Sicily to Algeria, Cous to Cous

Cuscus, cuscussù, couscous, kiskusu, seksu… all variations on the unique dish found from Sicily to North Africa. In the Taste Workshop “Terra Madre Network: Sicily and Algeria Cous to Cous” you’ll have the opportunity to meet two couscous experts and hear two great stories linked to the dish. Sid Alì Lahou is a chef and founder of a co-op that produces couscous from organic Algerian ingredients and Mairlù Terrasi is a chef and owner of the restaurant Pocho in San Vita lo Capo, which features a couscous dish typical of Trapani.

Master of an Ancient Ritual
“Couscous is an exercise in waiting. You need patience, time and tranquility,” says Marilù Terrasi. It is a celebration that she repeats every Sunday morning for guests at her restaurant in Makari, a small town close to San Vito lo Capo in the Trapani province.

Marilù graduated with a degree in philosophy before continuing her studies as a researcher at Palermo University’s Institute of Folk Traditions within the Faculty of Literature and Philosophy. She combines her studies, passion and theatrical talent to spread Sicilian art and folk culture around the world. Today, among many other activities, she is the chef and owner of the restaurant Pocho, which is named after the mascot of her theatre company. The theatrical experience is part of the nightly dinner service, with Marilù coming out of the kitchen to entertain her guests with traditional folk songs and stories.

“My studies allow me to live the mystery of couscous that intrigued me as a girl, and now I can appreciate the effort it takes to enter a world that only begrudgingly opens itself to foreigners.” Mostly unknown in Palermo, couscous is a typical dish of the Trapani province and it is with patient determination that Marilù mastered this rite that is the keeper of ancient secrets: “It was only when I learned to incocciare – to mix or knead the dough with just the right amount of water based on the size of the grains to be obtained – that I understood why the older women made me watch for so long. Besides, what recipe could they give me?” These days she is the one who passes on this knowledge; in Makari and around Italy she is called to teach the procedure that has its own special language, from the names of the utensils used to the ingredients themselves. “The grain has to be incocciata in a mafararda – a terracotta bowl with high, flared sides – by sprinkling a little bit of water with your left hand while with the right you kneed the grain, pressing it down while stirring until you get the grains to the right size. The couscous is steamed in a couscousiere sealed with a paste of flour and water called cuddura that keeps the steam locked in and which, after cooking, becomes cudduredde, small rings of pasta that help to appease impatient children when dipped in the fish broth.” The grain must be cooked and then has to sit for about an hour in the mafararda wrapped in a thick woolen cloth, before it can be enjoyed with accompanying dishes. Marilù suggests fish broth and mixed fried fish…

Here is recipe to produce couscous similar to the traditional recipe of Trapani.

Ingredients for eight people:
1 kg of coarse semolina
2 onions
olive oil
salt, pepper, chili powder, cinnamon, bay leaves cloves to taste
1 lemon – peel only
water as needed
1 kg of mixed fish for broth
2 liters of tomato sauce
Almond pesto: 150 g of almonds, bunch of parsley and1 head of garlic blended with olive oil
optional: fish for frying to accompany the dish


Slowly pour the coarse semolina into a large bowl – traditionally a terracotta mafararda – kneading it around in a circular motion with your right hand and sprinkling it with a little water with your left hand to form small pellets. Dress the now incocciata semolina with oil, salt, pepper, cinnamon and chopped parsley to taste and one onion finely diced. Place the semolina in the couscousiere (a large double boiler with holes in the bottom of the upper pot allowing its contents to steam – may be improvised by placing a metal colander lined with cheese cloth over a pot and covering) placing a few bay leaves and pieces of lemon peel between layers of semolina. Steam for roughly an hour, making sure to add a bunch of fresh herbs, cloves and some of the fish for broth to the boiling water.

In the meantime prepare the fish broth:
Fry one sliced onion in abundant olive oil. Add the tomato, salt and pepper, a pinch of chili pepper, cinnamon and the almond pesto. Cook for 20 minutes and then add the kilo of mixed cleaned fish.

When the couscous has finished steaming move it to a large bowl and pour over half of the broth and some of the fish, cut into small pieces. Cover with a woolen cloth and let sit for 45 minutes.

To serve:
Serve with the remaining broth and top with fish fried in a good olive oil if desired.

To vary this dish, substitute the fish in the broth for pork, lamb, legumes or vegetables and vary the spices used.

For more couscous traditions and recipes, view the full article on the Salone del Gusto and Terra Madre website.

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