What Is Pearl Couscous?

I love couscous, so when I saw something called pearl couscous I thought, “How fancy!” But when I tasted it, it just hit different than other couscous dishes I had before that. So what is pearl couscous—is it even couscous? Here’s all the pearl couscous answers you crave.

What is pearl couscous? 

Pearl couscous is aptly named; the small, spherical balls look a lot like the precious orbs you might find hiding inside an oyster. Served both hot and cold, pearl couscous acts as a side dish in many Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisines.

The most common preparation of pearl couscous is boiled and mixed with tomato paste and fried onion. It can be used in soups, cold salads, and in stuffings, and it can be dressed up in any number of ways, including spicy versions with harissa or milder versions with balsamic vinaigrette. It’s a versatile food that can be prepared any way you choose.

What is pearl couscous made of?

Instead of being made of calcium carbonate—the thing that Google tells me is what makes actual pearls—pearl couscous is made from semolina or wheat flour and water. That dough is mechanically processed into tiny balls. The balls are then toasted, preserving their shape and giving them a nutty flavor.

Is pearl couscous pasta?

Yes, it is! There is a fine line between what qualifies as couscous and what qualifies as pasta, and there is even an argument as to whether pearl couscous counts as a true couscous!

Traditional couscous is made from semolina and is often handmade as opposed to factory-made, though modern commercial production has been transferred to machine work.. This results in smaller, irregular spheres when compared to the larger pearl couscous. It is also usually steamed instead of boiled or sauteed. 

The differences in production and preparation result in a taste difference between the two: Pearl couscous is chewy and traditional couscous is light and soft. So, while both of the foods can be used interchangeably in different dishes, pearl couscous has slightly more in common with something like pastina and other tiny pasta versions.

Hold on, is pearl couscous the same as Israeli couscous?

It is! The word for pearl couscous in Hebrew is ptitim. The food was developed in Israel during their time of austerity in the 1950s as a high-volume alternative to rice. While initially formed into rice shape like orzo, they eventually changed to the sphere shape which has continued to this day.

About the Author

Luke Field

Luke Field is a writer and actor originally from Philadelphia. He was the former Head Writer of branded content at CollegeHumor and was also a contributing writer and actor to the CollegeHumor Originals cast. He has extensive improv and sketch stage experience, performing both at The Upright Citizens Brigade Theater and with their Touring Company. In addition to writing, he also works as a Story Producer, most recently on season 4 of Accident, Suicide, or Murder on Oxygen. Keep your eyes peeled for his brief but impactful appearance as Kevin, the screaming security guard, in the upcoming feature The Disruptors, directed by Adam Frucci.

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