In the mountains and valleys that stretch across North Africa, there’s no guarantee of a good harvest from year to year. That’s nothing new for the Berbers. They’ve been farming olives, wheat, vegetables, and fruits there since before Carthage was founded in 814 BCE. (The name “Berber” actually comes from the Roman name for the people: barbarians. In their own language, Berbers call themselves Amazigh, or Free People.) In a good year a Berber tribe would grow plenty of food to sustain themselves. But even in a good year, the farmers learned to look ahead to the future. What if the next year there’s a drought and the harvest is limited? And what if that happens two years in a row? Or what if, after a year or two of bad harvests, a hungry neighboring tribe invades and pillages their food supplies? Those were all common scenarios for the semi-nomadic Berbers.
The solution was to make the harvest transportable.
Like most people looking to preserve food before the days of refrigeration, the Berbers used what they had on hand: salt, oil, sun. In Tunisia, smack dab in the middle of Berber land, sun drying has always been the most important method of preservation. Drying not only preserves, but it also makes the food weigh less. Should the tribe decide to pack up and move, they could take it with them. The Berbers sun dried everything: tomatoes, stone fruits, peppers. And to preserve wheat, they would sun dry couscous.
The basics of making traditional couscous are pretty simple. You take semolina flour and mix it with a bit of salt and water, rub it together to form tiny balls of dough, and then dry ’em out. Today, though, most couscous is made with big, industrialized machines. The whole process can be completed in a couple of hours from start to finish, including just seven minutes for mixers to form the balls and then a whopping eighteen minutes to dry them in huge rotating ovens.
There are still a few producers out there making couscous the traditional, slow way that the Berbers would have made it. The best couscous I know of is made by Majid Mahjoub, himself a descendant of the Berbers, and his company Les Moulins Mahjoub. Mahjoub couscous is “m’hamsa” (hand-made, in Arabic). Using the Razzag variety of wheat that they grow organically on their own farm, they roll every little ball of couscous by hand, the way it’s been done for millennia. For that reason, this couscous is a little bigger than most, and you may notice that it looks a tad less uniform. That’s a good thing. After the couscous has been shaped, it dries in the sun. That drying doesn’t take minutes or hours—it takes days. All told, a batch of Mahjoub couscous takes about ten days from start to finish.
All that time drying in the sun has a huge impact on flavor.
It’s like the difference between bread that’s allowed to slowly rise and proof for most of a day versus the stuff that’s baked as quickly as possible. The longer drying time allows the couscous to develop deeper, richer flavor. In essence, couscous that’s produced as quickly as possible tastes like flour, while couscous that is made more slowly tastes like bread. The exact same thing happens with the flavor of traditional pastas that are allowed to dry slowly rather than being baked as quickly as possible. Mahjoub couscous is wheaty, toasty, nutty, earthy, with a chewy, firm, toothsome texture. This is no boring grain to be relegated to the corner of the plate and smothered in spices and sauces.
I still remember the first time I tasted Mahjoub couscous. It was a little more than six years ago. The first bite stopped me in my tracks. I had no idea that couscous could be so delicious. But once I got over the surprise, I went back for more, and more, and more. I still always keep a jar or two in my pantry and cook it at least a couple times a month.
Cooking couscous is as easy as boiling water.
Seriously. You bring a pot of water to boil, add the couscous, bring it back to a boil, take the pan off the heat, put a lid on it, and let it sit. After ten minutes, you fluff the couscous with a fork and it’s ready to eat. Majid visits us in Ann Arbor from time to time and he’s cooked up some some outstanding couscous dishes for us. Here are a few of my favorites:
Couscous with tomato sauce and a perfect egg
This is one of the simplest ways I know of to serve couscous, and conveniently, it’s also one of the most delicious. After cooking the couscous—roughly ⅓ cup per person as a side dish, or a bit more as a main dish—stir in a bit of good extra virgin olive oil to keep it from sticking. Dish it onto plates and then on top of the couscous spoon a healthy dollop of your favorite tomato sauce, warmed on the stove. Then top that with an egg. I’m partial to a poached egg with the yolk still soft and oozy, but you could use a fried egg, a diced hard-boiled egg, whatever kind of egg fits your fancy. Sprinkle with salt and a grind of fresh pepper, and serve immediately.
To serve four to six people, use 1 1/2 cups of couscous. Once it’s cooked through, stir in a couple tablespoons of good extra virgin olive oil, then let it cool. While it cools, dice a bunch of vegetables: an onion, two tomatoes, a sweet pepper, a cucumber, a little fresh mint, and a preserved lemon. When the couscous has reached room temperature stir in all the vegetables along with a few capers and a splash of white wine vinegar. Once it’s all mixed up, refrigerate it for half an hour or so to chill it and let the flavors meld. Just before serving taste and add salt if needed.
Majid uses three parts milk to one part couscous. Bring the milk to a boil, and add the couscous. Let it simmer for five minutes, then remove it from the heat and let it cool a bit. That’s it—it’s ready to serve. Majid likes to add a bit of jam to it, but he also recommends you could add a little sugar to sweeten it up a bit more. Since hearing about the recipe, I’ve made it with a little maple syrup and cinnamon and that turned out pretty delicious. Majid likes to eat sweet couscous for breakfast. In the summer he likes to make it the night before and keep it in the fridge overnight, then serve it cold, like a couscous version of rice pudding.