Couscous: A Moroccan Tradition
9/4/2010 2:16 PM
Couscous: A Moroccan Tradition by Scott McKenzie
Top Winner of HeyMorocco Summer 2010 travel contest
When I think about Morocco, I dream of couscous. Pillowy piles of steaming hot grains topped with garden-fresh vegetables that burst with flavor. It makes me hungry to even write about it. Some people might think I am underselling the star attractions of Morocco. I know there are more glamorous, exotic, or beautiful places in the country. But for me the labyrinthine medina in Fes, the desolate beauty of Merzouga’s sand dunes, the blue city of Chefchaouen, or the relaxed waves of Essaouira fail to stand up to the sight of a huge platter of homemade couscous. It can be difficult to visit all the special sites, but anyl visitor to Morocco can feast until they are full.
As the always present national dish, couscous is accessible to everyone regardless if you are only spending a few days in Tangier, or taking a three week grand tour of the country. However, unlike what you may be used to at home couscous is more than solution to hunger. It is a gateway to Moroccan identity. Having a traditional couscous meal can help you more fully experience the rich traditions of the Moroccan people. I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco for two years. A hungry twentysomething guy can eat a lot of couscous in that amount of time. I never wasted an opportunity to shovel spoonfuls of couscous into my mouth until I was inflated like a summertime beach ball. Sometimes my meals came in the mud brick homes in my village, other times they came with friends while I was traveling, occasionally I found some couscous on the street, and in one memorable adventure it came in the makeshift lodging of a Bedouin shepherd. In short, I ate my fill. I think you should too.
You probably can find couscous at anytime in Morocco. Unless you are traveling in a very remote area I am sure you can locate a restaurant with an enterprising and hospitable owner will ensure that some is quickly made. With that in mind, I want to suggest you try for the most authentic couscous experience that you can have. For that you should make a point of having couscous on Friday afternoons. In a culinary tradition as deep and rich as any in the world, almost everyone in the country has couscous waiting for them after Friday prayers. It is no different than a traditional American brunch after Sunday church services, and in the same way the whole meal is infused with warm memories and good company enriches the experience.
A cafe or upmarket tourist restaurant will serve you couscous, and any hotel can steer you to a good lunch. There is a good chance that it be made by the women in the kitchen the same as they would for their family. But to get that deeper understanding of the culture and people that I suggested earlier, that window into Morocco, you need to work a little harder. Couscous originated with the Berber people, the original inhabitants of country. For these people, couscous (or seksu) was a simple dish that anyone could afford to make. It has now become available everywhere and is popular around the world. But to have a true and mind-blowingly delicious couscous experience, you must dig a little deeper than the grocery store at home.
I think the best way to eat a traditional meal is to eat in a Moroccan home. For this, you need a friend. Most Moroccans are friendly and helpful. But, this does not mean they want to throw open their home to everyone. So be thoughtful about finding someone to eat with. Open communication and friendliness on your part will open doors that you might have thought would be closed. I suggest asking at the front desk of where you are staying or with a tour guide you may be using. Be honest that you sincerely wish to share a traditional meal with a Moroccan family. You would likely be honored to share your culture with a foreign visitor. Ask on Thursday, no one in the world appreciates a last minute guest. Be honest, but be flexible. Does it matter with whom you eat? Not really. From rich hotel owner, to the most marginalized maid, the couscous will be rich and hearty. You may want to make it very clear that it would mean a lot to you if you can get the most honest and real experience. There is no reason that the guest should need anything special. If you can not find a home to eat in, explain that you want a traditional couscous meal and it is most likely that one can be found at a restaurant or cafe.
If you are going to be dining as a guest there are a few things that you need to keep in mind. This means it’s time to go shopping. Only a rude guest arrives with empty hands. I suggest bringing liter bottles of Coke-a-Cola and fresh fruit. These are available almost anywhere. An even more Moroccan gift is sugar for tea. Ask a shop owner for one of the large traditional cones of sugar (qaalib al-sukar in Arabic or pain de sucre in French). There is no mistaking this sweet gift. Regardless of what you bring, also consider a small gift of something that reminds you of home. It might be a key chain, card, a magnate, or some other token of your homeland. This is not just an opportunity to learn about Moroccan culture, it can be your chance to share about where you come from.
The appointed time comes, your stomach is growling and you hear the call to prayer echo across town. Regardless if it is a home or cafe, everyone expects that you know nothing. Showing even a small amount of knowledge about Moroccan culture will go miles and make friends. Take off your shoes when you go inside. No one wants a messy guest. It is good to get relaxed on whatever chair, cushion, or couch you sit on. Lunch may take awhile, so it is best to be comfortable. You will likely be sitting at a round table. Tea will be served. It is likely not your first cup of tea in Morocco, but it can be a chance for you to learn more about the best way to brew a cup. It might also be an interesting time to try to learn a few words of Arabic or Berber. Use the couscous lunch as a way learn more about Moroccan culture and to share things about yourself.
Keep in mind, this is not instant couscous. Traditional couscous is steamed for hours in a special pot. From time to time it is taken off the heat and fluffed. Meanwhile, a rich broth is made stewing in the pot below with seasonal vegetables and meat. Almost anything might be simmering away in special steaming pot known as a couscoussière. Most common would be potatoes, carrots, onions, tomatoes, any of several kinds of squash, garbanzo beans, and beef, chicken, or mutton. More unusually you might encounter kale, peppers, fava beans, or raisins. Seasoning vary by cook, but usually include turmeric, cumin, black pepper, and the ubiquitous eclectic mysterious mix of spices known as ras el hanout. This is real couscous.
After some time, out comes the meal. It will come out in a huge platter, an almost intimidating pile of food. Tiny golden particles will form an almost ethereal cloud that holds up the attractively arranged vegetables and meat. Some people serve a buttermilk like drink known as leben with their couscous. If you have the chance, try some. It is an acquired taste, but many find it refreshing on a hot summer day.
You want to plunge in and eat. I know you are hungry. You should however observe proper couscous protocol. There is a traditional and old way to eat couscous with your hands, but most people now use a spoon. Moroccan meals are traditionally served out of one central dish that everyone shares. You should start on the pile in the area right in front of you. Pretend everyone has an equal share at the plate, and the plate is divided into wedges like a pizza. You should at first only eat from your section, but after your neighbor has given up it is fine to poach a tasty carrot or several scoops of couscous from their area. Go for it, eat up.
Crumbs covering your chin, after the meal you might want to just fall over and take a nap. That is usually considered impolite around the world and Morocco is no different. After the meal, your hands may be dirty. Usually, a young child will often bring around a small wash basin to each person and let them briefly clean up a little. Take advantage of it if you can stay awake being sure to thank you host for their hospitality and the good meal.
When the final spoonful of couscous is eaten and the last cup of tea is drank, you can lumber home. Friday afternoons throughout the Arab world are sleepy and quiet, and after a filling couscous lunch you might want to take it easy. Some of my fondest memories of Morocco are languidly enjoying the eerily quiet Friday afternoons after lunch. These post lunch periods are the perfect time to reflect on your experiences in Morocco, and to plan the next one.
3 comment(s) so far...
By Charley Silverman on
9/6/2010 4:18 PM
Re: Couscous: A Moroccan Tradition
Sweet fancy Moses, Scotty Mac. Take me back to that place. Take me back to that time. Take me back to the couscous. What I wouldn't do for a wedge of my own from a heaping bowl from my host fam. Nothing quite like it. Maybe finish things off with a couple of dirham delights from the nearest hanut? The Scotty Mac I know certainly would. Hope all is well, main. Talk to ya.
By Tamara Nagy on
10/13/2010 9:23 AM
Re: Couscous: A Moroccan Tradition
Thank you for the memories. I will always remember the wonderful meal that our guide's mother made for us. Hospitalty like nowhere else in the world!
By Kerri on
6/13/2011 8:34 AM
Re: Couscous: A Moroccan Tradition
Scott, Your blog bought back some nostalgic memories for me. When I go traveling, its all about the food and the memories that are triggered when I try and re-create a dish i stumbled upon on my travels(without much success).
It was just the other night that I was paging through my album, the photos depicting the utter chaos of the market streets and the beautiful colors on display. It was a visual spectacle. The food was a gastronomic spectacle. My personal favorite dish while visiting Morocco was the lamb tagine with dates. The tenderness of the lamb coupled with the sweetness of the dates was a mere delight and surprise to my palate. Thank you for helping me relive my Morocco experience. Morocco is a must-see travel destination and for more information visit www.essentialtravel.co.uk/magazine/country-guides/morocco/travel-to-morocco.asp for some great travel tips and facts about Morocco.