Couscous: History, Information, Interesting Facts

Couscous: : history, information, interesting facts


Couscous is generally considered the Arab specialty par excellence. Although this is not necessarily true, there is no doubt that it’s deeply imbued with the charm of the desert and its people: those Berber nomads who, in ancient times, invented a food that is both easy to carry and quick to cook. A food that, over the centuries, thanks to the mercantile trade between the Mediterranean countries, was adopted by many gastronomic cultures, evolving into more or less complex variants, both sweet and savory.

Couscous, the specialty from the desert (cc-12, cc-07)


What is Couscous?

Couscous is a kind of food whose origins are lost in time, most likely born in the north-western portion of the African continent. In its most traditional form, it consists of durum wheat semolina, produced by coarse grinding the cereal more or less finely. Just like rice, Couscous is a staple food, used in a large number of recipes, both sweet and savory. The most classic requires it to be steamed and accompanied by a spiced stew of meat and vegetables (by extension, also this particular preparation is known as ‘Couscous’).


The history of Couscous.

Establishing with precision the origins of Couscous is not an easy task: many scholars trace them back to an indefinite period between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries (*1), in an area corresponding to the north-western portion of the African continent, Couscous: ancient map of the African Continent (img-02) between Mauritania and Tunisia. Other experts argue that they could be antecedent, locating them further south, in the sub-Saharan territories of Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso and Ghana. Couscous: miniature (cc-01) Finally, some historians hypothesize that the specialty was born in the Classical era, if not earlier (*2), in the Berber kingdom of Numidia (*3).
Being a poor food, easy to store, carry and prepare, for many centuries Couscous was the perfect tool to feed nomadic people and merchants: not surprisingly, thanks to trade routes, it soon spread to many of the countries of the Mediterranean basin (and more): France, Sicily and the Iberian Peninsula above all.
The oldest written records referring to the specialty date back to the 13th century and come right from Spain, at the time under Arab rule (*4).


*1: It’s the historical period that begins with the fall of the Berber dynasty of the Zirids (approx. 1049 AD) and continues with the rise to power of the Almohads;
*2: These conjectures are due to the discovery of tools suitable for the preparation of Couscous inside sepulchral complexes dating back to that time;
*3: ‘Numidia’ was the name of the region that included the territories between nowadays Morocco and Tunisia. In Roman times it became an imperial province;
*4: It’s important to remember that the Muslim domination over the Iberian peninsula lasted eight centuries: from the eighth to the fifteenth;


Couscous in legend.

Couscous: King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba (img-03) According to legend, King Solomon, son of David and ruler of Israel, fell madly in love with the Queen of Sheba visiting the court: a sentiment so deep that he completely lost his appetite, compromising his health and ability to govern. His cook was so good to invent a dish, Couscous, so rich in spices to make him hungry again, thus saving his life.
Although both Solomon and the Queen of Sheba have a prominent place in the Bible, no credit should be given to this story: little more than a fable, full of undeniable charm.

‘Semolina’ for Couscous. ‘Semolina’ for Couscous.


‘Semolina’ for Couscous.

‘Couscous’, in its most classic form, consists of durum wheat semolina, which is the product of the grinding of the cereal. This grinding may vary, directly affecting the size of the grains: it’s therefore possible to find more or less fine Couscous on the market, suitable for different types of preparations.

Couscous: white and red sorghum (cc-03) Couscous: white and red sorghum (cc-03)


Not only wheat …

Although ‘Couscous’, in its most classic form, is produced by coarse grinding durum wheat (Triticum durum), there are variants made using the semolina from other cereals, such as millet, barley, and sorghum.

WebFoodCulture: the most typical specialties, the most traditional restaurants and producers.

The most typical specialties, the most traditional restaurants and producers.


How Couscous is made? (hints)

Before (briefly) illustrating the classic recipe for Couscous, it’s important to stress the fact that the name is generally used to indicate both the product, based on durum wheat semolina, and the dish, Couscous. prepared with this semolina. Although the product requires a fair amount of time to be made (*1), once its granules are properly dried (*2), they can be preserved for long and cooked quite quickly. This last feature has always been of fundamental importance since the specialty was invented as a poor and, especially, practical food, ideal for feeding the Berber nomads and the merchants who once (and, in part, still today), crossed the arid desert sands. All people without time for cooking.
Click here for the preparation steps and the main ingredients.

Couscous: how Cuscous is made? 1) The most traditional Couscous is steamed in the ‘Couscoussierre’: a rounded pot used to cook a stew of vegetables and meat, whose vapors, passing through a pierced cover, slowly rehydrate the semolina. Today industrial Couscous is generally considered more practical since it just needs the addition of boiling water or broth;
2) Once Couscous has become sufficiently light and soft, it’s good practice shelling it with a fork;
3) Couscous is generally placed in a serving dish, garnished with the stew, often (but not necessarily) aesthetically arranged;

In some Maghreb countries (Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria above all), the stew for Couscous is generally prepared with a combination of the following ingredients:

  • Meat: lamb, chicken, mutton, sometimes camel;
  • Vegetables: zucchini, carrots, onions, turnips, aubergines, raisins, parsley;
  • Legumes: chickpeas;;
  • Spices: saffron, coriander, spicy paprika, red pepper;

In some areas is used fish too;

*1: Women generally had the task of processing the durum wheat semolina to make Couscous. This semolina, once sprinkled with water, was hand-worked and sieved to keep the larger grains, which make up the product;
*2: Not surprisingly, the preparation of Couscous necessarily requires its rehydration, traditionally carried out by steaming the semolina;

Couscous: Atlas, Morocco, Todra Valley (cc-10)

The origins of the name ‘Couscous’. The origins of the name ‘Couscous’.


The origins of the name ‘Couscous’.

It’s quite possible that the origins of the name ‘Couscous’, as well as those of the specialty, are Berber. The word could, in fact, derive from the Arabic ‘kuskus’ (‘kuskusu’) or, more likely, from ‘keskes’, a term used still today to indicate the typical ‘layered’ pot commonly known in France as ‘Couscoussierre’. Read more

It’s important to remember that this particular type of food, mainly thanks to its great practicality and versatility, was quickly adopted by many countries, taking in each one different names. Let’s review some of the most similar:

  • ‘Couscous’, in France;
  • ‘Kouskousaki’, in Greece;
  • ‘Couscousu’, in Sicily (Italy);
  • ‘Cascà’, in Sardinia (Italy);
  • ‘Cuscuz’, in Brazil;
  • ‘Wusu-Wusu’, in Togo, Senegal, Nigeria, Ghana and Benin;

Couscous Cultural Heritage of UNESCO (img-04) Couscous Cultural Heritage of UNESCO (img-04)


Cultural Heritage of UNESCO.

In March 2019, four Maghreb countries, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, and Mauritania agreed to submit a joint request to UNESCO for Couscous to be declared a Cultural Heritage. An unexpected initiative, considering that, over time, the ‘disagreements’ between these nations have never lacked.
Read more

Such an effort was crowned with success when, on December 16, 2020, the specialty was officially registered on the organization list (“This new inscription recognizes the value of couscous and the knowledge, practices and know-how that surround it …”).

Couscous: Interior of a mosque in Fes (cc-02)


The African variations of Couscous.

Couscous: the prepration of Couscous (img-05)

Thanks to commercial traffic and cultural contamination due, among other things, to territorial conquests, Couscous, the specialty born in the north-western portion of Africa, soon spread to many other countries of the continent (and beyond). In each of these places, its original recipe was differently revisited, using typical local ingredients to enrich it with new flavors. A lot of variants developed: here follow some of the most famous: Read more

Moroccan Couscous is often considered the most classic.
It’s generally made with lamb meat, accompanied by vegetables (turnips, tomatoes, peppers, carrots, fresh coriander, garlic, and onions) and flavored with many spices (cinnamon, coriander, paprika, ginger, black pepper, and saffron above all).

The sauce used to accompany Couscous in Algeria is made with lamb and/or chicken (sometimes beef), vegetables (turnips, potatoes, tomatoes, courgettes, carrots, onions), legumes (chickpeas and/or beans ), and various spices (chili, cinnamon, coriander, cardamom, pepper, cloves, ginger, and cumin). Sometimes, especially in the areas near the coast, fish is used instead of meat.

In Tunisia, in addition to classic Couscous, including among its main ingredients lamb and/or beef (and sometimes camel), there is a variation, prepared in the areas close to the coast, using fish and/or seafood, shrimp, octopus, and squid. The specialty is generally accompanied by ‘harissa’: a hot and spicy sauce, of which Tunisia is the largest producer.

In Libya, Cous Cous (coarse-grained) is prepared with lamb meat, sometimes camel, rarely beef. It’s generally accompanied by vegetables (pumpkin, courgettes, beets, potatoes, celery, fennel, carrots, and onions), tomato puree (or paste), legumes (boiled chickpeas), and spices (black pepper, cinnamon and turmeric above all). It’s also often used to make the dough of a soft pastry, the ‘maghrood’, together with sesame, dates, and honey.

Couscous: Couscous from Trapani (cc-04, cc-05) Couscous: Couscous from Trapani (cc-04, cc-05)


Couscous from Trapani.

Cultural exchanges between the Arab world and Sicily are rooted in the distant past: contamination that has always influenced (also) gastronomy. For example, the variant of Cous Cous prepared in the Italian city of Trapani is particularly famous and appreciated still today:
Read more

the North African specialty, in this case, is accompanied by a tasty fish soup, also known as ‘ghiotta’, made with different types of fish (redfish, gurnard, turbot, bream, grouper, etc.), crustaceans (scampi, mantis shrimp, crayfishes, etc.) and seafood (clams, mussels, cockles, etc.). The semolina is processed by hand (‘incocciata’) in a particular type of terracotta dish (the ‘mafaradda’). Cooking is generally very traditional, using the classic ‘couscussiera’ pot.

‘Cascà’: the Couscous from Sardinia (img-06, cc-06) ‘Cascà’: the Couscous from Sardinia (img-06, cc-06)


‘Cascà’: the Couscous from Sardinia.

Couscous was introduced in Carloforte and Calasetta, seaside villages located (respectively) on the islands of San Pietro and Sant’Antioco (both in the southwest of Sardinia), by a group of coral fishermen of Ligurian origin, the ‘Tabarchini’, who settled starting from the eighteenth century.
Read more

It’s interesting to note that they had previously worked on the Tunisian island of Tabarka (hence their nickname): an experience thanks to which they came into contact with the North African specialty. Their variant of Couscous, the ‘Cascà Tabarchino’ (or ‘Carlofortino’), was initially a very poor dish, made with only seasonal vegetables (cabbage above all), legumes, and spices (no meat). Pork was later added to the recipe.

Cous Cous: Bulgur, the ‘cousin’ of Coscus (cc-08) Cous Cous: Bulgur, the ‘cousin’ of Coscus (cc-08)


Bulgur, the ‘cousin’ of Coscus.

‘Bulgur’ can be considered a very close relative of Couscous: much appreciated in Turkey (but not only), differs from the North African specialty mainly for being produced with whole and sprouted seeds of durum wheat (therefore including bran).
Read more

These, once steamed and dried, are crushed into grains of varying sizes. The ‘fine’ Bulgur is suitable for side dishes (e.g. Bulgur salad) and cold dishes (e.g. aubergines with Bulgur), while the ‘rough’ one is great for hot first courses such as soups (e.g. tomato, chickpea, and Bulgur soup).

‘Seffa’ and ‘Maghrood’: the sweet Couscous (cc-13, img-07) ‘Seffa’ and ‘Maghrood’: the sweet Couscous (cc-13, img-07)


‘Seffa’ and ‘Maghrood’: the sweet Couscous.

In the Arab world, Couscous semolina is used to make not only savory preparations but also sweet (and bittersweet) ones such as, for example, the ‘Seffa’: this is quite similar to the classic specialty, including also, among other things, almonds, cinnamon, and sugar. Read more

Maghrebian in origin, it’s generally served at the end of the banquets accompanying family holidays (such as weddings), just before the dessert. In Libya, Couscous is used in the dough of the ‘Maghrood’: a large soft pastry, flavored with honey, sesame, and dates.

Berkoukes: a ‘great’ Couscous (cc-09) Berkoukes: a ‘great’ Couscous (cc-09)


Berkoukes: a ‘great’ Couscous.

The ‘Berkoukes’ is much appreciated in many Maghreb countries. Very similar to Couscous, this specialty stands out for its dimensions: it consists, in fact, of handmade small balls, the size of chickpeas, prepared with durum wheat semolina and, sometimes, flour. ‘Berkoukes’ is generally used in meat and vegetable soups.

Couscous in literature. Couscous in literature.


Couscous in literature.

Many are the literary testimonies about Couscous, a kind of food much appreciated since ancient times in those countries of North Africa bordering the Mediterranean (and beyond). One of the most interesting dates back to 1583, and is included in the treatise Read more ...

‘On the government and administration of different kingdoms and republics, both ancient and modern’ (‘Del governo et amministratione di diversi regni et republiche, così antiche come moderne’): its author, Francesco Sansovino, describes with precision its method of preparation, almost identical to the current one: “Ma il verno mangiano carne alessa, insieme con quella vivanda che e detta Couscousu, la quale si fa di pasta come i coriandoli, et lo cuocono in certe pignatte forate per ricevere il fumo di altre pignatte, dopo vi mescolano dentro butiro, et lo bagnano di brodo.” (“ … but in winter they eat boiled meat, together with the specialty known as couscousu, a kind of pasta looking like confetti, and they cook it in an unusual pot, pierced in to receive the smoke from the pot below, then they mix it with butter, adding broth.”).

Couscous: camels in the desert (cc-10)


Maghreb: the cradle of Couscous.

The ‘Maghreb’, the north-western portion of the African continent that includes the great Sahara desert, is considered the place of origin of Couscous.

‘Couscousière’ for Couscous (cc-11)


The ‘Couscousière’.

The tool generally used by North Africans to make Couscous is known as ‘couscousière’ (‘Couscoussier’ in French, ‘Taseksut’ in Berber, ‘Kiskas’ in Arabic): it’s a particular type of pot (*1),Read more ...

consisting of a rounded base, in which the meat and/or vegetable stew is made, and a smaller container placed above, with a pierced bottom so that the vapors (rich in aromas) coming from below, steam the Couscous inside of it.

*1: The pot is often made of metal, but it can also be made of terracotta;


How to make Couscous (video).

Here follows an interesting video showing how to make the Moroccan type of Couscous:

N.B. Some ingredients and quantities may vary from those listed in the relevant paragraph of this article.



‘Harissa’ is a traditional sauce with a pasty consistency and an intense red color, used especially (but not only) in the countries of Maghreb (*1) to accompany specialties such as, for example, Couscous, Kebab, or as a seasoning for soups and stews.
Read more

It has a hot and spicy taste, in which the flavors of pepper, chili, coriander, cumin, and garlic stand out, namely the main ingredients with which it’s prepared (*2).

*1: Tunisia is, by far, the largest producer and exporter of Harissa;
*2: Lemon and onion are also sometimes used;

Couscous: portrait of Barbaros Hayreddin Pasha (img-01)



Music for Couscous.

To understand the evocative atmospheres surrounding a specialty such as Couscous, listen to this short musical selection of Berber songs:

Note: join Spotify and listen to the full songs.


Eating Couscous with your hands.

Although in European countries Couscous is generally eaten using a fork, this is certainly not the most traditional method. In Arab countries, it’s a millenary custom to use your hands to collect a small quantity of it from a plate (often shared, but not necessarily), make a ball using your fingers or palm, then bring it to your mouth. It’s almost needless to say that, before and after the meal, it’s a good habit to clean yourself, using a jug that is passed around among the diners.

The sizes of Couscous.


The sizes of Couscous.

Couscous consists of durum wheat semolina, whose grains can vary in size: the ‘classic’ one is about 2 millimeters in diameter. There is also a ‘larger’ type, which can exceed 3 millimeters (also known as ‘Berkoukes’), and a finer (or extra-fine) one, which measures about 1 millimeter.

WebFoodCulture: only the most typical and traditional food & wine.


Cous Cous: interesting facts.


Interesting facts.

A traditional dish such as Cous Cous is characterized by a large number of interesting facts. Here follow a list of some of the most appetizing:
Read more.

  • Every year, in the seaside village of Carloforte (Sardinia), a festival dedicated to Cous Cous is held;
  • The ‘Couscous Fest’, an international festival of cultural integration (, has also been held for 25 years in San Vito Lo Capo (Sicily);
  • ‘Cous cous (La Graine et le Mulet)’ is a movie bearing the name of the African specialty, directed in 2007 by Abdellatif Kechiche;
  • Couscous is part of the ‘gargantuan’ banquet described in the satirical novel ‘La vie de Gargantua et de Pantagruel’ by Francois Rebelais (1532).

Couscous: calories and nutritional values.


Couscous: calories and nutritional values.

It’s impossible to determine with precision the calories of Couscous as a preparation, since the sauces that accompany it may vary in ingredients and quantities. It’s simpler to provide information on Couscous intended just as cooked durum wheat semolina: one hundred grams contain between 340 and 370 calories.
Regarding the nutritional values, Couscous includes:
Read more.

  • Carbohydrates;
  • Proteins;
  • Fibers;
  • Sugars;
  • Lipids;
  • Vitamins;
  • Mineral salts;
  • … as well as water.


Click here.

The images bearing the logo ‘webfoodculture’ are copyrighted.

The following images are public domain:

img-01 (*) – Portrait of Barbaros Hayreddin Pasha (Wikipedia Link) {PD-Art} {PD-US}
img-02 (*) – Ancient map of Africa, (Wikipedia Link) {PD-Art} {PD-US}
img-03 (*) – The Visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon, Edward Poynter, 1890 (Wikipedia Link) {PD-Art} {PD-US}
img-04 (**) – Logo UNESCO, (Wikipedia Link)
img-05 (*) – La préparation du couscous, 1910, Lehnert & Landrock (Wikipedia Link)
img-06 (*) – Carloforte (xilografia), 1901 (Wikipedia Link)
img-07 (*) – Makrouds (Wikipedia Link)

The following images are made av. under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic:

cc-01 – Détail d’une miniature de Bachir Yellès, owner of the image Yelles (Wikipedia Link)
cc-02 – Inside of a mosque in Fes, owner of the image Michal Osmenda (Wikipedia Link)

The following images are made available under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0):

cc-03 – Red sorghum grains on white sorghum grains, owner of the image Sputniktilt (Wikipedia Link)
cc-04 – Fish couscous from Kerkenah (Tunisie), owner of the image Elcèd77 (Wikipedia Link)
cc-05 – Fishing port of Trapani , owner of the image Jean-Pierre Bazard (Wikipedia Link)
cc-06 – Capo Sandalo – Carloforte, owner of the image Roberto Petruzzo (Wikipedia Link)
cc-07 – Camel driver , Hoggar, owner of the image W. Robrecht (Wikipedia Link)
cc-08 – Uncooked bulgur wheat, owner of the image Joyous! (Wikipedia Link)
cc-09 – Berkoukes, owner of the image Indif (Wikipedia Link)
cc-09 – Camels in the desert, owner of the image Holger Reineccius (Wikipedia Link)
cc-10 – Atlas, Morocco, Todra Valley, owner of the image Jerzy Strzelecki (Wikipedia Link)
cc-11 – Couscoussière, owner of the image Jerzy Catskingloves (Wikipedia Link)

The following images are made available under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International:

cc-12 – Couscous, owner of the image Lmmima (Wikipedia Link)
cc-13 – Seffa, owner of the image Cosmopolite88 (Wikipedia Link)
cc-14 – Sunset in Sahara, owner of the image Lydia0730 (Wikipedia Link)

The images of the header are made available under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International:

Image 01 (**) – Erg Chebbi, Merzouga, Morocco, owner of the image Lefidele (Wikipedia Link)

Image 02 (**) – Cous Cous marocchino, owner of the image Arastalya (Wikipedia Link)

(*) The copyright of this image has expired.
(**) Image released in public domain by its author.