Couscous in France: It’s a Long Story

Photo credit: Edwin Lee

To look at all the Maghrebi/North African restaurants in Paris, you might be tempted to think the food they serve appeared only recently in France. It’s not hard to visualize this scenario when you consider the exodus of pieds noirs and Harkis (local men who served as soldiers for France) that occurred as Algeria fought for independence from France, culminating in 1962 with the Evian Accords.


Think about the numbers – guesstimates, yes: over 900,000 pieds noirs and 91,000 Harkis made their way to France, seeking asylum and refuge. Almost one million people.

So it’s not surprising that they, like all refugees and exiles, longed for the cooking of their terroir, the smell of Maman’s lamb stew fragrant with saffron and cumin and ginger. And dreaming of couscous, or ta’am, pale grains of semolina rolled with by hand the old-fashioned (and labor-intensive female way), fluffing in the couscousière or steamer, the aroma indescribable. While this sudden injection of different foodways slowly affected French perceptions of recettes étrangères, the fact remains that France has carried on a long affair with couscous.

François Rabelais called it coscosson in Gargantua in 1542. A traveler to Toulonin 1630, Jean-Jacques Bouchard, wrote of a Provençal manifestation of couscous, calling it courcousson. And Clifford Wright, historian of Mediterranean cuisine, says:

Charles de Clairambault, the naval commissioner [stationed in Brittany?], in a letter dated January 12, 1699, tells us that the Moroccan ambassador, cAbd Allah bin cAisha, and his party of eighteen had brought their own flour and made couscoussou with dates and that it was a delicious dish they made for Ramadan.

Hence, the adventurous eater could clearly enjoy couscous in specific places and at certain times in France prior to the twentieth century, or even the nineteenth century. Where do you start with your exploration of HOW couscous arrived in France? What about  cookbooks? What did their authors record? What’s the evidence? To begin with, you could do a quick thumb-through of some twentieth-century cookbooks, revealing the following:

1903 – Le Guide Culinaire, by Auguste Escoffier – no mention of couscous.

1927 – La Bonne Cuisine de Madame Saint-Ange –  no recipes for couscous 1931 – Cuisine Coloniale: Les Bonnes Recettes de Chloé Mondésir, by A. Querillac – five pages about couscous and its preparation in West Africa, with a final comment to the effect that the indigenous people eat their couscous by rolling a handful into little balls and stuffing it into their mouths with their hands, whereas at civilized tables, the couscous is served more correctly: meat, sauce and vegetables arranged on the center of a platter with millet couscous surrounding it all.

1932 – Je Sais Cuisiner, by Ginette Mathiot (I Know How to Cook, English translation – published after the 1931 Paris International Colonial Exposition (Exposition coloniale internationale). Mathiot ended her book with a separate section for “Les recettes étrangères,” including one for couscous under the section “Afrique du Nord.” And that was the only recipe she included in that category, as opposed to six from Germany, eight from Belgium, just one odd one from the United States (a cake made with corn flour, wheat flour, powdered sugar, a dab of butter, a dash of milk, and lemon peel, to be served with apricot sauce), and ten from Italy.

1960s – La Cuisine 1000 Recettes (La Cuisine: Everyday French Home Cooking: 1,000 Simple Recipes), by Françoise Bernard, based on her 40 years of work – three recipes, one traditional with lamb, two with couscous used as a stuffing or a base for salad Interestingly, neither Mathiot nor Bernard provide a definition for a couple of spice mixtures identified with North African cuisine: ras-el-hanout and harissa. Does this omission mean that cooks 1) commonly found these ingredients in their favorite local market and 2) everyone knew what these ingredients meant, and hence there was no need for any elaborate explanations?

1823. Couscous (From Je Sais Cuisiner, by Ginette Mathiot) Preparation: 1 hour; Cooking time: 2 hours

750 g couscous
1 chicken
2 pounds lamb
100 g onions
3 sweet bell peppers
150 g chickpeas
350 g turnips
200 g tomatoes
150 g zucchini
100 g butter
Fennel seeds
Spices (ginger, cinnamon)
Salt, Red pepper

Meat and Vegetable Stew. Cut the chicken into quarters, the lamb into chunks. Get ready a large pot and add cold water to cover, the meat, and all the vegetables peeled and cut into chunks. Season with salt, pepper, and the spices to taste. Let the stew cook for 1 ½ – 2 hours.

Couscous. Spread out the couscous grains on a plate, rinse with some warm salted water. Work the grain with your hands, to separate the couscous; the grains should be separate. One hour before serving, put the couscous in the steamer. Place the steamer over the stew and cook for 20 minutes. Take the couscous off the fire, and work it with your hands again, to separate the grains. Return the couscous to the steamer. Cook another 20 minutes. Salt. Put butter in small bits and stir it in as you break up the clumps of couscous with a fork. Serve couscous on each plate. Place meat and vegetables in a shallow bowl, with the cooking stock poured over them. Serve with harissa.

(Translation: C. Bertelsen)

For more, see:

Oubahli, Mohamed. Une histoire de pâte en Méditerranée occidentale. Des pâtes arabo-berbères et de leur diffusion en Europe latine au Moyen Âge (Partie II) : La France et le monde italique. Horizons maghrébins- le droit à la mémoire 59: 14-29, 2008.

Coming up: A discourse on the significance of the 1931 Paris International Colonial Exposition (Exposition coloniale internationale).

© 2011 C. Bertelsen

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