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Bulk Item of the month: Couscous PDF Print E-mail

by Chris Ellis, Staff Nutritionist
June 2017

Couscous is an interesting grain. Its name sounds very exotic and one might expect it to be quite unusual but it is most often derived from wheat, not so uncommon. It is believed that the Berbers, an ethnic group indigenous to North Africa, were responsible for developing couscous, but some uncertainty remains about this fact. The name may have originated from the Berber word seksu, which means ‘well rolled or ‘rounded.” Couscous (“koos koos”) has various names around the world but this is the word for it in the U.S. and the U.K. In North Africa, it is written and pronounced totally differently; a few examples are kesksu or seksu or kosksi. There is evidence that it was prepared as early as 238 to 149 BC, since the remains of couscous pots have been found in the tombs of prominent leaders from that time. Cooking pots used for couscous have also been discovered in North Africa dating back to the 9th century.

After that time it gradually made its way north to Turkey from Syria in the 16th century. Documentation of its use in France was found in 1699 and it is still a favorite dish there as well as in other European countries. Today couscous is considered a staple food in North African cuisine, which includes the countries of Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, and Libya. It also is quite commonly used in Central and West Africa. Couscous is thought to be made originally from millet, a grain commonly used throughout Africa.     

Couscous is often considered a pasta-like grain since it is made up of small particles of semolina flour; some sources refer to it as steamed balls of semolina. Semolina is the hard part of the grain of durum wheat, so it is not gluten free. It is from the part of the wheat—the inner part, the endosperm—that generally contains more gluten. Semolina is mainly known for its use in making superior pasta.

There are different semolina classifications: flour, meal, or just semolina, since it can be made from other grains like rice, cornmeal, or even millet, sorghum, or barley (but it will be labeled as such, i.e., corn semolina). As you will notice when examining the bins at the Co-op, couscous is very small. The Co-op sells three kinds of couscous in the Bulk department: whole wheat, Mediterranean, and French. Whole-wheat couscous is made from the whole durum grain and it contains more fiber and certain nutrients.

The French version is whole grain as well. The Mediterranean version is very clearly shaped like a small ball and is larger than the other forms of couscous sold in bulk. It holds that shape during cooking. Made from the inner part of the wheat grain, Mediterranean couscous is lower in fiber, similar to white flour. The bulk of calories in couscous come from carbohydrates, but it does contain some protein since it is made from the hard or durum wheat. It also contains potassium, which plays an important function in the regulation of blood pressure and the pulse of the heart.

Another important mineral it contains is selenium, which the body only needs in small quantities. Selenium is an important antioxidant involved in supporting a healthy aging process. Couscous contains almost two thirds of the recommended daily intake of selenium. 

Couscous cooks up in a flash on the stove. In fact much of the couscous sold in the U.S. has been pre-steamed and then dried. All the varieties of couscous sold in bulk at the Co-op cook up quickly. Add it to equal amounts of boiling water or broth, let it come to a simmer, shut off the heat, and cover it. It is done as soon as the grains absorb the liquid—within ten minutes.

In North Africa many people use a special steamer pot to prepare couscous called a taseksut (another Berber word). Fluff up the couscous with a fork before serving it! Couscous can be served as a main dish, in a salad or with cooked vegetables, even as a breakfast cereal, or some countries make a dessert pudding out of it. Couscous is great as a summer salad with lots of vegetables, feta cheese, olives, and fresh herbs. Don’t hesitate to be adventurous and try something totally different! Our simple salad recipe can easily expand into a main course.

Be sure to try the Whole Wheat Couscous Salad featured in the Food For Thought Magazine. Come down to the Co-op June 23rd from 4-6pm for a sampling!