Lebanese couscous
Lebanese couscous. Photo by Vered Guttman
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A couple of weeks ago I wrote about Israeli couscous. Since then, I’ve discovered a new player in the American league: the Lebanese couscous. It’s similar to the Israeli couscous, only bigger. And it jumped straight to the mainstream American kitchen by making its way to the shelves of Williams-Sonoma.

The same product has been sold in the U.S. in Middle Eastern markets for many years under the Lebanese name moghrabieh or by its Palestinian name maftoul, as I know it from Israel.

Calling it couscous is not solely for making it easier for the American ear. Even though these rolled semolina balls are more similar to pasta (and to the popular Israeli couscous), it is treated as couscous in the traditional Palestinian and Lebanese cuisines.

Just to sort out all the different types of couscous, here they are, from small to large:

The North African couscous is tiny rolled and dried semolina. It originated from the Maghreb and is popular all over the world. It is traditionally steamed over meat, chickpeas and vegetable soup with cinnamon, cumin and paprika.

Next in size is the Israeli couscous. It is known in Israel as ptitim - the Hebrew word for flakes. It is made from rolled hard wheat flour and then roasted. However, there’s no reason not to treat ptitim as real couscous, as it is traditionally prepared in Israel as a weeknight side dish, cooked with some fried onion, water and a little salt. The funny thing is that by claiming the name couscous, the product has drawn fire from time to time from critics of Israel who argued against what they saw as an Israeli adaptation of an Arab dish. And as anything that has to do with our region, this couscous is a matter of politics as well. In an unsuccessful boycott attempt of Israeli products at Trader Joe’s about three years ago, the U.S. Campaign for Boycott of Israel claimed that “the names of products such as 'Israeli couscous' are offensive as they ... claim a type of couscous that was traditionally produced by Palestinians and other Arabs for generations. This is racist advertising for cultural theft." Oy.

The largest in size is the Lebanese couscous, the moghrabieh, about 1/4 inch when cooked. Like the more familiar couscous, moghrabieh are rolled and dried semolina balls, but the size here does matter, and it makes a very hearty dish. The Lebanese name hints to the origin of all couscous dishes - the Maghreb. The same product, and even the way it is cooked and served, is very popular among the Palestinians, but is usually known as maftoul.

The way it is prepared is similar to the Moroccan or Tunisian way:
“It is a wonderful dish made with a combination of spices,” told me Nora Bustani, who lives in Beirut and whom I met in Washington when she wrote for the Washington Post until a few years ago. “Sometimes the spices are sold as a mix and some housewives do it themselves: cinnamon, caraway, pepper, a little cumin and of course salt and anise. The sauce is made of boiled skinless chicken and baby onions, chickpeas and chunks of juicy lamb first browned and cooked in the same spices. The sauce is served on the side and the pieces of chicken and meat are placed on the steamed pearls of moghrabieh to which you add some butter and spices (ghee in the old days).”

In Beirut, she added, “the tastiest moghrabieh is made and sold fresh every day at shops which sell the thin fresh equivalent of the phyllo dough used to make the cheese and meat cigars and the qatayef (dumpling style desserts) which are filled with ricotta or walnuts and doused in syrup.”

In the U.S., unfortunately, the only type of moghrabieh you can find is the dried one. Try to find it at your local Middle Eastern market where it is sold for about $6.50 for one kilo (2.25 pounds). The Williams-Sonoma version cost $14.95 for a package of 1.5 pounds.

Since the dish requires a lot of work, as Nora described, it is usually served “on a Sunday gathering or when people come over.”

Recipe: Lebanese couscous

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