History of Couscous

Couscous is a staple food in the Maghrib that requires very little in the way of utensils for its preparation. It is an ideal food for both nomadic and agricultural peoples. The preparation of couscous is one that symbolizes “happiness and abundance,” in the words of one culinary anthropologist.

One of the first written references to couscous is in the anonymous thirteenth-century Hispano-Muslim cookery book Kitāb al-ṭabīkh fī al-Maghrib wa’l-Āndalus. There one finds a recipe from Marrakesh, alcuzcuz fitīyānī, a couscous made for the young and described as “known all over the world.” The fact that the name is given with the Arabic article al- is a flag to the linguist that the original couscous preparation probably was not an Arab dish, but a Berber dish, because the Arabic words siksū, kuskus, and kusksi, which all mean “couscous,” do not take the article. In any case, we know that the Naṣrid royalty in Granada ate couscous, as mentioned in a culinary poem by the qāḍī(magistrate) of Granada, Abū cAbd Allah bin al-Azrak. “Talk to me about kuskusū, it is a noble and distinguished dish.” There is a recipe for couscous in another Hispano-Muslim cookbook, the Kitāb faḍālat al-khiwān of Ibn Razīn al-Tujībī, a book from either the late eleventh or thirteenth century.

The famed Arab traveler Leo Africanus (c. 1465-1550), also mentioned couscous with some delight: “Of all things to be eaten once a day it’s alcuzcuçu because it costs little and nourishes a lot.” The thirteenth-century Kitāb al-wuṣla ila l-ḥabīb fī waṣfi aṭ-ṭayyibāti wāṭ-ṭīb, written or compiled by a Syrian historian from Aleppo, Ibn al-cAdīm, identified as the grand-nephew of Saladin, the great Muslim warrior and opponent of the Crusaders, has four recipes for couscous; three are calledshucaīriyya and the fourth is called Maghribian couscous. Shucaīriyya is a word used today in Lebanon to mean a “broken vermicelli” or to refer to the rice-shaped pasta called orzo.

 (Photo: Berber woman preparing couscous in Essaouira, Morocco)

These very early references to couscous show that either it is not unique to the Maghrib or it spread with great rapidity to the Mashraq (the eastern Arab world). I believe it is unique to the Maghrib and was invented there and that its appearance in the Levant is a curiosity. Personally, I agree with Professor Lisa Anderson of Columbia University, who suggests that the “couscous line” in North Africa is the Gulf of Sirte. In Tripolitania to the west, they eat couscous; and in Cyrenaica to the east, they eat Egyptian food. Couscous was only a curiosity east of the Gulf of Sirte. In the Mashraq, one form of couscous is also known by the wordmaghribiyya, indicating that it is recognized as a food of the Maghrib (the western Arab world). Even today couscous is not eaten that much by Libyans of Cyrenaica and western Egyptians, although it is known by them. But in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Tripolitania couscous is a staple. There is little in the way of archeological evidence of early use of couscous, mainly because the kiskis was probably a basket made from organic material set over a marmite-like terracotta bottom vessel and never survived. Some shards of a marmite-like vessel have been found in the medieval Muslim stratum at Chellala in Algeria, but the dating is difficult. Interestingly, the couscous recipes from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are no different from the ones today.

I believe couscous entered Tunisia sometime in the twelfth century, by virtue of the monumental studies of Zīrīd (972-1148) and Ḥafṣid Tunisia (1228-1574) by historians Hady Roger Idris and Robert Brunschvig, who found no references to couscous in twelfth-century Zīrīd Tunisia and many references by thirteenth-century Ḥafṣid times. The great Arab writer al-Muqaddasī (writing circa 985-990) never mentions couscous, although he is noted for writing about the foods he encountered. But couscous is mentioned in connection with many saints of Ḥafṣid times including Ibn Naji’s description of burkūkis as a large-grained couscous with meat that is virtually identical with the maghribiyya mentioned in the recipe Kaskasu bi’l-Laḥm. There is also an admiring description in the writings of Ibn Faḍlallah of Tunisian pilgrims in Mecca in the fifteenth century who magically produced a plate of couscous, accompanied with melted butter, beef, and cabbage.

By the fourteenth century, there are many references to pasta secca and couscous. In Pedro de Alcala’s Vocabulista, published in Granada in 1505, he mentions kouskoussou as a hormigos de massa (coarse-ground wheat dough). Al-Maqqarī, a historian writing in Damascus in the seventeenth century and our principal authority for the literary history of Muslim Spain, relates a story told in the fifteenth century of a man in Damascus who helps someone from the Maghrib who fell sick. In a dream the Prophet tells him that he should feed the sick man kouskoussoun, a word used as a noun. A century earlier the famed Arab traveler Ibn Baṭṭūta (1308-1378?) also mentions couscous.

One of the earliest appearances of couscous in northern Europe is in Brittany, when Charles de Clairambault, the naval commissioner, in a letter dated January 12, 1699, tells us that the Moroccan ambassador, cAbd Allah bin cAisha, and his party of eighteen had brought their own flour and madecouscoussou with dates and that it was a delicious dish they made for Ramadan. But couscous made its appearance much earlier than that in Provence, where the traveler Jean-Jacques Bouchard writes in 1630 of eating in Toulon a “certain kind of pasta which is made of little grains like rice, and which puffs up considerably when cooked; it comes from the Levant and is called courcoussou.” Unexplained, and most interesting, is his identification of the couscous coming from the Levant and not North Africa.

Source – CliffordaWright