French Couscous

Couscous has made heady progress from foreign newcomer to pantry staple in the last 20 years. It has plumped into action as an essential salad at barbecues or as a near-instant mid-week meal. It’s the ideal starchy receptacle for our unstoppable appetite for Mediterranean flavours.

Couscous
Vegetable couscous

Couscous has been even busier in France. The north African grain has been embraced to the bosom of French food culture, mainstreamed in supermarkets, become a regular on the weekly repertoire of home and school cooks and even been labelled a national dish. In major cities like Paris and Marseille the best selection of restaurants is mainly French or north African – no other foreign cuisine, apart from maybe Italian, has been so popularised here.

This is no small win in a country famous for its sense of gastronomic superiority.

It’s also interesting because France still has a complicated relationship with its former north African colonies: Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco (collectively, the Maghreb) – or more particularly with the immigrants from these countries who now make up 7 or 8% of the French population.

The Maghreb countries gained independence, fairly bloodily, during the 1950s and 1960s. Mass immigration to France started around the same time. As elsewhere during this period, it was a rocky road for the newcomers facing off against hostility and discrimination.

While it is far from perfect today, the weaving of couscous into the mainstream of French food culture is symbolic of how the nation’s self-image has become more multi-faceted.

Harissa
Harissa

Couscous on film

The beautiful 2008 film Couscous shot in the Mediterranean French city of Sete tells part of this story through the life of an immigrant family from Tunisia.

The patriarch, in a complicated ex-wife and second wife situation, has a dream to open a restaurant on a boat docked in the port specialising in the extraordinary couscous dishes of his first wife – he is heavily dependent on winning her co-operation for his business success.

Each family member lives as a French citizen with different levels of confidence and adjustment influenced by their generation. The patriarch slips into shadow next to the headstrong but honest determination of his 17 year old stepdaughter – she has no hesitation marching into a bank manager’s office and demanding a loan for the business.

The climax is a spectacular restaurant opening night attended by Tunisian friends and family and the city glitterati – featuring plenty of steamy scenes with couscous to make your jaw drop.

Read the Observer newspaper review.

Eating couscous in France

One of the best places to sample French couscous is Marseille in southern France, a major old port city where the streets used to heave with the world’s sailors. These days, as a major centre of France’s north African population, the men bustling around the streets are first and second generation migrants, with a foot in Africa and one in Europe.

Down at the atmospheric Vieux Port (Old Port) the north African restaurants in the side streets capture the Maghreb flavours with couscous and vegetable stews, meat and fish tagines, pastillas, grilled fish and meats and meze dishes.

Making a couscous dish

The tastes and smells of north-Africa-in-France are only as far away as a typical dish of couscous and vegetable stew, made with the distinctive condiments. I broadly followed the ingredients list and method from this seven-vegetable couscous recipe on myrecipes.com to create my stew.

Where to buy north African ingredients in Auckland

Preserved lemons in a cup
Preserved lemons in a cup

Alexandra’s is an importer and spice blender supplying a wide range of north African products including chermoula, the Moroccan rub for meat; ras-el-hanout, a versatile mixed spiced blend; and harissa mix, to make a smokey chilli sauce that is served with everything in Morocco. They are available at a range of stockists listed here, and you can also buy direct from their factory in Panmure (14 Eric Paton Way).

Khyber Foods in Sandringham (528-530 Sandringham Road) is a fabulous bazaar with foods from all around the Mediterannean basin, north Africa and India. They stock preserved lemons, which provide the unique salty tang associated with Moroccan food.

Platter of couscous with harissa
Platter of couscous with harissa
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