The History of Couscous

I don’t have to tell any of you this, but what a year is already blowing through! For everyone across the globe. Beside being in our fourth lockdown here in Israel, and all the other things we’re already faced with coming down the pike, I will try to keep this blog as uplifting, fun, and informative as possible. Because we all need a break from the “news,” am I right???? That said, let’s get into the real history of couscous. I bet it’s not what you think! And this food that is an Israeli staple, is ubiquitous here. Eaten as a hot side-dish with meat or veggies piled on top, as a breakfast food (really!!!!) or as a cold salad, you’ll get a few recipes and ideas here.

Although this side dish is used by every ethnicity here in Israel, we do not call what is labeled ‘couscous’ or even ‘Israeli couscous’ by that name. We call it p’tit-TEEM, or ‘little flakes.’ The photo below is most likely what you, living outside Israel think of when you hear the word couscous:

This is NOT Israeli couscous!

Yes, the picture above shows a fluffy, yellowish side dish fairly familiar in the United States. It actually comes from Italy. Made of durum wheat, it’s really a type of semolina – the part of the wheat that is separated out from the wheat germ and bran in the milling process. In Italy it’s mostly used to make pasta and polenta, but can also be steamed or boiled and simmered and then fluffed up. Then there is the larger product called “pearl couscous” in the States and throughout Europe. This is actually an ancient Middle Eastern side dish (mistaken for Israeli couscous) called Moghrabieh in Arabic, sometimes called maftoul. It is a hand-milled, cracked bulgur wheat product that is hand-rolled to the size of chickpeas. Moghrabieh is also popular within the Mizrachi (Middle Eastern), North African, and Portuguese/Spanish Jewish population – those Jews who lived under Muslim rule. Maftoul is boiled and for the most part, mixed with other ingredients and used as a stuffing for hollowed out vegetables, which are then cooked.

After the Israeli War for Independence in 1948, there was a huge influx of immigrants from all over the world. Many had never farmed, and in the early 50’s the country faced major food shortages. Food rationing was instituted. Importing basic supplies was cost prohibitive. Prime Minister David BenGurion contracted with the Osem Food Company to create a staple food that could replace the expensive rice. It had to be cheap, versatile, and easy to prepare. Called p’titim, or ‘BenGurion’s Rice,’ this new product was made from pre-baked whole wheat flour, water and egg yolks for added protein. The dough was extruded through specially developed machines in mass quantities and the rice-like flakes were then toasted to seal in the starch. It became an instant hit! Soon tiny, itty bitty little flakes, larger pellets, and different shapes like stars and hearts were introduced to appeal to children. Easy to prepare (recipes to follow!), the ptitim is quickly sautéed in oil; then after it browns, water or broth is added; the one-skillet wonderfood is brought to a rolling boil, covered, and left to simmer gently for about ten minutes and voilà! The grains remain firm and slightly chewy when eaten. They don’t get mushy at all. They don’t stick together because of starchiness. And they take on the flavors of the broth or other foods surrounding them. It’s absolutely Israeli comfort food at its best – home cooking, served plain or with meat, fish and veggies piled high atop. We used to eat it every lunch served to us in the army (when we volunteered). Usually alongside chicken schnitzel with ketchup.

In the early 1990s, Israeli chef Michael Sharon, who had a chi-chi, upscale restaurant in New York City, first introduced it to his patrons as “Israeli couscous.” It was a huge hit, and soon became served in posh restaurants on both the East and West Coasts as a novel ethnic dish. Trader Joe’s picked up on the trend and started mass-marketing this popular side as “Israeli couscous” or “pearl couscous.” It’s found in every shape and color here, with even gluten-free varieties. A bag of “regular” ptititim here sells for around $1.00-$1.75/pound with the fancier colors or shapes running a little higher. A small bag of gluten-free (about 3/4 pound) goes for upwards of $4.50.

As a very basic cooking lesson, I take about a cup of the “Israeli couscous” and sauté it in about 2 TBSP olive oil on a medium-high stove. It takes anywhere from 2 – 4 minutes to toast up to a nice golden brown. Do not let it burn! For every cup of the ptitim, use 1 1/2 cups of water or broth (veggie, chicken, or beef).

I also add a little salt and then the magic: as the liquid starts to boil, I’ll add a variety of spices. In this instance, I’m adding some raisins and dried cranberries; about 3 TBSP dried onion flakes; a few cut up dried apricots for a burst of color and flavor; and a handful of nuts- I used almonds, but you can use pecans, peanuts, pistachios, pine nuts or hazelnuts for crunch. Cover the skillet and simmer on low for about 10 minutes or until the liquid has been absorbed into the little balls. Garnish with fresh parsley. It’s delicious!

I have used the larger ptitim as a substitute for bread when making a stuffing for turkey or chicken. Following the above directions, toasting, then adding chicken broth to the grains, I then add the following:

-1 onion chopped and 2 stalks celery chopped – both sautéed until translucent -1 tsp each dried rosemary, sage & thyme -1/3 cup chopped chestnuts -sea salt & freshly cracked pepper, to taste – 1 chopped apple or pear

After it simmers down, I place this in a greased baking dish, cover with foil and bake for 15-20 minutes on 170*C/350*F.

Ptitim is so versatile. It can be served hot or cold. You can make an Italian version by adding: -1/4 cup diced sun-dried tomatoes in oil -1/4 cup halved, pitted kalamata olives -1small jar marinated artichoke hearts with the oil, chopped (about 1/2 cup) -1 TBSP dried oregano -salt & pepper, to taste

In the summer, I love to serve a cold ptitim salad with chopped fresh stone fruits – peaches, nectarines, cherries and almonds. I use my own cherry or raspberry vinaigrette (if you’re in the States, I highly recommend Brianna’s Blush Wine Vinaigrette) as a dressing. Then I place grilled chicken strips on top. It’s easy to prepare, elegant, and quite tasty – makes a fantastic Shabbat lunch as the ptitim is made the day before and refrigerated, and the chicken strips pre-grilled and ready to be laid atop the salad.

Among North African Jews, especially Moroccans living here, Ptitim with Seven Vegetables is a popular dish. It is made with the tiny flaked variety, simmered in a vegetable stock with 2 heaping TBSP turmeric and a heaping teaspoon of cumin after toasting. The turmeric gives the dish its classic, bright yellow color. Ladled over the grain is a stew of seven vegetables, typically onions, carrots, potatoes, pumpkin, whole chard leaves, zucchini and whole garbanzo beans or chickpeas. The veggies are simmered in a veggie broth laden with turmeric and other spices. Served hot, with pickles on the side, it’s an ethnic treat.

One of my favorite dishes can be served as a meal or a side. I prepare it in advance, stick it in the fridge to let the flavors meld together, and have it for lunch the next day. It’s bright, colorful, healthy, and amazingly yummy – a great combination of color, flavor and texture.

Middle-Eastern Shabbat Ptitim Salad

I use the smallest ptitim flakes, similar to “couscous.” Starting with one cup of ptitim toasted in 2 TBSP olive oil until golden brown, I add 1 teaspoon of yellow curry powder and 1 1/2 cup of water. Bring this to a boil and then power the heat to a simmer for about 10 minutes. Transfer to a large bowl and let cool. After it cools down add:

  • 1 red bell pepper, diced fine
  • 1 small red (Bermuda) onion, diced fine
  • 1/2 cup currants or raisins
  • 1/2 cup chickpeas (canned, drained)
  • 2 green onions, chopped fine
  • 1/4 cup peanuts
  • the juice of 1 orange
  • a large handful of mint, chopped fine

This salad is so easy, so colorful and just loaded with flavor. I refrigerate it and serve it cold.

Lemon Mushroom Ptitim

This is a wonderful dish that can be eaten as a main course or a side dish. It’s a bit of a riff on a mushroom risotto, but much easier to prepare.

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup large grained ptitim (Israeli couscous)
  • 2 TBSP olive oil
  • 1/2 pound mixed mushrooms – oyster, brown, bella
  • 1 lemon
  • 1/4 cup basil, chopped fine
  • 1/3 cup grated fresh parmesan cheese
  • sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper, to taste

In a large skillet, toast the ptitim in olive oil until it gets golden, about 2 minutes. Do not let it burn! Add 1 1/2 cups water, bring to a boil, and then simmer for about 10 minutes. Brush any dirt off the mushrooms and chop into large slices. Sauté in a dry (no oil) pan for about 5-7 minutes, or until the shrooms begin to get juicy. Add the cooked mushrooms to the ptitim. Grate the lemon zest onto the mixture. Cut the lemon in half and squeeze onto the mushroom ptitim. Add the chopped basil, parmesan, salt and pepper, and gently mix just to coat the ptitim. You can drizzle a little more olive oil on top and garnish with basil leaves. Serve hot.

I hope you enjoy these recipes. You can also serve the ptitim for breakfast – toast the grains in coconut oil and then cook in coconut liquid (in Israel, they are not allowed to use the word ‘coconut milk’ because people might confuse it with a dairy product!!) and a little maple syrup. Throw in a chopped apple or a handful of dried fruit. Add a teaspoon of cinnamon as it cooks, and in 15 minutes you have a hearty hot breakfast. Top with sliced banana and some extra milk or coconut liquid. Let me know how these turned out for you if you do try them.

As always, thank you for reading. If you haven’t already please subscribe and be on the lookout for more Israeli life, culture, sights, and of course FOOD!!!!

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