How to Make Couscous From Scratch (And Two Fish Dishes to Go With It)

With a bowl of her couscous, one grandmother taught me something about independence. The other taught me to make fish soup and fish patties that go so well with couscous.

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Fish patties in tomato sauce, fish soup and couscous.
Fish patties in tomato sauce, fish soup and couscous.Credit: Matan Choufan
Matan Choufan
Matan Choufan
Matan Choufan
Matan Choufan

One of my first childhood memories is from Eilat, the city where I was born. My late grandmother Yasmina was sitting on the steps by the door to her house, dressed as usual in a loose, colorful dress, probably wearing gold jewelry as well, her headscarf unable to fully contain her coal-black hair. In her lap she held a large aluminum bowl as she crushed the couscous in her fingers. And on her face was a big smile.

When I was born, my grandmother was already a pensioner. I heard many stories about her strength: How she was widowed at a young age and supported and raised her children on her own with the same strong hands needed to prepare the couscous – as etched in my childhood memory. But I didn’t need to hear stories to notice her power. This was also made clear to me by her completely uninhibited mouth, which had never heard of political correctness, her vivid use of language and her youthful free spirit.

As a child, it was over a bowl of couscous at my grandmother’s house that I learned something about independence. On those Friday afternoons, when her children and grandchildren would gather at her home, she exclaimed how proud she was of me when I served myself the couscous and soup, while affectionately teasing my father, who only wanted to be served by her.

In this column, I don’t just ladle out the couscous for myself, but tell how to prepare it using traditional family recipes. At the same time, I will serve up some dishes from the sea – fish soup and fish patties – that my family customarily ate on Tuesdays, and which I learned to make from my other grandmother, Fortuna, or Mazal.

Making couscous.
Making couscous.Credit: Matan Choufan
Making couscous.
Making couscous.Credit: Matan Choufan

The family couscous

To make the couscous, I enlisted the aid of my aunt, Deda Malka, and my cousin, Tamar Malka, who very graciously agreed to pass on the family recipe.

To make homemade couscous, you need a couscoussier, (a double-chambered food steamer, available at any kitchen store), a couscous strainer (with relatively large holes) and a big, deep bowl (at least 36 centimeters in diameter). The couscous can be steamed over boiling water or over the soup that will be served with it.

Ingredients (for 6-8 servings):

1 kilo semolina

¾ cup canola oil

1 tbsp salt

50 gr clarified butter (optional)

Place the semolina in a wide, deep bowl. Pour the oil over it and sprinkle with the salt. Mix well, using your hands. Gradually pour ¾ cup water (180 ml) into the bowl while continuing to mix with your hands and crumbling any lumps that form. Let the mixture sit for 15 minutes and then transfer it to the couscous strainer: Place the mixture in the strainer, then “push” it through the strainer with circular motions with your hand so as to get rid of any lumps that remain (see photos, opposite page).

Fill the pot with at least a liter and a half of water and bring to a boil. Put the semolina mixture into the steamer, cover and steam for half an hour. Transfer the mixture to the bowl by turning the steamer over it, with holes facing up. Pour a cup and a half of water (360 ml) over the steamer. Remove the steamer and use a slotted spoon to stir the mixture together with the water. Set the mixture aside and let rest for 45 minutes. Then mix the couscous again with your hands, crumbling all lumps.

Bring the water in the pot back to a boil. Put the semolina mixture in the steamer, place atop the pot, cover and steam for an hour. At this point, you may spread some butter, clarified butter or vegetable oil over the mixture, but this is optional. After an hour, upend the steamer again over the bowl and pour 2 cups of water over it. Remove the steamer and mix the couscous well. Set aside to cool, then put it through the strainer once more so the couscous will be airy and light.

Fish patties in tomato sauce.
Fish patties in tomato sauce.Credit: Matan Choufan

Fish patties in tomato sauce

These patties are traditionally served with couscous and fish soup, but they are also wonderful in a sandwich with a spicy spread, lemons and fresh parsley.

Ingredients (for 18 patties):

½ bunch parsley, rinsed

1 white onion, peeled

2-3 garlic cloves

2 filets (220 gr) denis

(sea bream), skin removed

2 filets (450 gr) mussar

(red drum), skin removed

¼ stale baguette (or dry a fresh one in 130 degrees Celsius for about 10 minutes)

1 egg

1 tbsp olive oil

a pinch of salt and black pepper

canola oil for frying

For the sauce:

4 tbsp canola oil

1 tomato

100 gr tomato paste

1 garlic clove, crushed

1 cup water

a pinch of salt and black pepper

In a food processor, blend the parsley, onion and garlic and place in a bowl. Blend one filet of denis and one filet of mussar and add to the bowl. Finely mince the other two filets by hand with a knife and add to the bowl. Put the stale baguette into a separate bowl with water and let soak for 10 minutes. Then remove the bread from the water, squeeze it out well and add to the fish mixture along with the egg, olive oil, salt and pepper. Mix well with your hands to combine all the ingredients.

Preparing the sauce: In a wide, shallow saucepan, heat the oil over medium heat and grate in the tomato. Add the tomato paste, crushed garlic, water, salt and pepper, and stir. Lower the heat and cover.

Meanwhile, start frying the patties. Make 18 balls out of the mixture and flatten each one a bit (so they are shaped like mini-hamburgers). Heat the oil in a skillet and when it is hot, fry the patties in batches (about five each time) on both sides until golden brown (2-3 minutes per side). Place them in the sauce and simmer for at least 20 minutes.

Fish soup.
Fish soup.Credit: Matan Choufan

Fish soup

There are different versions of fish soup to go with couscous. This is the recipe I learned from my grandmother, who learned it from a Parisian friend who was a great fan of Tunisian cuisine. Whatever you do, she implored, don’t leave out the turnips.

Ingredients (for 6-8 servings):

1 white onion, peeled

1 tbsp canola oil

2 celery stalks, well-rinsed

1 tbsp paprika in oil, or dry paprika

100 gr tomato paste

1 tomato

1 heaping tbsp harissa

2 liters water

2 fish heads, cut in half

2 turnips

4 potatoes

1 fish weighing 1.3 kilos, sliced (I used burri – gray mullet)

a pinch of salt and coarsely ground black pepper

Chop the onion. Heat oil in a deep saucepan over medium heat and sauté onion until translucent. Coarsely chop celery and add to the pot. Stir a little, then add the paprika, tomato paste and harissa. Grate in the tomato and mix well. Add plenty of water (at least 2 liters), bring to a gentle boil, add the fish heads, lower the fire and cover. Simmer for an hour.

Remove the fish heads and simmer for another hour, uncovered, so that the soup reduces and thickens a bit. Peel the turnips and cut them in half. Then cut each half into quarters. Peel the potatoes and cut in half. Add the potatoes and turnips to the soup. Let the soup continue to simmer for another half hour, or until the turnips and potatoes are soft. Before serving, add the fish slices and simmer gently for 10 more minutes (taking care to keep the fish from drying out).

Serve in individual bowls alongside a deep dish of couscous and fish patties.