In Honor of Friday Couscous, Notes on a Moroccan Classic

Thursday, October 29, 2009 | Ar-Ribat, Morocco (map)

My favorite couscous in Morocco? Definitely couscous tfaya from Carousel Cafe in Agdal, Rabat. It's sweet but spicy, served with hardboiled egg, salted almonds, and a glass of cool leben (sour milk) on the side. Perfection.
Before I came to Morocco, I rarely ate couscous (كسكوس). My mother—ever the adventurous and talented chef—had made it now and then throughout my childhood. But although certainly no picky eater, I had never liked the dish much. At home or in restaurants, it always seemed a bit too mealy, too dry, and too bland to really be enjoyable.

In Morocco, of course, couscous is the national meal. Without fail, the kingdom's entire population eats it every Friday at lunch, by hand or by spoon, at home or in a restaurant. It is a nationwide rite unparalleled in America. (Catholics' fish-only-Fridays comes to mind, but Friday couscous in Morocco is on a whole other scale, approaching universality. Finding a restaurant or cafe that serves anything else on Friday afternoons is a rarity.)

Given Moroccans' enthusiasm for the grain-based pasta—which they both grow and consume in
tremendous quantity—avoiding it was impossible from the start. But when we arrived in Fes, I began to sample couscous in restaurants and in Moroccan family's homes, and discovered a dish very much unlike what I had eaten back home. Moist with meaty juices, steaming with a spicy aroma, and topped with bizarre combinations of meats, vegetables, and fruits, this was couscous I could learn to enjoy.

* * *

And enjoy it I did—within a few months of our arrival, Jacqueline had to impose a couscous moratorium. (Apparently having it every Friday at lunch, plus every other evening when I cooked, was just too much for her.) Since then, with much negotiating, I've been varying the recipes more, trying new combinations and integrating ideas I've picked up from restaurants or Moroccan friends' kitchens.

Moroccan cooks have a very particular way of preparing couscous, involving an elaborate ritual of moistening, steaming, more moistening, kneading with olive oil, more steaming, more moistening, more steaming... Personally, I like to keep it simpler, and generally use the throw-boiling-water-on-couscous-and-then-cover method.

For anyone interested in making good, traditional Moroccan couscous at home (or anyone interested in asking me to make it for them when I'm back in the US) here are a few ideas:

Couscous with Seven Vegetables

Couscous served with chicken and seven vegetables is the Moroccan standard, but by no means ordinary. Try the "Friday Couscous" recipe from A Moroccan Kitchen (written by Samira and Sabah, the talented chefs at Riad Laaroussa in Fes). A similar variation on the same recipe—which usually includes veggies like zucchini, pumpkin, tomato, chickpeas, turnips, radishes, carrots, and cabbage—is available at Maison Kenzi.

Couscous Tfaya

Of the many preparations, my personal favorite is couscous with tfaya (تفاية), a sweet compote of raisins, onion, cinnamon and other spices, served over the couscous with toasted almonds, a hard-boiled egg, and meat. Maison Kenzi again has a solid recipe, and Samira and Sabah have a tfaya recipe made to accompany lamb, though the sweet-and-salty concoction goes just fine with chicken or beef as well.

Ibn Ibn Battuta's Infamous Dessert Couscous

Back in Fes, I heard that some Moroccan chefs also make a sweetened couscous for dessert. Online, I found that the New York Times's Mark Bittman had a writeup on the concept, but I couldn't find a Moroccan to teach me how to make the real deal. So, I experimented, over and over and over, until I settled, more or less, on the following (suggestions always welcome):

Ingredients:

3/4 cup couscous
1 ripe banana
1/3 cup raisins
1/3 cup almonds
1 1/2 cups milk
1/4 cup honey
1 tbsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp nutmeg

Preparation:

1. In medium sauce pan, heat couscous, raisins, and almonds in milk over low flame; do not allow to boil.
2. As mixture heats and couscous expands, add honey, cinnamon, and nutmeg.
3. Add milk as necessary, stirring for several minutes while mixture simmers.
4. Slice banana into couscous, stir another minute until most of milk is absorbed and rice-pudding-like texture is achieved.
5. Serve in bowls with dash of cinnamon.

Serves me, or 4 "normal" people.

Note: As a breakfast, this recipe is also a great way to use couscous leftover from the previous night's dinner—just add slightly less milk when using already moistened couscous.

4 comments:

Uncle Ted said...

Wow Andrew, you are delving into "chefdom" with all these recipes. I have a tagine cooker and have made preserved lemons and a couple good Chicken Tagine recipes, one complicated and one that is an "express" version. A large covered skillet works fine also. Lots of recipes on the links.
Hope you are still having fun in your last couple months there.
Thanks!
Uncle Ted

Jim March said...

We had dinner with your mom the other day... great soup!! It was lights out!! Maybe you and mom could open a traveling restaurant (a truck with a kitchen) and do the Twitter thing to attract people for lunch or dinner. I'll fund the start-up... That way you could travel and cook! You'll just have to find a job for Jaci!

Andrew G. Farrand said...

Thanks, Uncle Ted, but I think I'm still a ways off of "chefdom", though I have definitely expanded my reportoire this year. We'll make some Moroccan together when I'm back home for the holidays!
Jim, I don't think finding a job for Jaci would be too tough - unfortunately our traveling restaurant wouldn't be up and running long before she replaced me in the kitchen - pretty much everything I make, she makes better :)
Thanks to all for reading - there's more to come!

Andrew G. Farrand said...

Almost forgot - I also have to recommend the Senegalese couscous at Upstairs, right nearby in Agdal, Rabat. Jacqueline and I went last week for our last Friday couscous in Morocco, and it was top notch.
To all readers in Rabat, I highly recommend it: http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=64875656489

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