The Magic Grain

Ce qui fait le couscous, c’est la sauce; ce qui fait le mariage c’est l’amour.

What makes a couscous is the sauce; what makes a marriage is love.

-Berber proverb


My mother-in-law started giggling.

One of the most endearing things about her was that once she started, she couldn’t stop. Her face would turn red, her shoulders shake with mirth and she’d fumble down the front of her dress for her handkerchief to wipe the tears streaming from her eyes. As soon as she stopped to gasp for breath, her mouth would twitch, then, with a splutter, she would burst out laughing again. Her laughter wasn’t just a sound; it was her expression, the way her face would crease into laughter lines and her eyes sparkle.

Although she had been only forty-six at the time, she seemed ancient to me, but during these light-hearted moments, I could easily see the carefree young girl she had once been. And her giggling was highly contagious. Soon I was groaning with laughter and holding my aching sides. Language is no barrier to giggling.

What could have been the cause of our merriment on that autumn day in the kitchen of our flat in the Cité Jeanne d’Arc? It was me, of course. Sitting on the tiled floor, one leg stretched out on either side of the tharbourth, the wide, shallow bowl in which couscous is rolled, I was doing my best to imitate the regular hand movements that she had just demonstrated to me.

What was I doing wrong?

Well, for a start, I should have bent my right leg at the knee and tucked it under my left one, behind the dish. My left leg should have been kept straight. My problem was that my leg was too long to fit behind the tharbouth and I wasn’t used to sitting on the floor with my legs wide apart, so as to speak. Although I was wearing trousers, I didn’t quite have the same ease of movement as the voluminous skirts of the traditional Kabyle dress would have given me.

I can only suppose that the sight of her new European daughter-in-law sitting in such an unorthodox position, with her long, black hair falling into her eyes instead of being modestly tied back in a scarf, awkwardly trying to imitate the gestures that were second nature to her, was enough to reduce her to tears of laughter. So much so, she had to lean helplessly against the kitchen table until she had recovered enough to take over.

Whenever couscous is mentioned, the comforting image that springs immediately to the mind of anyone from Algeria, Morocco or Tunisia, is that of a woman, usually their mother or grandmother, sitting on a sheepskin thrown on the floor, her back against a wall. Two or three sieves and jars of water are by her side, and, bending slightly over the tharbouth, or g’saa in Arabic, she is rolling the semolina flour with soothing, repetitive movements of the hands until it forms tiny pellets, pausing only to pass them through the sieves, or pour some water into one hand and sprinkle it over the pale golden grain. It is an image that spells home.

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Couscous, seksu in tamazight, and ta’am, meaning simply food, in Arabic, is traditionally steamed and served with a meat and vegetable stew spooned on top, the name couscous belonging to both the grain and the finished dish. There are many theories as to the origins of its name, some thinking that it is a derivative of seksu, others affirming that it is onomatopoeic, inspired by the sound of the dried semolina rattling into the tharbouth.

Archeological digs in the region have uncovered pots dating from the ninth century AD resembling those used to cook couscous today. Some experts believe that couscous dates back even further – to the first or second century BC. Whatever its age, it is generally agreed that the Imazighen (Berbers) were the first to roll and steam it. The first written mention of it was by eighth-century Muslim scholars, who praised its nutritional and medicinal qualities.

Couscous has been known for centuries as the “signature dish” of the Maghreb. It is a symbol both of Maghrebi identity and its culture. The carbohydrate cornerstone of North African cuisine, just as rice is for the Chinese and the Indians and pasta is for the Italians, it is an integral part of daily life, present at all the most important rites of passage; births, circumcisions, weddings and funerals.

The preparation and eating of couscous symbolises conviviality, reunions and family links. At its very heart is the idea of sharing – it is usually eaten from a communal dish, with each participant dipping his spoon, or his fingers, into the grain directly in front of him, never encroaching on his neighbour’s territory. Sharing food in this way embodies the virtues of hospitality and generosity and shows us that, with a little effort, we could all live in harmony.

Even the traditional way of rolling couscous could turn into a social event. Groups of women would gather together to make large batches over several days, which were then dried in the sun and used for several months. It was the same whenever there was a celebration of some kind in the offing. The women would enjoy their time together, laughing and gossiping in the shade of the trees, their brightly-coloured dresses and laughter making them look, and sound, like a twittering flock of birds of paradise.

As Algeria became one of imperial Rome’s “granaries,” the consumption of couscous spread along the latter’s trade routes, from sub-Saharan Africa to Spain. It is eaten in places as far apart as the Middle East and Brazil, where it was introduced by the Portuguese. The French discovered it in the nineteenth century on their conquest of Algeria, and it was subsequently to be found amongst the baggage of North African emigrants to France. A taste of home in a hostile, alien environment.

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Couscous is infinitely adaptable. It doesn’t have to be made from semolina – its basic grain can be barley or even acorn flour, resulting in a couscous called ta’am oubelout, eaten in the Chenoua region. My mother-in-law would eat only barley couscous when she became diabetic towards the end of her life.

The vegetables used are seasonal, so you can have a summer couscous and a winter one. There is a couscous for wealthy people and one for those who are less so. A mountain couscous, and an urban one. A desert couscous and another eaten by migrants far from home. Couscous adapts to every purse and every environment.

The protein accompanying the couscous can be mutton, beef, chicken, even eggs. People living along the coastline near Collo, in eastern Algeria, eat fish couscous. Dark brown couscous called lemziet is favoured by the inhabitants of Constantine. The pieds noirs loved eating couscous with merguez, spicy North African sausages, a tradition borrowed from Maghrebi Jewish cuisine. Couscous can be completely vegetarian, or, at the other extreme, garnished with three or more types of meat, as is couscous royal, with its mutton, chicken and merguez.

Festivities of any kind usually have mesfouf on the menu, couscous sweetened with honey and raisins, or, in western Algeria, seffa, where the light and fluffy steamed grain is mixed with butter, raisins, cinnamon, orange-flower water and grilled almonds. This kind of sweet couscous is often accompanied by a glass of cold elben or buttermilk. 

Couscous is both mythical and familiar. Many legends and beliefs are attached to it. Those practicing witchcraft and wishing to bring misfortune to another would disinter a freshly-buried corpse at night and use its severed hand to roll the couscous, which would then be fed to the victim, resulting in sickness, insanity or even death. On the positive side, it is supposed to bestow a divine blessing on the heads of those eating it. It brings baraka or good luck, just like bread, and, as such, should never be wasted or discarded.

As for me, I never mastered the art of rolling couscous and although my prepared couscous is second to none, the dried rolled grain was always provided for me by my mother-in-law and sisters-in-law throughout my years in Algeria. Luckily for me, I can now find it in any European supermarket. It is good, yes, but does not quite have the savour of home-rolled couscous, prepared with such loving care.

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