Article Archive - grains, semolina, couscous

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More confusion caused by multiple meanings for one product.  What is semolina to you - a hot breakfast porridge, a wheat product or baby food?  And while we are at it, is couscous a form of pasta?  (info)

Couscous with vegetables


Semolina (sem oh LEEN ah) [Alteration of Italian semolino, diminutive of semola, bran, from Latin simila, fine flour, ultimately of Semitic origin.]

1. a hot breakfast cereal made of the endosperm of soft wheat

2. a wheat product cooked and used primarily for baby food and the elderly

3. any coarse ground grain, i.e. rice semolina, corn semolina

4. gritty by-product the flour made from durum wheat used primarily in making pasta


Couscous (KOOS-koos) [French, from Arabic kuskus, from kaskasa, to pulverize; Berber, k'seksu, of Semitic roots.]

1. a hand rolled pasta made of semolina popular in  the Maghreb countries (Morrocco, Tunisia, Algeria)

2. a dish of the same name in which couscous is prepared and steamed over a soup or stew primarily of chicken or lamb with vegetables


(Sources from various dictionaries and encyclopedias.)


If your associations with semolina is any of the first three definitions given above, then it will be a surprise to learn that semolina is primarily used for producing pasta and couscous - a very unique kind of pasta associated with Moroccan cuisine but indigenous to Tunisia and Algeria as well.  Have a look at a box of couscous or any dried pasta and you will find semolina as the main ingredient (some pasta products list semolina and egg).


Semolina is the endosperm or heart of the durum wheat kernel - a hard wheat variety with very high gluten content and high protein to carbohydrate ratio. Durum wheat is more coarsely ground than other flours.  The milling process separates the endosperm from the rest of the grain. 


Durum flour is finely ground semolina (endosperm).  It's amber colour is what imparts the rich yellow typical of semolina pasta which is produced industrially by extruding or forcing the firm dough through metal dies to create the many shapes available.  It produces a very resilient product that can stand up to the pasta making process and retain its shape in cooking, even if overcooked. 


Don't confuse it though with semolina breakfast cereal, (i.e. farina, Cream of Wheat - US) which is a little finer product and is not made from durum wheat but a softer variety of wheat.  It is rather pale, lacking the characteristic amber colour of the true semolina made from durum wheat.  In Europe, this breakfast cereal is sold in small packages and called semolina (UK), semolino (Spain and Italy), Griessmehl (Germany) and semoule (France).  It is also used to cook desserts and thicken soups etc..  To further confound the issue, farina in Italian refers to flour of any kind.


Couscous is made from durum wheat semolina before it is ground even finer to make durum flour and is a unique pasta favoured in the Maghreb (Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria).   It also refers to a dish of the same name in which the grains of semolina are prepared in several steps consisting of dampening the grains with handfuls of water and working them between the hands to break up clumps into ever smaller granules. Eventually these granules are placed in a couscousiere, a two part pot containing the couscous in the upper part that has fine holes in its bottom.  This is set over the lower part in which a delicious soup usually of chicken or lamb with vegetables is cooked. Couscous, the dish,  can also be made of cracked wheat.


Early Arabic sources referring to Western Africa suggest that it was first prepared by the Sudanese, eventually travelling northward and adopted into Berber cuisine who are widely assumed to be the inventors of couscous, the ingredient and the dish. 


"Even today in Morocco the dada--young black Saharan and sub-Saharan women who serve as domestics, especially as cooks--are often employed to prepare couscous. The Tuareg, a Muslim Berber tribe of the Sahara, also employ young black servant women to make couscous." (Clifford Wright)


Commercially made couscous is widely available and is a very fine cut pasta often referred to as patina, and is available in fine, medium and coarse.  Today 'made from scratch' is rarely done anymore and when, only by the very poor.   It was, of course, a very time consuming task left to the adept and experienced hands of women.  Roughly, two parts of semolina is mixed with 1 part of durum flour and a little salt.  Handfuls of water are added to humidify and the mass is worked between the hands.  Eventually a fine layer of flour coats the larger endosperm of semolina forming the couscous 'pellets' and preventing them from sticking together.  Some sources suggest the original couscous known to the Berber folk was worked without the addition of flour.


In Morocco, if young women were particularly adept at this painstaking skill, it was expected that their dowry would be greatly reduced.  An old folk belief in Algeria contributes the origin of couscous to the Jinn (genie) a mischievous spirit.  An Armenian version that is quite large is called mougrabeya and there is an Israeli version that is toasted.


Considered the national dish of Morocco, I have never failed to indulge on couscous on any of my trips there.  Artfully displayed and decoratively presented with pride, it is always a memorable experience.  Fluffy, tender, light as a feather and as loose as a bowlful of the tiniest pearls, this pasta steamed over an aromatic-spicy stew of meat and vegetables or just vegetables is suburb.  If you have ever experienced real couscous, reaching for the instant stuff on a shop shelf is unthinkable.  As inexcusable and unthinkable as using Uncle-whats-his-name plastic pellets called instant rice.


Those that tell you the instant form is just as good have never had the real thing.  Couscous steamed over a simmering broth is scented and absorbs the delicious flavour.  The instant stuff cannot.  And there is no reason to use it.  Couscous can be easily cooked at home.  Just line a colander with cheese cloth (unless your colander has very fine holes), set it over the soup of a large pot deep enough so that the couscous does not touch the broth and let it steam uncovered until tender, although this is a little abbreviated.  A good recipe will have full instructions and tips for making the perfect couscous.  If you can find it, a rather large metal mesh strainer is perfect for the job.


In Morocco, couscous is steamed in an open pot producing a fluffy and drier couscous.  In Tunisia, however most cooks prefer to lid it making  it slightly denser and moister.


Though couscous is considered a grain, technically it is more closely related to pasta made from semolina, though not the kind the western user cooks up for those cold winter mornings.  Understanding what either term really means is further confounded when, for example one comes from Morocco and relocates to a Northern European country - there eventually coming across that breakfast cereal known as semolina.  Nothing at all like couscous from home.


What's in a name?  Quite a lot of cause for confusion when West meets, not East, but Northern Africa.  Or the other way around!



An excellent page by renown author, food historian and food expert Clifford Wright on couscous covering origins 'from scratch' to modern day is:  http://www.cliffordawright.com/history/couscous.html .


If you are ever in New Orleans, you'll have an exquisite, authentic dining experience at  the beautiful  Casablanca Restaurant (click on the logo when there) where all food is 'made from scratch - even the couscous which owner Linda makes the Berber way without the addition of flour to the semolina.  A dedication to quality that takes her 1-1/2 to 2 hours.  Click here to see Linda making couscous step by step: http://www.kosherneworleans.com/restaurant/couscous.htm


Resources (beyond personal experiences)

The Von Welanetz Guide to Ethnic Ingredients - Diana & Paul von Welanetz

Marokkanisch Kochen - Brahim Lagunaoui  (in German) a great little book by a personal friend Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco - Paula Wolfert 

Food Lover's Companion - Sharon Tyler Herbst

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