What Is Couscous? Grain? Pasta? What?!

I’ve eaten couscous probably twice a month for my entire life. It’s delicious, versatile, and simple to make—you just have to add the boxed variety to some boiling water and you’re cooking. But despite my familiarity with it, I really know almost nothing about this double-named food. What’s couscous, exactly? Is couscous pasta? Is couscous a grain? Where does couscous come from? Let’s find out. 

What is couscous?

Couscous is a dish made from semolina flour and water that is originally from northern Africa. 

Couscous generally comes in three sizes: Moroccan, which is the smallest; Israeli or pearl, which is slightly larger; and the comparatively gargantuan Lebanese, which is about the size of a pea. 

Is couscous a grain?

This is a common question, and for good reason: Couscous is very small and can be used in recipes similar to rice or other grains. However, couscous is not a grain. As I’ll explain in a moment, couscous is actually a form of pasta. 

Is couscous pasta?

While it’s significantly smaller than, say, spaghetti or rotini, couscous is in fact a form of pasta. And as it turns out, it’s not even the smallest pasta there is—that honor goes to pastini, which literally means “little pasta” and is a common ingredient in Italian soups. 

What is couscous made of?

Couscous is made from something called semolina, which if you ask me sounds like it could make a very pretty name for a girl. But besides that, semolina is coarsely ground durum wheat. That’s the main ingredient in couscous, along with water.

Is couscous gluten free?

Couscous seems like something that should be gluten free, doesn’t it? Alas, despite its rice-like appearance, couscous is actually made from a type of wheat and thus is not gluten free. Celiac sufferers should stay away. 

How is couscous made?

The process of making couscous is relatively simple. Semolina flour (and sometimes additional mixed-in wheat flour) is moistened until little granules of pasta dough form. Those granules are left to dry and then eventually cooked through a steaming process. The result is couscous!

What does couscous taste like?

Couscous is pasta, and it tastes like it, which is to say, it’s very mild. Really, the most prevalent flavor of couscous is the butter or oil in which it’s been cooked. Because of its lack of strong flavor, couscous is a great base that can absorb the flavors of whatever else is in the recipe. 

Where does couscous come from? 

Couscous is an ancient dish, so its exact provenance isn’t known. What is clear, however, is that it came from northern Africa. Most likely, it was first made in the ancient kingdom of Numidia, which is now Algeria. Today, couscous is enjoyed throughout the world, but most of the semolina it’s made from is grown in the Middle East and Africa. 

What to make with couscous?

Couscous is a very versatile foodstuff and there is no shortage of delicious dishes that put it to use. Allrecipes has a seemingly infinite number of couscous recipes, but one that looks particularly delicious to me is this chicken tagine that combines couscous with chicken, eggplant, onion, carrots, dried cranberry, dried apricot, and spices for sweet and savory slow-cooked perfection.

About the Author

Matt Crowley

Matt Crowley is a comedy writer living in Los Angeles. He likes maple-flavored snacks, loves every kind of cheese, and is slowly learning to accept mushrooms.

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