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Couscous is Big in the Capital

Paris' Love Affair with Semolina

Couscous Bedaoui by Meera Freeman

Couscous has almost become a national dish in France. Perennially popular, couscous is even offered in company cafeterias where it enjoys more success than paella and pot roast. Writer and epicurean George Sand, mistress of Frédéric Chopin, is reputedly responsible for the first published recipe of “kous-kous” around the time of the French colonization of Algeria in the 19th century.

Before couscous was considered to be a main course all on its own, the semolina grain was traditionally served as a side dish in French households, prepared with milk, honey, hard-boiled eggs, raisins, sugar and butter.

In the 1960s, with the onset of North African immigration to France, couscous “à la française” became a fixture in the French diet with the addition of grilled kebabs, spicy merguez sausage and roasted lamb. According to the traditional Algerian recipe, couscous is prepared with turnips, chicken and fennel, while couscous with tomatoes, potatoes and lamb is associated with the Kabyle people from the mountainous northern region of the country—Kabyls aren't Arabs; they're an African Berber tribe.

Ksar Char-Bagh

Couscous affords chefs a great deal of freedom and room for interpretation. Take Alain Passard of Arpège, who serves Argan oil-scented semolina as an accompaniment to his legendary vegetable dishes, or Damien Durand of Ksar Char-Bagh restaurant in Marrakech, Morocco, who composes his successful lobster couscous from a saffron-infused semolina with a fennel bisque.

Semolina adapts nicely to almost all kinds of sauces. However, in better Parisian couscous restaurants, the crowning glory is usually a very high quality marga or broth, as well ras el hanout, a fragrant blend of fine spices used to season meat. Couscous has become such a staple in Parisian kitchens that even some of the city’s Brazilian restaurants serve cuscuz de milho, made with corn and manioc flour. Even if its resemblance to North African couscous is remote, "Brazilian couscous" proves that this grain is growing in popularity the world over
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Quality couscous can be enjoyed at the following favorite Parisian restaurants:

La Boule Rouge
1, rue de la Boule-Rouge
75009 Paris
01 47 70 43 90
Couscous with dried apricots and pumpkin is one of the traditional Jewish-Tunisian specialties at this family-style restaurant, where on Saturdays patrons can indulge in a complete fish-based dinner.

Mansouria
11, rue Faidherbe
75011 Paris
01 43 71 00 16
Fatema Hal’s celebrated Moroccan restaurant is renowned for her ras el hanout, setting her refined, exotic cooking far apart from the rest.

La Maison de Charly
97, bd Gouvion-Saint-Cyr
75017 Paris
01 45 74 34 62
This is by far the most generous Moroccan restaurant in Paris where a 29 euro lunch menu includes aromatic appetizers, fine couscous served with a delicious broth and a variety of grilled and roasted meats.

Wally le Saharien

36, rue Rodier
75009 Paris
01 42 85 51 90
Back in the 1970s, Wally Chouaki was the first to introduce Parisians to couscous au naturel, served plain without broth or vegetables.

L'Atlas
10, bd Saint-Germain
75005 Paris
01 46 33 86 98
Benjamin Eljaziri puts together a memorable tagine made with lamb brain and mild garlic, accompanied by excellent couscous with raisins, chick peas and a very aromatic broth.


A Season in Morocco: A Culinary Journey

Learn more about cooking the favorite foods of Morocco from Meera Freeman, whose "thirty-year love affair" with the country has culminated in this effort, part travelogue, part cookbook. The image of Couscous Bedaoui featured above was taken from the book, which features a fine recipe for the dish, as well as other couscous dishes.

(Updated: 09/13/10 NW)

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