Couscous is the most emblematic dish of Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia—collectively known as the Maghreb. It’s a substantial, magnificent centerpiece on any family table or festive buffet. Though it’s generally referred to simply as couscous, this traditional dish is much more than the fluffy, steamed grains of the same name.
A traditional couscous features meat, fish, or vegetables in a fragrant broth, cooked until exceedingly tender, and then topped with creamy chickpeas and plump sweet raisins and served over the couscous grains that lend their name to the whole concoction. Couscous stews are cooked with enough liquid that a substantial amount of broth is left in the final dish. This broth, ladled onto each serving, is used to lightly moisten the couscous grains or to generously bathe the dish, as each guest desires.
North African cuisine is unscripted. It is informal at its heart, and meals are often prepared by a cook who has never used a cookbook or a written recipe. It’s a no-holds-barred, anything-goes cuisine that invites improvisation, as long as you understand the underlying rules and traditions from which it derives. The three countries of the Maghreb boast dozens of variations of couscous, each influenced by the particular region from which it hails. Depending on where it originates, the couscous may be reddened with tomatoes or simply sauced with broth, it may be meatless, or it may feature the fish of the local coastline. It may be savory-sweet or strictly savory.
The most common and best-known couscous, a dish of the Berber people of North Africa, features seven vegetables: carrots, turnips, onions, zucchini, tomatoes, pumpkin (or other squash), and eggplant, along with chickpeas. When this copious, soulful dish is served with lamb, chicken, or spicy merguez sausage, it is aptly named couscous royale.
Once you understand the basic preparation method and stock your cupboard with the staple ingredients, it’s just a question of expressing your own personal take on a classic by using what’s in the market that day and what your own favorite meat, fish, and vegetables happen to be.