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Couscous : HEAD An ancient North African staple is making a comeback with updated looks, taste and appeal

June 02, 1988|ROSE DOSTI | Times Staff Writer

Those who don't know the word couscous, might think the subject is about diapered babies being coo-cooed. Something cute.

To those who are acquainted with the ancient North African dietary staple derived from wheat, the word conjures visions of Bedouins racing across the desert against a blazing sun, or a smoky Parisian cafe in the backwaters of the Latin Quarter where couscous is as well known as pommes frites.

Well, forget all that. At the moment, couscous is undergoing an image makeover. It's making a modern-day comeback with updated looks, taste and appeal, thanks to the imaginative chefs of some of top restaurants in town.

At Citrus, one of the hottest eateries in Los Angeles, chef Michel Richard serves a couscous so unique, no North African couscous-eater would recognize his or her favorite grain, even though all the basic couscous ingredients are used. Richard serves turbans of couscous covered with paper-thin slices of lamb and topped with ultra-refined ratatouille, containing the traditional vegetables of the couscous meal.

Joachim Splichal, whose exquisite cuisine is practiced at the Regency Club these days, prepares a sort of nouvelle cuisine couscous with boned baby chicken legs and thighs and precision-cut vegetables, topped like a bejeweled crown with cold tomato salsa.

Le St. Germain has offered an elegant version of couscous as a special now and then, and at Le Dome, couscous with chicken, lamb and Moroccan mergez sausage is served each Tuesday and Wednesday.

Established North African restaurants, such as Marrakesh in both Studio City and Newport Beach, Moun of Tunis in Los Angeles and Dar Magreb (Los Angeles' earliest Moroccan restaurant) have for years served the traditional couscous complet, with the standard meats--lamb, chicken or sausage--and accompanying salads as part of a multi-course feast.

Robaire's, a French restaurant, which was probably the first restaurant in all of California to introduce couscous on a regular basis each month more than two decades ago, has been joined by a new crop of French bistros in the practice: Bistango (Los Angeles), Moustache Cafe (Los Angeles and Westwood) and Michel Richard restaurant (Los Angeles) all occasionally offer Parisian-style couscous made with chicken, fish or lamb and sausage as a special. And the trend is growing.

Couscous is probably one of the first pasta products derived from wheat known to man (probably predating Marco Polo's spaghetti contribution by several millennia). Los Angeles-based anthropologist Fadwa El Giundi places couscous among the wheat products derived as result of the domestication of wheat into an agricultural product by 8,000 B.C. "As wheat spread throughout the Middle East it took on various forms by each group using it," explained El Giundi.

In the hands of the nomadic Berbers, the aboriginal people of North Africa, semolina from hard durum wheat was processed into a dough, which was then rolled between the palms of hands into tiny nuggets or crumbs. When cooked, the crumbs expand as does any pasta or rice. The combination of couscous with vegetables (complex carbohydrates) and often meat (protein) created a completely balanced and nutritious diet. Recipes for hand-processed couscous exist to this day in remote rural cultures throughout North Africa, but the skill is fast disappearing in favor of technological methods of production, according to El Giundi. In rice-eating Egypt, for instance, a couscous dish known as el sebour' , is used as part of a ritual for weddings, circumcisions and baptisms. However, in other parts of North Africa, such as Morocco, Tunis and Algeria, there is no major event, banquet or family meal without a dish of couscous.

The ebb and flow of trade, wars and migrations, forced couscous outside of its own geographic boundaries. You'll find traces of couscous in regional cuisines of Sicily and Rome (known as cuscus) and even across the Adriatic to Yugoslavia and below. A dried form of couscous called trahana is found in Greece and Albania, where it is used as a breakfast cereal. Throughout the Arab world couscous is known as mougrabiye, (also magrebiya) from the word magreb meaning North Africa.

Waves of North African migrations to France over a period of a century have helped create a sub-cuisine throughout France much like the Indian cuisine in England. Couscous houses are found in the nooks and crannys of side streets everywhere in France, including the Latin Quarter, where some of the best couscous in Paris is found.

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