WHAT IS COUSCOUS?
Throughout North Africa and parts of the Middle East, couscous is regarded as the ultimate comfort food. Like rice to Persian cuisine or pasta to Italians, couscous is revered as almost sacred - a food to enjoy every day, and to dress up for special occasions.
Deriving from the Berber word seksu, which means well-rolled or rounded, couscous resembles a whole grain like wheat or barley, but is actually a mixture of semolina (cracked middlings of durum wheat), water, salt and oil or samna (clarified butter) that gets rubbed together until it forms small granules that are then steamed. Like snowflakes, every piece of hand-rolled couscous has its own unique shape and composition.
Today, most people only know the factory-produced version that comes in a box with a flavor packet tucked inside. But at its heart, couscous is the opposite of fast food. It is made by hand and savored accordingly.
COUSCOUS: HISTORY AND CULTURE
There are different theories about how couscous came to be. The dominant story is that it is an ancient dish invented by the Berbers –indigenous North African tribes – that later spread to other countries. In “The Great Book of Couscous”, Copeland Marks writes that during the conquest of North Africa by the Romans, part of the area was turned into the empire’s breadbasket where all of the cereals were grown. This helps to explain how a desert-dwelling people could have taken on the practice of working with semolina.
In terms of technique, Gil Marks writes in The Encyclopedia of Jewish Food how, by the eleventh century, the Berbers began to use an ancient African cooking technique of steaming foods in woven baskets to “develop a process of steaming semolina.”
What is certain is that, before long, the practice of making couscous took root throughout the Maghreb.
Over the centuries, it has evolved into much more than just food, it is woven into the fabric of communities. In North Africa, births, weddings, and other lifecycle events and auspicious occasions (even moving into a new home!) are celebrated with couscous. Served family-style, everyone joins together in eating. In that way, couscous both figuratively and literally brings people together.
HOW WE MAKE OUR COUSCOUS
The process of making couscous is both simple and sophisticated. Traditionally, women from an extended family and sometimes neighbors would come together to prepare couscous. In addition to feeding their families, it was a time to catch up on community news, and bond with one another. As a child in Morocco, Ron's mother, Linor, learned to make couscous almost by osmosis, running in and out of the kitchen with her siblings while it was being prepared. Growing up in Israel, Ron developed a deep love and appreciation for the hand-rolled couscous of his heritage. Today, we strive to remain true to the traditional practice, while bringing a chef's sensibility to the mix.
We start by adding semolina to a large bowl, spraying it lightly with salted water, and rolling it between our fingers until it begins to form into tiny clumps. This process of spritzing and mixing continues little by little until the couscous has the right size, moisture-level, and texture. There's no exact recipe to follow - just like Ron's mother and grandmother, we rely on the feel of the granules against our palms to tell us when it is ready.
Next, the couscous gets sifted through a round mesh sieve; the tiny grains falling through into a bowl below, while the larger and irregular grains are left behind. If we are making our smallest couscous, No 1. (Jajo), we coat it in a tiny film of oil and then it gets transferred to a special double-decker steamer called a kiskis in Moroccan or couscoussier in French and gently steamed three times until it is airy and light with just the tiniest whisper of a bite. If we are making one of our larger couscouses, we continue the process, adding more water, sprinkling on more semolina as needed, and rolling, rolling, rolling to slowly increase the bulk. Through this elemental process, we are able to turn out an incredible diversity of couscous sizes and textures.
If the thought of couscous does not excite you, we'd like to think it is because you have not yet had an opportunity to try ours. Unlike the boxed "just add water" versions, our couscous is moist and deeply flavorful and so much more than the sum of its parts. Our traditional hand-rolling technique produces couscous grains with texture and personality, and allows us to offer six different sizes from tiny and fluffy to chewy and marble-sized.
By using just four simple ingredients (semolina, water, salt, and canola oil) and serving it fresh (never dried), our couscous maintains a brightness that stands out in every spoonful. Forget all you have learned about couscous in the past - forget the boxes and the flavor packets. Our goal is to help you discover couscous as it was meant to taste.
SIX GIRLS, SIX COUSCOUS SIZES - A PERFECT FIT!
We make six different hand-rolled couscous products, ranging from very tiny to our special, marble-sized couscous. The larger the grain, the longer and more labor intensive it is to make. When deciding what to name our couscous, we made the connection that Ron's Moroccan grandmother, Rachel ("Mamie"), had five younger sisters. Six girls, six couscous sizes - a perfect fit!
No.1 - Jajo (0.04 in)
This is the smallest, lightest and fluffiest couscous size we make. It is the preferred size for most Tunisian tables.
No.2 - Simi (0.08 in)
This is the mostly widely-known size of couscous and is often described as "Moroccan" couscous. It has just a touch more bite than No 1.
No.3 - Rina (0.16 in)
Just a bit larger than No. 2, this couscous has a lovely texture and firmness that works perfectly in tabbouleh and other grain-based dishes.
No.4 - Perla (0.25 in)
The firm texture and round shape of this couscous lends well to either steaming or warming up in a broth or sauce.
No.5 - Aiyda (.32 in)
This couscous, which has a perfectly spherical shape, is similar in size to what is known as "Moghrabieh" in the Middle East. It is traditionally served in stews or soups.
No.6 - Mamie (0.50 in)
Our largest couscous has a unique texture and is distinctly dense and chewy texture.
For a relatively simple food, there is a decent amount of confusion out there about couscous.
In hopes of clearing things up, here are the facts:
Is couscous a pasta or a grain?
Technically speaking, couscous is neither a grain nor a pasta. It has too many components to be a simple grain like wheat or barley. Unlike pasta, it is not made from a proper dough and gets steamed instead of boiled. It is its own unique product.
What are fregola, moghrabiah, and maftoul? Are they couscous?
Think of these foods, which are often used interchangeably, as in the couscous family. Fregola is a small Sardinian pasta that resembles pearl couscous, but with a less even shape. It is made from semolina and water but gets dried and toasted, which gives it a nutty flavor.
Moghrabiah, which hails from Lebanon, is also a larger version of couscous (bigger, even, than fregola) that gets cooked and served as part of a stew or soup. Its density and chewiness allows it to gracefully maintain its texture when cooked in a liquid.
Maftoul, known as Palestinian couscous, is made with a similar technique, but with bulgur wheat and flour. First you soak the bulgur with water. Then you add the flour and roll the two together into a round shape. It is typically steamed before being added to a rich stew.
Is couscous the same everywhere?
There are regional differences depending on where the couscous is being made and served. Tunisians, for example, typically prefer their couscous tiny and fluffy, while Moroccans like it a little larger and more textured. Meanwhile, every family has their own preferred method of preparing it, which makes couscous one of the most diverse and delicious dishes in the world.
What binds all couscous variations together are the ingredients and technique used to make them. Couscous is made from semolina, water, salt, and fat (either oil or a clarified butter called samna). And the semolina is always rolled by hand while adding in the water very gradually.
What is Israeli couscous?
Israeli couscous, while delicious, is also more of a cousin to couscous than actual couscous. It is a small, pellet or rice-shaped pasta, similar to orzo, made from wheat flour and water, and gets toasted before it is cooked. It was born in the 1950s when David Ben Gurion commissioned the Israeli food company, Osem, to create an alternative to rice. Called ptitim (or "little crumbles") in Israel, it became hugely popular there and has since spread to America, where it took on the name Israeli couscous.
How Do You Eat Couscous?
In America, couscous is typically regarded as a side dish - a starch sitting on the side of the plate. But in North Africa and the Middle East, it much more versatile and central to the meal. It can be served savory or sweet, and either alone or as a component of a larger dish. In North African countries, it is often accompanied by a meat or vegetable stew.
Moroccans treasure a couscous dish served with a vegetable stew, typically a mix of root veggies and squashes. Algerians, often add tomatoes to their couscous stews. In Libya, it is sometimes made with millet instead of semolina and most often served with lamb. Tunisians, meanwhile, like to liberally spice up their couscous with Harissa, and serve it with a brothy fish bouillabaisse.
On the sweet side, Moroccans serve very fine, fluffy couscous doused with milk and flavored with cinnamon, orange blossom water, sugar, and almonds. Libyans and Egyptians also eat couscous as dessert - the former with dates, sesame, and honey, and the latter with butter, cinnamon, cream, and raisins. No matter what accompanies it, the most important aspect of couscous is that it is served communally. It is meant to be shared and savored along with laughter and conversation.
My grandfather was Tunisian, so I had the pleasure of eating a lot of very good couscous growing up - but today it is hard to find. What I like about Ron and Leetal's couscous is how they have fully devoted themselves to reviving and delivering the flavors and cultural heritage of a traditional dish. I have seen people sample it and say, "Wow," as if they are discovering it for the first time. NYShuk shows how something as simple and basic as couscous can be luxurious and refined when you do it the right way.
Lior Lev Sercarz | Spice blender and owner of La Boîte | NYC
NYShuk's hand-rolled couscous is richly textured and full of nutty flavor that commands attention on the plate. Working with it has changed my entire understanding of what couscous should taste like.
Eddy Leroux | Chef de Cuisine, Daniel | NYC
To be honest, I always thought of couscous as just ok, or even a little "blah." It was something I ate while camping or for a quick meal. But I was blown away by Ron and Leetal's handmade, authentic couscous. The texture, the taste, the myriad ways you can eat it - I simply had no idea it could be that delicious. At this point I have changed my mind about couscous! I thought I didn't like it, but it turns out I just hadn't eaten the real thing until now.
Christine Han | Photographer | NY
I am what you can call a connoisseur of couscous. I was born in Algeria and my grandmother rolled and steamed her couscous by hand. That is precisely what makes Ron's couscous so feathery and delicious. He is the only chef I have found in the States that makes couscous this traditional way. I first discovered NYShuk at Smorgasburg in Brooklyn, and thought their couscous was so delicious, my wife and I hired Ron and Leetal to cater two parties for us!
Pierre-Yves Azuelos | NYC
I grew up in the suburbs of Paris and was raised by an Algerian nanny, which means the delicious smell of couscous is among my fondest childhood memories. When I moved to New York 15 years ago, I looked everywhere for good couscous, but no luck. Then a year and a half ago I spotted the NYShuk stand at Smorgasburg. There I discovered the lightest, fluffiest, most melt-in-your-mouth couscous I had ever had. It brought the experience of couscous to a whole new level - it tasted like art!
Ron and Leetal have so much passion and talent for what they do, and are so willing to share their knowledge. I took a cooking class with them and found their love of couscous to be contagious. Now couscous reminds me of my childhood, but also of Ron and Leetal with just as much fondness.
Celine C. | Doll and Smile Maker at Celine's Dolls | NYC