From its cornmeal-based cousin in Latin America, to the seafood inspired Sicilian version of the Mediterranean, modern cultures worldwide have adopted couscous as a fairly common vehicle for culinary expression. And while the exact origins of this scrumptious semolina pasta dish are debatable, one thing is not: North Africans have been taking their couscous seriously for centuries. It’s in these countries where couscous isn’t a just buttered side dish from a box, but rather the skillfully prepared––often handmade––star of the show.
In Morocco, every Friday is marked with a communal couscous meal shared between family and friends. Traditionally, a flavorful spiced stew of lamb or chicken and vegetables is ladled over thrice-steamed, tender and fluffy couscous. This extremely labor-intensive dish is finished with a sweet and savory mixture of sautéed onions, chickpeas, raisins and cinnamon––and is almost always washed down by a tall, cold glass of buttermilk. This is the quintessential comfort food of Morocco.
Thankfully, one of the only things Moroccans seem to take more seriously than couscous is hospitality. During my time in the country, I was fortunate enough to meet an extraordinarily kind woman with exceptional cooking skills, who taught me much about her country’s cuisine. I spent hours with her, studying how to haggle at local markets, watching a butcher break down our lamb, prepping ingredients and learning how to cook couscous for an army––and loving every second of it.
Weeks later, no longer a couscous novice, I was invited to document the preparation of the dish at a nearby, relatively new restaurant called Cafetería Lisboa. Every Friday, head chef Nasrallah El Amiri and sous chef Hajar Kanjaa open their kitchen to couscous specialist Amina Bazi, who learned the dish from the best––her mother. Bazi’s version was delightful in its own right, consisting of the same basic parts, but this time adorned with a turmeric-spiced chicken stew and plated perfectly for a single serving. And, of course, it was accompanied by its thick and sour counterpart, a cold glass of buttermilk.