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Marrakesh express

Couscous done right (think steam) opens up a world of delicious possibilities.

October 05, 2005|Charles Perry | Times Staff Writer

COUSCOUS is one of the world's most extraordinary foods, more delicate than any gnocchi, light as a snowdrift.

It's also terribly misunderstood.

More than just the stuff that comes out of a box, couscous is a whole world of wonderful dishes: sublime stews spooned over the ethereal granules. They can be as luscious as pappardelle with rabbit ragu or as carefully harmonic as a great pesto. But they also have exotic allure. It might be long-simmered lamb and pumpkin with ginger and saffron, or loup de mer with quince, or perhaps veal and chicken with zucchini and almonds. Chickpeas frequently make an appearance, as do raisins, almonds, dates and spices such as cinnamon and coriander.

"You can push the parameters of couscous the same way you can push pasta," says Paula Wolfert, author of "Couscous and Other Good Food From Morocco." "The difference is the couscous grain. Pasta can't compare with it in delicacy."

It's odd that couscous has never caught on here in L.A., despite the Moroccan restaurants that have been part of our dining scene since the '70s. A town that can fall so hard for pasta ought to be able to see the glory of couscous.

A man who's keenly sensitive to the possibilities of couscous is Adel Chagar of Chameau restaurant, probably L.A.'s leading Moroccan chef these days. Most Moroccan restaurants stick to tried-and-true favorites, but he has an inventive, contemporary take on the cuisine he inherits. He puts fashionable duck in his otherwise hyper-traditional bestila (he makes that savory pie with warqa, the crisper hand-made North African cousin of filo). He turns preserved lemons into a dip, serves merguez sausage with chickpea fries and offers almond beignets with lemon cream and honey ice cream for dessert.

The decor of his Fairfax Avenue place is just as contemporary as the food -- think Morocco through a psychedelic kaleidoscope. A whimsical representation of a camel's eyelash runs the length of the ceiling. No hand-washing ritual or belly dancer here. And the menu is seasonal. At the moment, one of Chagar's most impressive dishes is an aromatic lamb shoulder tagine that he serves over delicate vegetable couscous.

Alongside his couscous entrees, he also has side-dish versions of couscous flavored with raisins or pearl onions, none of which is traditional. "Well, of course, this is why we're not in Morocco," he joshes.

Michel Ohayon, proprietor of the 27-year-old Koutoubia in Westwood, was the first Moroccan restaurateur in our town to let diners choose their own dishes, rather than forcing everybody at a table to order the same things. But Koutoubia still represents the grand, traditional style of Moroccan restaurant, with the pillows and the belly dancer and the mint tea poured into tiny cups from on high.

And the dishes on the menu are mostly classics, though he has served specials like lamb with fresh fennel. The most traditional element of all is his mother, Gilberte, who cooks the couscous most nights, as she has for decades, with the expertise of a lifetime's experience.

"My grandmother taught me to make it in Morocco," she says. "When you steam it two times, it's very healthy. It's so soft, you don't have to put anything on it -- just sugar and cinnamon if you want."

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North African staple

IN North Africa, couscous is the centerpiece of the traditional Friday family lunch. It's always the last thing served at a banquet or a party, where it occupies the place of dessert, the course that makes sure every guest's appetite is completely satisfied.

And in some parts of Morocco, it's even more basic than that. The local word for couscous in those places is ta'am, which literally means "food."

As a culinary region, North Africa is a mosaic of regional styles that don't always fit neatly into national borders. But Morocco is the only Arab country that was never absorbed by the Ottoman Empire, so for centuries it has continued to have its own kings, who have sponsored an impressive court cuisine. As a result, Moroccan couscous, which is represented in most of our North African restaurants, tends to be served with rich stews aromatic with multiple spices, particularly in Marrakesh. Saffron is the most glamorous of them, but ginger, cinnamon, coriander and turmeric add their fragrance.

Algeria is an agricultural country with a robust, rustic cuisine, and the stews that accompany its couscous are typically less refined than in Morocco. During the 1960s, there was a craze for Algerian restaurants in Paris, and as a result, people who have fallen in love with couscous in France expect the Algerian hot sauce harissa with North African food, even at Moroccan restaurants. The practice of serving couscous, stewed meat and broth in separate bowls, rather than on a single plate, is also Algerian. As for Tunisia, it has the richest fishing grounds of any Arab country, so it makes a specialty of fish couscous dishes.

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