UNESCO lists “ordinary and special” couscous as an intangible world heritage site

Couscous, the Berber dish loved over the Maghreb region of northern Africa and beyond, joined the UN list of the world’s intangible cultural heritage.

The countries that sent the list to UNESCO – Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and Mauritania – may have their differences, but their common love for the cereal strain goes deep.

“Couscous, present at every social or cultural event, is at once ordinary and special,” their joint presentation claimed.

“Usually because of how often it is used in a family environment, and especially because of the unifying and reconciling role it plays in sociable occasions where food is shared.”

Mixed in, couscous is served with meat or fish, spicy stews, chickpeas and vegetables in a delicious variety of dishes.

The Moroccan restaurant owner Hicham Hazzoum was one of the couscous connoisseurs who applauded UNESCO.

“I think we are the only Arab countries that appreciate this dish,” he said. “It’s impossible not to eat it every Friday.

“Moroccans are crazy about couscous and even children love it. It shows that the couscous flame never goes out.”

Across the region, couscous – also known as Seksu, Kusksi and Kseksu – is as basic as rice or noodles to Asian cuisine, the base without which a meal is not complete.

Arabic dictionaries have been documenting “Kuskusi” since the 19th century, although it is known to be much older.

The regional pride in couscous was fully expressed in the countries’ joint nomination for “knowledge, knowledge and practices related to the production and consumption of couscous”.

“Women and men, young and old, sedentary and nomadic, from rural communities or from urban communities or from immigrant backgrounds, all identify with this element,” it streamed.

“Couscous ethos is the expression of social life.”

“Great unifier”

Tunisian chef Taieb Bouhadra said his country was proud of its different types of couscous.

“There are many varieties, almost every house has its own grain,” said the owner of the restaurant El Ali, in the old city of Tunis.

Couscous is made from wheat or barley, and sometimes from corn, millet or sorghum, which is ground into semolina.

This is rolled into pellets which are sieved and later soaked and steamed repeatedly.

“Women in particular play a fundamental role in the preparation and consumption of the dish, and in practicing and preserving the related symbolic value systems,” the newspaper says.

The girls learn not only the techniques but also the “songs, gestures, characteristic oral expressions and ritual organization” that accompany the process.

Algerian chef Rabah Ourrad said of making his couscous dishes: “I did not learn this in a cooking school. It has been decades to observe the mother, the sisters and all the North African women who are experts in this.”

In an often divided region, there were hopes that the common commandment would strengthen a sense of common identity.

After Algeria triggered the anger of regional rival Morocco four years ago by planning its own couscous nomination, the 2020 bid was an initiative of the Maghreb.

Ourrad also passionately argued that couscous could serve as the region’s great unifier.

Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia all have their own special styles, he said, but added: “We are all the same people, and the couscous is Maghrebi, the couscous is ours.”

Not everyone was fully on board with the murky couscous diplomacy, including Hazzoum, the Moroccan restaurant manager.

“I say this with all due respect to other countries,” he told AFP, “but Moroccan couscous is best.”