A classic culinary staple that’s as enjoyable to say as is it to eat, couscous is a pasta-like dish made from crushed durum (hard) wheat semolina that is North African in origin but enjoyed worldwide.
Traditionally, couscous is hand-rolled—the semolina is lightly moistened with water resulting in small granules—then steamed to fluffy perfection. The traditional North African preparation employs a couscoussier which consists of a large base used as a stockpot and filled water or stew. Above it sits a smaller chamber where the couscous is steamed in multiple steps—the entire process takes around an hour and a half.
The majority of couscous found in supermarkets is machine-produced and pre-cooked, requiring a 10-minute hot water bath in any old pot. From there the possibilities are seemingly endless, from classic stews such as couscous royale and tagine, not to mention a wide variety of salads, sides, and even desserts.
Over its centuries-long history, couscous has spawned an extensive family tree with a range of regional variations including its popular Israeli cousin.
A mere 65-years-old, Israeli couscous—a.k.a. ptitim (“flakes” in Hebrew), a.k.a. pearl couscous, a.k.a. Jerusalem couscous—has more aliases than the Bodega Boys. Its origin can be traced back to Israeli Prime Minister David Ben Gurion who sought to establish a national alternative to rice which was in short supply during the 1950s and early 1960s—Ben Gurion rice is yet another one of its nicknames.
Like its forefather, Israeli couscous starts with crushed durum wheat semolina, but the similarities end there.
You certainly won’t mistake traditional couscous for the Israeli version which is shaped into tiny balls and toasted. Simmered rather than steamed, it offers a chewy texture and nutty flavor much closer in common to the Sardinian pasta fregula than to traditional couscous.
Israeli couscous continues to grow in popularity, used in a variety of soups, stews, as a hearty warm side, or as the base of a cold salad—cucumbers, tomatoes, and herbs are especially tasty foils.
Suffice to say that traditional couscous and Israeli couscous are not substitutes for each other, so when it comes to couscous recipes like the ones below be sure to double check which version is suggested.
Almonds, cinnamon and dates add a nutty sweetness to this hearty grain. Get our Israeli Couscous Pilaf recipe.
Cumin and squash make this the ultimate fall side dish. Get our Browned Butternut Squash Couscous recipe.
This healthy, veggie-filled couscous recipe is inspired by Baba Ghanoush. Get our Grilled Eggplant and Red Peppers with Israeli Couscous recipe.
Pimento peppers and smoked paprika lend this couscous dish an extra kick of flavor. Get our Spanishy Couscous Salad recipe.
Related Video: How to Ensure Perfectly Cooked Couscous