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from: Northern Africa | cooking method: steaming


Couscous (Cous-cous or Cous cous) is a traditional staple food in North Africa; it is also common in Western Africa whence it has spread into Central Africa. Couscous is a pasta, made by mixing flour and water to form a paste which is then formed and dried. Most couscous is made with flour ground from durum wheat, but rice, maize (corn), or cowpea (black-eyed pea) flours are sometimes used. Home-made couscous is rare these days; even in rural Africa most people buy ready-to-use couscous from a store or market.

river scene in mali

In Northern Africa the word couscous refers not only the pasta itself, but also to a dish of stewed meats and/or vegetables that is served with the pasta (just as the word spaghetti means both the noodles or a dish of noodles with sauce). The traditional method of preparing couscous is to steam-cook it in a special pot called a couscoussière. The couscoussière consists of two parts: the lower part is a cooking pot, usually rounded on the sides like a barrel, the upper part is a second pot (with a lid) that fits snugly on top of the bottom pot. The top pot has holes in its bottom that admit steam from the lower pot. The stew cooks in the bottom pot while the couscous is steamed on top. (Real couscous is always steamed, never boiled.) Most traditional couscous recipes call for the couscous to be dampened with water (or oil), then steamed, removed and allowed to cool, mixed with butter or oil, then steamed again, and then perhaps cooled and steamed a third time. If your kitchen is not equipped with a couscoussière, you can improvise with a metal colander inside a normal cooking pot and a lid to cover it all. Note: the boxed couscous available in grocery stores, which is prepared by pouring the couscous pasta into boiling water, is really pre-cooked "instant couscous". Cooking "instant couscous" in the traditional method described here may result in mushy, overcooked pasta. Obtain real (not "instant") couscous from a specialty store, or, if using instant couscous, reduce the cooking time by at least half.

What you need

What you do

Even if you don't make couscous the traditional way, now you know there's more to it than dumping it from a box into a pot of coiling water.

Serve couscous with Tagine of Chicken, Preserved Lemon, & Olives or Poulet Yassa. In Northern Africa, couscous (the pasta plus a meat or vegetable dish) is often served with harissa sauce.

Ibn Battuta

from it kuskusu and porridge are made

This quotation contains what may be the earliest mention of couscous (kuskusu) in Western Africa. Ibn Battuta (b. Morocco, AD 1304-1368? ) was the greatest traveler and travel writer of his era. His Rihlah (or Travels) documents a lifetime of travels and employment in every Muslim society, and many non-Muslim societies, in the Eastern hemisphere. He traveled to Western Africa in the early 1350's; his writings of that journey are an important source for modern historians studying medieval Africa. This quotation comes from the translation in Ibn_Battuta in Black Africa by Said Hamdun and Noël King (Princeton: Markus Wiener Publishers, 1994).

[Mali, 1351-1352 AD] When the traveler arrives in a village the women of the blacks come with anlî and milk and chickens and flour of nabaq [lotus], rice, and fûnî [fonio], this is like the grain of mustard and from it kuskusu and porridge are made, and bean flour. He buys from them what he likes, but not rice, as eating the rice is harmful to white men and the fûnî is better than it.

Other African gastronomical excerpts

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations


Sorghum and Millets in Human Nutrition (F A O Food and Nutrition Series, No 27; Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 1995) contains a wealth of information about sorghum and millets, which are the important staple foods in Asia and Africa, and can be cultivated in harsh environments where other crops do not grow well. This recipe for couscous is one of several recipes included in the publication. The first seven steps describe how to make the couscous pasta; the remaining directions are how to cook and serve the dry couscous.


  1. Wet the finely ground flour with cold water and knead it until flour particles agglomerate.
  2. Force the mixture through a fine screen (1.5 mm mesh).
  3. Place the grains in a perforated pot fitted over another pot containing boiling water.
  4. Put a cloth seal at the joint between the two pots. Heat the lower pot to steam the grains above for about 15 minutes. They will form a single large chunk.
  5. Take out the chunk, break it into small aggregates and transfer them back to steam for another 15 minutes.
  6. Remove the chunk, break it into aggregates and sift them through a sieve (2.5 mm).
  7. Dry and store for future use.
  8. To prepare couscous for serving, sprinkle cool water on the aggregates.
  9. Mix thoroughly with fingers.
  10. Mix the grains with ground baobab leaf powder and other ingredients such as peanut paste, okra, etc. and give it a final steaming for 15 minutes.
  11. Allow it to cool slowly
  12. Serve with sauce or milk, or dry it and use as a convenience food.
West Africa


Finely ground sorghum or millet flour

(Some recipes based on sorghum and millets)

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