Couscous, a Crossroads Staple

© Daeun Janet

Picture yourself in Morocco, getting ready to eat. You’d see people gathering around what most locals consider the national dish: couscous. Every week, families dine together after attending prayer and enjoy couscous served with deliciously spiced sauces and cooked vegetables. Couscous is so ubiquitous, but how exactly did it become such an integral part of life in Morocco?

Couscous and the various Moroccan dishes that feature it have had a long time to be perfected. The first known written reference about couscous is from an Andalusian cookbook in the 13th century. The Berbers, an ethnic group indigenous to North Africa, had been preparing couscous well before that though.

While many believe couscous originated with the Berbers, whose nomadic lifestyle made couscous an ideal food, others speculate that a couscous-like dish was first prepared in Sub-Saharan Western Africa out of another cereal, pearl millet.

Couscous is a well-traveled staple, and it soon came to be associated with the Arab West as a whole, known as the Maghreb. Cooking couscous was simple because it could be steamed in woven twigs or reeds over a pot of stew, and then eaten by scooping it up with the fingers.



There’s much debate about the root of the name ‘couscous’. It may come from the Arabic kuskus, from kaskasa or “grind small; to pound,” or it may derive from the Berber words seksu or kesksu, meaning “well rolled; well formed; rounded.” Across the Maghreb, the staple has earned other names, like the Eastern Algerian na’ma, which means “blessing,” or even the word ta’am, meaning “food, nourishment.”

On the other hand, the art of making handmade couscous is one that requires a lot of care. A chef must take semolina (cracked middlings of durum wheat) and rub it together by hand with water, salt, oil (samna), and clarified butter. The small granules that are formed are then steamed and fluffed repeatedly, often over a stew.


Because of Morocco’s unique geographical positioning, trade has made its mark on the country’s culture, in addition to the colonial influences of France and Spain. Morocco’s cuisine is representative of all these different forces at play. Couscous, which was popularly used by nomads centuries ago, is now even ranked as a favorite dish in France.

Couscous can be a filling and nutritious base for tagines (stews), a tasty side dish like couscous aux sept légumes (couscous with seven vegetables), or even as a dessert prepared with milk, orange blossom water, and spices. Many people across the world agree that couscous is delicious. Learn how to make a recipe for traditional Moroccan couscous with Dari’s couscous featured in our Morocco Box!


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