For years, I have been asking my friend Cherkaoui to prepare me a dish of couscous royal (with lamb, chicken and merguez sausages), since he always raved about the way it was prepared in his native Morocco. But he always demurred with a bit of terror in his eyes, arguing that his mom was the only expert in the family and he considered her as the guardian of this favourite traditional dish. Then one day recently, he excitedly phoned me to tell that his mother was coming to visit. And he proudly announced that we would have a feast of couscous. It turns out that in Moroccan culture, each family recipe for couscous is a closely guarded secret, and it is often passed on from mother to daughter. Boys are usually not encouraged to cook. Cherkaoui didn't know the family recipe, but now at last his Canadian-born wife would learn the secret from his mother!

What is couscous? Couscous is made from wheat semolina (or other grains such as barley, millet, or maize): crushed, but unground and bound together using water. Today, couscous is found already prepared in most supermarkets and whole food stores.

Couscous predates pasta It is widely believed that couscous originated in North Africa, where remnants of cooking utensils used in its preparation dating back to the 9th century have been found. But couscous spread rapidly throughout the surrounding region. Islamic domination of the Iberian peninsula from the 10th to the 15th century made it a popular staple throughout the Mediterranean region. The dish continued to spread, and today couscous is appreciated in many European countries; in fact, it is one of the popular dishes in France.

Couscous with an international flair But couscous recipes can now be found around the world. In Mexico couscous is served up in tacos and burritos. Traditionally, North Africans cook their couscous in a food steamer or "couscoussière", cooking the vegetables, broth and whatever meat they choose in a pot below, while the couscous is steamed in another pot set above, allowing it to absorb the flavors of the slow-cooked fragrant stew. The traditional recipe calls for cumin, clove, cinnamon, ginger powder and coriander seeds toasted until fragrant, crushed and added to the broth. Most of the couscous grains that we find in our stores have been pre-steamed and dried, and are ready to serve within a few minutes.

Couscous packs a punch! For paddlers, couscous is a natural. It stores away easily and can be prepared in minutes. Some people argue that couscous is a form of pasta, but it is in fact very different since pasta is made from ground semolina and couscous from crushed; in this case, the less refined the better. It packs a better vitamin punch than pasta, with four times the amount of thiamine and twice as much riboflavin, vitamin B6 and niacin. And the fat contained in couscous is less than that found in rice or pasta. Like pasta, couscous provides a high-energy meal, especially appreciated by paddlers after a long workout. And it's so easy to prepare! 


Breakfast couscous (4 portions)

  • 4 cups cooked couscous semolina
  • 1 orange peeled and thinly chopped
  • 1 apple thinly chopped
  • 4 tbsp currants
  • 4 tbsp chopped toasted unsalted almonds
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 4 tbsp brown sugar (or maple syrup)
  • 4 cups almond milk

In a large bowl, mix all ingredients together. Serve in large bowls. This is the perfect breakfast to stick to your rib while paddling…

Couscous-tuna salad
(4 portions)

  • 4 cups cooked couscous semolina
  • 2 large cans water-packed tuna, drained
  • 1 celery stalk, finely chopped
  • 1 red bell pepper, finely chopped
  • 4 green onions, finely chopped
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • 4 tbsp avocado oil
  • Fresh parsley to taste
  • Salt and pepper to taste

In a large bowl, combine all ingredients. Let sit for 10 minutes, to blend flavors. Serve.

Simple vegetarian couscous
(4 portions)

  • 2 cups uncooked couscous semolina
  • 2 large carrots peeled and finely chopped
  • 1 small turnip peeled and finely chopped
  • 1 large onion peeled and finely chopped
  • 1 19-oz can diced tomatoes (with juice)
  • 1 19-oz can drained garbanzo beans
  • 1/2 cup currants
  • 1 tsp each: dry ginger, dry cinnamon, dry cumin, dry coriander seeds
  • 2 tbsp dry parsley
  • 3 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 cups vegetable broth
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Harrissa sauce (pepper sauce/optional)

Cook couscous according to package instructions. Let stand. In a large saucepan, sauté all vegetables in olive oil with spices for 5 minutes. Add tomatoes, vegetable broth and bring to a boil. Lower heat, cover and cook until vegetables are just tender. Add Garbanzo beans and currants. Serve over couscous, sprinkled with parsley and a bit of Harrissa sauce.

For a not-so vegetarian version, add one can drained chicken meat with Garbanzo beans or cook 8 merguez sausages and serve over couscous-vegetables mixture.

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