Couscous (from Maghreb Arabic kuskusu, which is from Tamazight seksu) is a food which consists of grains made from semolina which are about 1mm or 1/16th inch in diameter (after cooking). In the United States couscous is known as a pasta, however in most other countries it is treated more like a grain in its own right.
Couscous is traditionally served under a meat or vegetable stew. The dish is the primary staple food throughout the Maghreb; in much of Algeria and eastern Morocco it is simply known as ta`aam طعام, "food". It is popular in the Maghreb the West African Sahel, in France, and parts of the Middle East, it's also very popular among Jews of North African descent. But this speciality is from a Berber origin.
When cooked couscous has a texture somewhere between American grits and Italian risotto. Couscous has to be steamed rather than boiled to prevent the grains sticking together; the couscous available to buy in most western supermarkets has been pre-steamed and dried. It is quick and easy to prepare by pouring the couscous grains into boiling water or stock, adding some vegetable oil and stirring. The couscous swells and within a few minutes is ready to serve. Pre-steamed couscous takes less time to prepare than dried pasta or grains such as rice.
The traditional North African method is to use a steamer called a couscoussière in French. The base is a tall metal pot shaped rather like an oil jar in which the meat and vegetables are cooked in a stew. On top of the base a steamer sits where the couscous is cooked, absorbing the flavours from the stew. The lid to the steamer has holes around its edge so that steam can escape.
In Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria, couscous is generally served with vegetables (carrots, turnips, etc.) cooked in a spicy broth, and some meat (generally, chicken or mutton). Such a dish is now popular in former colonial power France, where this particular preparation is generally implied by the word "couscous". Packaged sets containing a box of quick-preparation couscous and a can of vegetables and, generally, meat are sold in French grocery stores and supermarkets.
There are recipes from Brazil that use boiled couscous molded into timbale with other ingredients. Couscous can also be combined with meat or vegetables during cooking, and is often highly flavoured with aromatic spices.
The couscous grains are made from semolina (coarsely ground durum wheat) or, in some regions, from coarsely ground barley or millet. The semolina is sprinkled with water and rolled with the hands to form small pellets, sprinkled with dry semolina to keep the pellets separate, and then sieved. The pellets which are small enough to be finished grains of couscous fall through the sieve, the rest are again sprinkled with dry semolina and rolled into smaller pellets. This process continues until all the semolina has been formed into tiny grains of couscous.
This process is very labour-intensive. Traditionally, groups of women would come together and make a large batch of couscous grains over several days. These would then be dried in the sun and used for several months. Nowadays couscous is normally produced in factories, and is sold pre-made in markets around the world.
Berkoukes are pasta bullets made by the same process, but are larger than the grains of couscous.