Couscous entered the intangible heritage of Unesco this Wednesday, December 16. The candidacy was brought for the first time by a union of circumstance between Morocco, Algeria, Mauritania and Tunisia. However, these four Maghreb countries never cease to emphasize their difference by offering variations of this ancestral dish – with vegetables, chicken, lamb’s head, octopus, snails or even onions… The only constant between all these traditions: a semolina base, a sauce and a steaming.
Not necessarily durum wheat!
Couscous relates above all to a technique consisting in transforming a cereal into more or less fine granules, by rolling this semolina. Dried, it has the merit of keeping for a long time without rotting. Over the centuries, the durum wheat base has also been replaced by barley in the Maghreb or by cassava or millet in the Sahel or Cameroon, and corn among the Fulani.
Already in medieval times, original variants appeared, explains Marianne Brisville, doctor of history at the University of Lyon-II and member of the CIHAM (history, archeology, literatures unit of medieval Christian and Muslim worlds), such as the fityānī prepared for Marrakech, made from bread crumbs.
The battle of the origins
If Morocco, Algeria, Mauritania and Tunisia have agreed to submit an application to Unesco, they are still fighting over the paternity of the couscous. The controversy has won over researchers. Historical sources evoke an appearance in the Sahel, in the south of present-day Algeria, others refer more broadly to the Maghreb, from Zab to Marrakech, via the Atlas.