Some say the word couscous mimics the hissing sound steam makes as it rises from the bubbling liquid underneath the couscousiere, a large, round pot with a perforated bottom, and passes through the grains of durham hard wheat semolina inside. The word has come to mean both the grain used in preparing the Moroccan national dish and the dish itself.
Since foods made with grain are sacred in Morocco, couscous is traditionally served at the end of major feasts held for weddings, funerals or other important occasions. It typically follows dozens of earlier offerings, and is meant to demonstrate that the host has withheld nothing in his effort to assure that every appetite achieves shaban, or total satisfaction.
Often the already sated guests can’t do justice to the massive mound of grain, meat and vegetables, and the couscous is then offered to staff, musicians and any other hungry souls who have the good fortune to be nearby.
Less formally, Moroccans often find couscous a handy way to use leftovers for Friday’s lunch. It is rarely served for dinner, and is not considered a main course. In past times, the couscous was placed on a large round platter in the center of the table and people ate communally, serving themselves with their hand. Now most people use a spoon (the meat is so tender that a knife is unnecessary).
Unsurprisingly, when the colonial powers returned to Europe, couscous travelled with them. In The New Book of Middle Eastern Food, Claudia Roden reports that, according to French statistics, couscous has become the meal most often eaten outside of the home in France today. (Note that French couscous is based in the Algerian, not the Moroccan, model. Broth, grain, meat and vegetables are each served separately.)
In the United States, most couscous available is of the industrialized, pre-cooked, instant, medium-grain variety. While Moroccan traditionalists accustomed to laboriously hand-rolled couscous view this commercial product with dismay, Roden points out that it is widely used in North African restaurants and homes. And while traditionalists prefer their couscous steamed, the instructions on the packaged version could not be simpler: Bring liquid (water, broth, juice or a combination thereof) to a boil, stir in salt, pepper, couscous and maybe a pat or butter or a splash of oil, cover and remove from the heat. Let stand, unmolested, for five minutes, then fluff with a fork and, voila.