It would be an understatement to describe couscous as simply a Moroccan staple; it is the cornerstone of Berber cooking. Couscous is the comforting and nourishing foundation for countless Moroccan dishes and it is treasured throughout the country, from the tiny villages of the Atlas Mountains to the great cities of Casablanca, Marrakesh, and Fes.

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A traditionally hand-rolled pasta made from semolina flour, couscous is the dish that any self-respecting Moroccan family eats for lunch every Friday. Being the national dish of several countries across North Africa, from Morocco to Algeria to Tunisia, couscous speaks to everyone but is cooked a hundred different ways, according to seasonal ingredients. Thanks to its simplicity and comforting quality, couscous has charmed several European countries, including France, Spain, Portugal, and Italy.

Couscous and Moroccan Cuisine

It is impossible to separate couscous from Moroccan cuisine; it is essential to endless recipes and no Moroccan feast would be complete without a glorious mound of light, fluffy couscous on the table. Its rustic taste and simplicity has a natural affinity with Morocco’s long-simmered meat and vegetables. 

In Morocco, bowls of broth are always served alongside the couscous in case anyone wants to spoon extra moisture over their meal.

Couscous’ mild, slightly nutty taste makes it a great base for rich, deeply flavored stews, yet its incredible adaptability makes it perfect for salads, sides, soups, and even desserts. Couscous is also wonderful on its own, tossed with just butter, olive oil, or smen (fermented butter with an almost cheesy quality).

Varieties of Couscous

Semolina flour (from durum wheat) is the most common ingredient used to make couscous, but barley, millet, and whole wheat are also customary. Some couscous varieties are even made from corn or crushed acorns. All versions are prepared in essentially the same way, though there are some slight differences in the amount of water needed and cook time.

How to Make Couscous

Traditionally, couscous is made with semolina flour rolled by hand into tiny balls of pasta. The grains are then steamed in a couscousier, a Moroccan pot specifically designed for cooking couscous. 

However, most commercial couscous available in grocery stores is instant – 100% semolina flour that has been pre-rolled and at least partially pre-steamed, making it ready to cook on the stovetop (in a regular pot or saucepan) in about five minutes. Simply bring the required amount of water to a boil, remove from heat, and add in a cup of couscous. Once the grains have been thoroughly hydrated by the water, then fluff with a fork and serve.

Some specialty stores carry pre-rolled artisanal couscous imported from Morocco, which is brighter, lighter, and generally preferable to instant. 

How to Make Couscous the Traditional Way

While the couscousier method is not necessary, it is considered preferable for couscous to achieve its ideal taste and texture. As an alternative to the couscousier, you could use a large pot with a stackable steamer insert or snugly fitting colander lined with cheesecloth. Pile the grain in the perforated steamer and steam uncovered over boiling water. Whether hand-rolled or instant, in a Moroccan couscousier or regular pot, couscous is best after three 20-minute steamings.

Couscous is made to be laden with highly flavored, slow-cooked vegetables with lamb, beef, or chicken: stewed lamb with seven vegetables and chicken with tfaya (caramelized onions with raisins, ginger, turmeric, saffron and cinnamon) are especially popular. In Fes, one of Morocco’s great culinary centers, a traditional couscous with meat and vegetables is prepared with chickpeas and fava beans.

Perhaps the grandest couscous dish is the lavish, turmeric-scented seven-vegetable couscous, with succulent lamb or beef, onions, carrots, turnip, pumpkin, zucchini, cabbage, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, and spices. The celebrated medley is a true testament to the riches of Moroccan cooking.

Couscous Desserts

It’s not just savory dishes for which the grain is essential. Couscous stars in many Moroccan desserts, as well. A delicious dessert is seffa: steamed couscous tossed with butter, golden raisins, and garnished with cinnamon, powdered sugar, and fried almonds.