Couscous, a popular emblematic dish of North Africa, has been placed on the list of intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO, at the joint request of Algeria, Morocco, Mauritania and Tunisia.
It was something quite rare in the history of the Maghreb countries when Algeria, Morocco, Mauritania and Tunisia, in March 2019, together presented the candidate entitled ‘Knowledge, know-how and practices relative to the production and consumption of couscous’, with no dispute concerning the paternity of this traditional food. The initiative raises the hope that the dish may be the beginning of political rapprochement.
The grains of this food are obtained from wheat (or millet) roughly ground. The ground kernels are then sprinkled with flour and worked by hand by the women until they become like small seeds which are then passed through a sieve. The work demands much patience and time. Couscous is always steamed in a special pot in which the lower part is used to cook vegetables and meat while the couscous is placed in the upper part.
The steam from the lower part passes through perforations and into the part with the couscous. This food can be served in many different ways according to traditions. It may be cooked with meat or fish, vegetables or hard-boiled eggs. In Algeria, there is a version that is prepared with butter, sugar and raisins. It is this variety that allows it to be prepared in so many ways depending on the different territories while at the same time acting as a unifying culture over a vast area.
Couscous is the dish consumed during feasts, gatherings, celebrations, weddings or funerals. Though it is not very nourishing, it represents a delicacy that evokes in those who have been accustomed to it from childhood, memories and reminiscences of family life. It is a dish that is shared, seated on the ground: the family or friends eat it from a single container, using a spoon or their hands.
The rule requires one to use three fingers of the right hand because, for Muslims, the devil eats with one finger, the prophet with two while five fingers indicate gluttony. Eating couscous together is an act which cancels out conflicts and disagreements.
The books about food trace the popularity of couscous to the Kuskusi of the 19th century but the couscous we know today may well be much older and come from the 12th century (from the Berber seksou).
It is certain that the Tunisian historian and sociologist Ibn Khaldun in the 16th century referred to couscous as a symbol of the Berber culture. In addition, the fame the dish acquired over the years is that of a ‘unifier’ among peoples.
Couscous is praised differently in every country. In Morocco, on 26 October of each year, the ‘World Couscous Day’ is observed; in Algeria, it is even part of the traditional school curriculum to study couscous. Various cookery programmes on TV dwell upon the various recipes. In Tunisia, couscous workshops are held in the schools, while in Mauritania the state supports cooperatives that perpetuate the tradition of its preparation.
Last December, UNESCO motivated the inclusion of couscous as part of the intangible human patrimony ‘for the knowledge, know-how and practices relative to the production and consumption of couscous’ that link together the four North African countries. In the case of couscous, the techniques bring together the traditions of songs, gestures and oral traditions that accompany the preparation of the dish that is basically made from wheaten semolina, vegetables, meat or fish, and unites Berbers and Algerians, the cities and the countryside, the sweet and the salty, vegetarian or not, middle-class and working-class.
“Algeria cooks it in its own peculiar way while Morocco and Tunisia cook it differently”, the well-known Algerian chef remarks. “Even though I love my country deeply because I grew up there, there are no divisions, we are all equal and the couscous is Maghrebi, something that belongs to us all.” Hicham Hazzoum, head of a famous Moroccan restaurant, the ‘Dar Naji’, like many chefs believes that couscous should be recognised all over the world. Just like the pizza and other foods.
Rather than a dish, couscous is a cultural patrimony that is culinary and made up of memories, traditions, knowledge, and gestures handed down from one generation to the next, with an infinite number of refinements.