan has a coarse texture. It’s a staple food in North African countries as well as in Morocco.
Compared to other types, this cooks easily. In fact, there is instant Moroccan available in the market. These granules are already pre-cooked and only need to be reconstituted and steamed.
Another type is the Lebanese Moghrabieh, which also refers to the traditional Lebanese dish made from it. These are the largest granules, the same size as peas. It takes the longest time to prepare and is often boiled instead of steamed.
What Is Couscous?
Couscous (pronounced as Koos-Koos) is a local dish originating from North Africa in the 13th century and is commonly consumed in Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Libya, Egypt and The Middle East.
Couscous bears resemblance to rice grains and quinoa because of its seed-like appearance and it can come in various sizes, the most common type which is also the smallest size is known as Moroccan couscous.
Traditionally, couscous is made from a dry mixture of semolina that is rolled and tossed together with water to form tiny granules or seeds. To cook this, a special pot known as couscoussier is used to steam it and it typically takes three separate steamings to cook.
While this original method of cooking produces the most amazing and fluffy couscous, the time spent is not worth it. Thankfully, this long cooking process has been cut short with the availability of instant couscous which comes in very handy in four portion-sized boxes. Common in the U.S, this Moroccan-styled type of couscous is manufactured but has been pre-steamed and dried. So all you need to do is boil some water, pour your couscous in and cover for 5 minutes and it’s ready to eat.
Aside from the very common Moroccan couscous, there are also other different types of couscous, depending on their size and country of origin. They include:
● Pearl couscous. It is much larger than the Morrocan one and looks like little rolls of pasta. This type has a chewier texture and nutty flavour than the smaller variety and typically takes about 10 minutes to cook.
● Lebanese couscous also known as moghrabieh couscous is made from bulgar wheat. This is the largest type of couscous you’ll find and they usually take the longest time to cook.
Also Read: What is Halal? Learn Everything You Need to Know
What is the History of Couscous?
One of the first written references to couscous is in the anonymous thirteenth-century Hispano-Muslim cookery book Kitāb al-ṭabīkh fī al-Maghrib wa’l-Āndalus.
Lucie Bolens author of “The Legacy of Muslim Spain,” has found evidence claiming to show Berbers preparing couscous as early as 238 to 149 B.C.E (Bolens, 1989, p. 61).
The early references to couscous show that either it is not unique to the Maghrib region or it spread with great pace to the eastern Arab world.
Around about the 13th century, Berber dynasties were taking power from Arabic and Moorish rulers across north Africa and into the Iberian peninsula of 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.
It can also be preserved for a very long time. These are probably the reasons why it is the ideal food for nomads and those who work closely with agriculture.
Most believe it is unique to the Maghrib and was invented there and that its appearance in the Levant is a curiosity spread.
In Tripolitania to the west, they eat couscous; and in Cyrenaica to the east, they eat Egyptian food.
Couscous was only a curiosity east of the Gulf of Sirte. In the eastern arab world, one form of couscous is also known by the word maghribiyya, indicating that it is recognized as a food of the Maghrib (the western Arab world).
Even today couscous is not eaten that much by Libyans of Cyrenaica and western Egyptians, although it is known by them. But in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Tripolitania couscous is a staple.
Some shards of a marmite-like vessel have been found in the medieval Muslim stratum at Chellala in Algeria, but the dating is difficult.
Interestingly, the couscous recipes from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are no different from the one’s today.
Couscous has now also spread to countries like France where couscous was introduced by Maghrebis immigrants from Algerians, Moroccans, and Tunisians.
One of the earliest appearances of couscous in northern Europe is in Brittany, when Charles de Clairambault, the naval commissioner, in a letter dated January 12, 1699, tells us that the Moroccan ambassador, Abd Allah bin Aisha, and his party of eighteen had brought their own flour and made couscoussou with dates and that it was a delicious dish they made for Ramadan.
But couscous made its appearance much earlier than that in Provence, where the traveler Jean-Jacques Bouchard writes in 1630 of eating in Toulon a “certain kind of pasta which is made of little grains like rice, and which puffs up considerably when cooked; it comes from the Levant and is called courcoussou.”
What Does Couscous Taste Like?
Couscous has a mild and neutral taste. Depending on the type, it can also have a bit of a nutty flavour. Some people even describe the taste as “bland” much like rice which makes it a perfect side or main dish. You can easily combine it with different meals and it’ll absorb the ingredients perfectly.
When cooked properly, couscous should feel light and fluffy and not gritty or gummy which is an indication that your couscous is undercooked or overcooked. Also, depending on the type of couscous, the smaller ones tend to have a tender and coarse texture while the bigger ones are more on the chewy side.
What is Couscous Made From?
Couscous is made from flour, and not just any kind of flour, wheat flour. More specifically couscous is made from the hard parts of coarsely ground durum wheat that is cannot be ground on the millstone. These hard parts are better known as semolina.
The process of making couscous involves mixing approximately 2 parts of semolina with 1 part of durum wheat flour. The semolina is sprinkled with water and rolled with Jada to form small seeds. To keep these seeds separate, it is dusted with durum flour and sieved. This process is repeated till all the semolina has been formed into tiny seeds of couscous.
Sometimes, couscous can also be made from barley or millet.
Is Couscous Pasta or Grain?
Contrary to popular belief couscous falls under the pasta category. Although it looks like rice, quinoa or other grains and can be substituted for either of these grains in various recipes, chefs believe that couscous is pasta and not a grain since it is man-made and not grown from the soil.
Grains like rice are seeds of crops that are harvested while couscous is made from wheat flour by hand so it doesn’t naturally classify as a grain. Even though it has similar nutrient content to other grains, couscous is not gluten-free because it is made from flour. This brings us to the next point.
Is Couscous Healthy For Weight Loss?
If you’re looking to embark on a weight loss diet, adding whole wheat couscous to your diet will certainly help you achieve your weight loss goal. However, you have to be careful with the quantity you eat and how you pair it with other foods. To keep your calorie intake in check, make couscous a part of your meal but not the main dish. Go for the whole wheat flour version and add lots of vegetables to your meals to increase your fibre intake. This will help you feel fuller for longer periods and reduce your overall calorie intake.
What Is The Difference Between Couscous And Rice?
The major difference between couscous and rice is that rice is a cultivated crop, and couscous is man-made much like other pasta products you know of. While both foods are rich in carbohydrates, couscous contains gluten since it is made from wheat flour, unlike rice which is the starchy seed of cereal grass and is gluten-free.
Also, rice whether brown or white generally takes a longer time to cook than packaged couscous sold in grocery stores.
Couscous vs Rice: Is Couscous Better For You Than Rice?
While couscous and rice share a lot of similarities, they have different nutritional values. Both foods are healthy and 9acked with great nutrients but depending on your health concerns, you’ll have to decide which one is best for you. To help you decide we’ll take a look at the GI rating, and fat and gluten ratio.
The Glycemic index GI is a ranking of how quickly foods are absorbed into the body and how they affect blood sugar. Foods with a high GI rating can cause a spike in your blood sugar while foods with a lower GI rating provide a more steady release of energy, helping you maintain a healthy blood sugar level. Low GI foods are those under 55/150g and according to Harvard Health Publication, Couscous has a GI rating of 65/150g, white rice has a GI of 72/150g and brown rice at 50/150g.
So if you’re diabetic or want to control your blood sugar levels, a good option would be to go for brown rice.
Looking at the fat ratio, 100g of uncooked rice contains about 3g of fat. Couscous on the other hand is lower in fat. With 100g containing less than 2g of fat. Both grains contain a similar amount of calories but couscous contains more protein, vitamins and minerals, so is generally considered a healthier option than rice if your goal is weight loss.
Lastly, rice unlike couscous is gluten-free. This makes it a healthy choice for people with gluten sensitivity or coeliac disease. If you are sensitive to gluten you may want to avoid couscous and stick to rice instead. Especially brown rice as it is more nutritious and a good source of fibre.
What Is The Best Version of Couscous?
The best and most famous couscous is made from hard wheat. Hard wheat couscous was probably invented by Muslim Berbers in the eleventh or twelfth-century Maghrib.
The argument that couscous was invented in Spain, an argument based on the fact that the first written recipe for couscous is from a Hispano-Muslim cookery manuscript, is not compelling.
Evidence is mounting that the process of couscous cookery, especially steaming grain over a broth in a special pot, might have originated before the tenth century in the area of West Africa where the medieval Sudanic kingdom thrived, today encompassing parts of the contemporary nations of Niger, Mali, Mauritania, Ghana, and Burkina Faso.
Even today in the region of Youkounkoun of Guinea and Senegal, a millet couscous with meat or peanut sauce is made, as well as a rice couscous.
Millet was also used for couscous by the Kel Ahaggar, a nomadic people of the desert of southern Algeria, who probably learned about it in the West African Sudan, where it has been known for centuries.
Ibn Baṭṭūṭa journeyed to Mali in 1352, and in today’s Mauritania he had a millet couscous: “When the traveler arrives in a village the negresses take out millet, sour milk, chickens, lotus-flour, rice, founi [Digitaria exilis Stapf.], which resembles mustard grains, and they make a regular couscous .”
Ibn Baṭṭūṭa also mentions rice couscous in the area of Mali in 1350. Millet couscous was never as popular as hard wheat couscous because it took longer to cook and didn’t taste as good.
Also Read: What is Halal Food? Plus Guides and Custom
So is Couscous Actually From Africa?
This claim for the African origins of couscous was originally proposed by Professor É. Lévi-Provençal, in his monumental Histoire de l’Espagne Musulmane and is suggested in the early Arabic sources on West Africa.
Other studies, such as Professor Robert Hall’s, using the tenth-century work of Ibn al-Faqīh’s Mukhtasar kitāb al-buldān, also seem to support this suggestion.
In West Africa, one finds sorghum, founi, black fonio (Digitaria iburua) ,and finger millet (Eleusine coracana), a cereal of Nigeria (also cultivated in India) made into couscous.
The Hausa of central Nigeria and the Lambas of Togo call this couscous made with black fonio, wusu-wusu.
Sorghum was a popular grain for making couscous, and the Moroccan Berber word for sorghum, illan or ilni, is the same as the word in the West African language of Songhai, illé, lending further circumstantial evidence for an African genesis for couscous.
How to Cook Couscous Step by Step
Cooking Couscous is actually very easy and really rewarding and tasty. You can always add your own twists to any recipe.
Time needed for cooking: 15 minutes.
- Boil broth or water
- Put 1 cup of broth (or water) in a saucepan.
- Add a small drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and a pinch of kosher salt.
- Bring water to a boil.
Toast the couscous in extra virgin olive oil
This is an optional step but can really make a difference in imparting flavor. Heat a little bit of extra virgin olive oil (about 1 to 2 tablespoon) in a non-stick skillet.
Add the uncooked couscous and toss around, constantly, using a wooden spoon. You’re looking for the couscous to gain a beautiful golden brown color (watch the couscous carefully, this will be quick).
Add couscous to boiling water
Stir the toasted couscous in the boiling water. Cover the saucepan and remove from heat or turn the heat off immediately.
Let the couscous sit undisturbed for about 10 minutes until it has absorbed all the water. Uncover and fluff with a fork. Taste and adjust salt to your liking.
Optional Step: Add some spices and herbs for flavor.
You can absolutely serve your couscous plain at this point. Or, feel free to add a little seasoning of your choice and some fresh herbs.
I added a pinch of ground cumin, chopped parsley, dill, and green onions. I also added a couple of garlic cloves that have been minced and sauteed in extra virgin olive oil.
Once you add the flavor makers of your choice, give the couscous another toss to combine, and transfer to a serving platter. Enjoy!
Also Read: What is Zaatar? Learn Benefits, Uses and Top 5 Recipes
Our Favorite Couscous Salad Recipe
One of our favorite couscous recipes happens to be a tasty salad recipe. This is our Couscous Salad with Cucumber, Red Onion & Herbs.
- 1 cup couscous
- 1 1/4 cups boiling water
- 1 cup loosely packed cilantro, finely chopped
- 1 cup loosely packed Italian parsley, finely chopped
- 1/2 English cucumber, cut lengthwise and very thinly sliced
- 1/2 red onion, cut in half and shaved extremely thin
- 1 lemon, zested and juiced, about 3 tablespoons
- 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 tablespoon honey or agave syrup, warmed
- 1/2 teaspoon chili powder
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
- 3 tablespoons toasted pine nuts
- 3 ounces feta cheese, optional
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- Put the couscous in a large bowl and pour the boiling water over it. Cover with a lid or a plate and set aside for 5 minutes. Then remove the lid and fluff with a fork.
- Toss the finely chopped herbs with the couscous, as well as the sliced cucumber, onion, and lemon zest.
- Whisk together the lemon juice, olive oil, honey, chili powder, and cumin, then toss this dressing with the couscous. Stir in the pine nuts. Crumble the feta and stir that in as well. Taste and season generously with salt and pepper.
- Serve immediately, or refrigerate until ready to serve. Store leftovers in a covered container for up to 5 days.
Our Favorite Couscous Delicious Recipes
Our favorite currently will be a tasty Falafel-Spiced Middle Eastern Couscous recipe that will make you keep this recipe going for years.
These stuffed tomatoes are the essence of summer. Field-fresh tomatoes, stuffed with an aromatic, Mediterranean-inspired mixture of couscous, fresh herbs, mushrooms and olives, topped with creamy goat cheese — all together, this makes a delicate, light and fresh side dish for a barbecue or a late-summer dinner.
The whole dish takes minutes to assemble, and once in the oven, everything just roasts together, the tomatoes releasing their sweet, tangy juices into the couscous salad. The olives provide a salty, umami hit, and the light sprinkle of panko crumbs over top adds texture to this dish.
- 4 large fresh tomatoes
- 1/2 cup uncooked couscous
- 1 cup vegetable stock
- 1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil, plus extra to drizzle over
- 1 clove garlic, crushed
- 1/4 cup chopped mushrooms, preferably wild mushrooms
- Large handful fresh mixed herbs, finely chopped (like cilantro, parsley and green onions)
- 10 to 15 kalamata or black olives, pitted and coarsely chopped
- 4 to 5 ounces goat cheese (or chèvre)
- Salt and pepper to taste
- A small handful of seasoned panko crumbs
- Heat the oven to 350°F.
- Slice the tops off the tomatoes, and gently scoop out the seeds and insides (see Recipe Notes). Arrange them in a shallow roasting tin, and brush a little olive oil on the insides.
- Place the couscous in a large bowl, and drizzle about a tablespoon of olive oil over top. Heat the vegetable stock in the microwave or on the stovetop until steaming, then pour over the couscous. Add a little salt, stir, and cover the bowl. Let the couscous steam for about 5 minutes (or according to package directions) Uncover and fluff up the couscous.
- Heat the remaining olive oil in a small skillet over medium-high heat, and add the crushed garlic. Fry gently for about 30 seconds and add the mushrooms. Cook for 3 to 4 minutes, until the mushrooms are tender.
- Stir the mushrooms, herbs, and olives into the couscous, taste, and adjust seasoning. Crumble about three-quarters of the goat cheese into the couscous mixture and stir together.
- Divide the couscous mixture evenly between the tomatoes. Crumble the remaining chèvre on top, then sprinkle with panko crumbs. Drizzle a little more olive oil over the top of each tomato.
- Roast uncovered in the oven for 15 to 20 minutes, until the tomatoes soften and the panko crumbs are crisp and golden. Serve warm.
The couscous stuffing can be used as a side salad by itself as an accompaniment to tagines or Moroccan-style meats, or as an easy alternative to rice or pasta. You can also use it to stuff sweet peppers, zucchini, or eggplant.
Also Read: What is Halal Chicken Really About? Plus Recipe
Quick and Easy Dishes
If you’re a beginner, trying out the 3-ingredient recipe is a must. You heard that right; you only need three ingredients: couscous, water (chicken or vegetable broth are great substitutes), and salt.
You only need to boil the water to a boil in a saucepan filled with 2 3/4 cups of water or your substitutes, add in 1/4 teaspoon of salt, and stir. Add your couscous and cover it for at least 5 minutes. Allow it to absorb the water or broth before fluffing it with a fork. The goal is to have light and fluffy—not gummy. And there you have it—quick and easy 3-ingredient couscous!
Let’s take your couscous to the next level and try this one: the perfect one. Here, you’ll need more than three ingredients: chicken broth, olive oil, and butter. First, boil your chicken broth before adding some olive oil. Then, mix in your butter and a little bit of salt. Finally, you add your couscous.
Again, you let it steam for at least 5 minutes before you fluff it up. If you want a traditional Moroccan couscous masterpiece, pair this with Moroccan chicken tagine, and you’ll find the taste simply divine.
Speaking of Moroccan, let’s try and take your couscous to new heights with the Moroccan Spiced Vegetables.
This one needs at least 30 minutes to prepare, so get ready! The first thing you need to remember is the set of even more ingredients needed than in the previous ones: peppadew peppers, red onions, garlic, pepper, paprika, ground coriander turmeric, celery salt, cumin, ground cinnamon, and cayenne pepper. frozen peas, chickpeas, carrots, chopped parsley, and stock.
Heat these in a pan of olive oil and cook them until they are tender and brown. Then, you add garlic. Next, you add the rest of the spices and stir-fry until the dish becomes fragrant. This should only take a minute.
Then, you add the peas and cook for at least 2 minutes. Add your stock, chickpeas, and peppers. Add your couscous and stir it in the pot before letting it cook in the hot stock. Then, leave it in for 5 minutes so it can absorb the liquid. Fluff and serve! Experiment and improve your couscous recipes here!!
FAQ About Couscous
When it comes to couscous there are always a ton of questions regarding basic information about couscous such as calories etc. We went ahead and answered a few of the webs most searched questions when it comes to couscous.
Feel free to leave comments and questions below this article!
Couscous vs Quinoa
When it comes to couscous one cup of couscous contains 36 grams of carbohydrates, 2.2 grams of fiber, 6 grams of protein, 0.3 grams of fat, and 176 calories. Although it is lower in fat than quinoa it doesn’t have the protein benefits and it is not gluten-free.
When it comes to quinoa one cup (185 grams) of cooked quinoa contains 222 calories. Although quinoa has more calories it also has more protein, iron, and magnesium than couscous.
Quinoa is gluten-free, high in protein and fiber, and cooks easily.
Couscous is lower in fat and calories than quinoa and cooks easily as well.
What is the Couscous Ratio?
Follow 1:1 Liquid to Couscous Ratio. If you plan to cook 1 cup of couscous, you’ll need 1 cup of boiling broth or water (but look at the couscous package as some may require a different ratio).
Use too much liquid and your couscous will be a bit on the sticky side. And if you use too little liquid, your couscous will be drier (this may work well, if you’re tossing couscous in a salad where salad dressing will add more moisture).
Use broth for your cooking liquid. You can use water or broth, but if you want to infuse couscous with flavor right off the bat, use broth (I tend to use vegetable or chicken broth).
What is Couscous Nutrition Profile
Carbohydrates represent the bulk of the nutritional profile and benefits of couscous. This means that a serving is a great source of energy to fuel you—your brain, the rest of your nervous system, heart, kidneys, and many more—for the rest of the day. It is abundant in protein and fiber and has very little fat.
Protein is important because it helps the body repair muscles and bones. It’s also important for growth and development among pregnant women, children, and teenagers. Meanwhile, you need fiber to normalize your bowel movements, lower cholesterol levels and help control your blood sugar.
You can get all these benefits from just 80-100 grams. In addition, it also contains Vitamins B and E, zinc, iron, and some calcium. These are only a few of the health bonuses you can get from your simple dish.
1 cup of cooked couscous (157g) will equal to around 157 calories. Couscous is low-in-fat, low-in-calorie, and is a slow-release carbohydrate which means it takes longer to release energy in the body which will keep you fuller for longer.
How much Does 1 Cup of Couscous Yield?
1 cup of dry couscous will give you about 2 to 2 1/2 cups of cooked couscous, which should generously feed 4 people (you should budget 1/3 cup to 1/2 cup per person).
Is Couscous Gluten-Free?
No, couscous is not gluten-free. Despite its rice-like appearance, couscous is made from semolina, which is a granule of durum wheat. Therefore, it is not gluten-free.
Is Couscous Healthy?
To answer if couscous is healthy requires us to first understand the basics of couscous.
Couscous contains mostly carbohydrates as it’s made from durum wheat, but it also contains quite good levels of protein and fiber with very little fat and no salt. Although couscous looks like a grain, it’s technically a pasta.
Nutritionally, couscous contains some calcium, magnesium, iron, and zinc, as well as some of the B vitamins and vitamin E.
Couscous also contains gluten and is therefore not suitable for anyone with gluten intolerance.
What is a Healthy Portion Size of Couscous?
The NHS recommends that starchy foods, including couscous such as couscous canary, should be consumed daily and makeup about a third of your daily food intake. Although the NHS doesn’t provide actual weights for starchy foods, 80-100g of cooked couscous is a good guide for one portion.
Couscous is a starchy food and sits as a medium food in terms of glycaemic index, which means that people with any heart disease risk or diabetes will need to be more mindful of portion sizes.