What Is Couscous?

We all know and love couscous, but do you know what couscous is, where it comes from or how it’s made? Hint: it doesn’t grow on bushes or trees.

August 13, 2021

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Organic couscous, uncooked

Photo by: Mariha-kitchen/Getty Images

Mariha-kitchen/Getty Images

By Fraya Berg for Food Network Kitchen

Fraya is a chef and contributing writer at Food Network.

Perhaps you’ve bought couscous at the supermarket and made it dozens of times. Or maybe you’ve eaten it on a restaurant menu. Whatever the case, you’re wondering: what, exactly is couscous? There are other questions too: what is Israeli couscous and is that different from pearl couscous? We spent some time doing a deep dive to bring you everything you’re wondering and need to know.



Cuscus Tagine with calamari

Photo by: Al Gonzalez/Getty Images

Al Gonzalez/Getty Images

What Is Couscous?

Contrary to popular belief, couscous is neither a grain nor a seed; it’s a form of pasta made from a dry mixture of semolina and water that’s rolled in very tiny irregular pieces. When couscous was made daily by hand, a bowl of semolina was mixed and tossed while water was gradually added and rubbed into the mixture. Traditionally handmade couscous is steamed in a pot called a couscoussier and takes three individual steamings to cook. This type of couscous is Moroccan couscous, named for where it originated. It is the tiniest form of couscous and is what most people think of as couscous. In the U.S., Moroccan-style couscous is manufactured, pre-steamed, dried and packaged in handy four-portion-sized boxes available everywhere. All we have to do is pour the right amount of boiling water over it, cover it, come back 5 minutes later and it’s ready to eat. Cooks who lived 300 years ago would be envious.

Couscous is a starch, and as such, is often the main portion of most meals in North African cultures where meat is scarce. Like rice, couscous is a blank canvas that can take on any flavors you want to add. Mixing it up and creating something new is what being inspired by cooking and ingredients is all about. The 5-minute cook time for couscous gives you extra minutes to concentrate on what amazing flavor combos you’ll be adding.



Couscous is a traditional Berber dish of semolina(granules of durum wheat) which is cooked by steaming. It is traditionally served with a meat or vegetable stew spooned over it. Couscous is a staple food throughout the North African cuisines of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Mauritania and Libya.Semolina is sprinkled with water and rolled with the hands to form small pellets.

Photo by: Photo by Ami Faran/Getty Images

Photo by Ami Faran/Getty Images

What Is Couscous Made Of?

All couscous is made from semolina. Semolina is the name we give to flour that is ground from durum wheat. Durum wheat is a very hard wheat, higher in protein than the wheat all-purpose flour is made from. Semolina is golden yellow and gives couscous a nuttier taste than a pasta made with all-purpose flour. Keep in mind when using couscous that it is made from wheat and therefore, it’s not gluten-free.



Photo by: Michelle Arnold / EyeEm/Getty Images

Michelle Arnold / EyeEm/Getty Images

What Is Israeli Couscous?

Israeli couscous is made from the same semolina flour that Moroccan couscous is, but the balls of dough are larger and more consistently round. Israeli couscous is technically a pasta, so it’s cooked in excess amounts of salted water just like pasta and it takes eight to ten minutes to cook. Israeli couscous was invented in Israel in the 1950’s when grains were scarce and the government needed to feed the masses of immigrants arriving daily.

What Is Pearl Couscous?

Pearl Couscous is just another name for Israeli couscous. When either are packaged in clear packaging, they do look like small pearls, hence the name.



Couscous soaking in hot water. Decorative surface. Light effect.

Photo by: annick vanderschelden photography/Getty Images

annick vanderschelden photography/Getty Images

How Do You Cook Couscous?

As we discussed already, true handmade Moroccan couscous is steamed three times in a steamer called a couscoussier. Here’s how to cook the instant couscous that is readily available in most supermarkets.

  1. Bring 1 part of water to a boil in a saucepan. Alternatively, you can simply pour boiling water into a bowl. Stir in 1 part couscous.
  2. Remove the water from the heat, cover the saucepan with a lid or plastic wrap and wait for five minutes.
  3. Remove the lid and fluff with a fork to break up the grains.


Ptitim or Birdy, Israeli pasta couscous with tomatoes and herbs/

Photo by: Ivannag82/Getty Images

Ivannag82/Getty Images

How Do You Cook Israeli Couscous?

Israeli couscous is much larger than instant couscous, and as such, needs to be cooked in a larger amount of salted water the same way you would cook pasta.

  1. When cooking Israeli couscous, you can amp up the flavor by toasting it before adding the water. To do this, heat a bit of oil in a saucepot and add the Israeli couscous. Cook it over medium-high heat and stir until the individual grains turn golden brown. Remove the couscous from the saucepot.
  2. Fill the saucepot with a large amount of salted water (or, for even more flavor, any type of stock) and bring the liquid to a boil. Add the toasted couscous.
  3. Cook the couscous just like pasta, until it’s tender with a tiny bit of toothsome bite.

Couscous Recipes



Food Network Kitchen’s Perfect Couscous, as seen on Food Network.

Photo by: Renee Comet

Renee Comet

Perfect couscous is so easy to achieve - all you need is a pot with a tight-fitting lid. Remember to give it a quick stir with a fork immediately after the timer goes off; if you don’t, it will keep the shape of the pot you cook it in and won’t be light and fluffy.



Photo by: Antonis Achilleos

Antonis Achilleos

Adding fresh cherries to Israeli couscous is what makes this dish out of the ordinary. The sweetness of the fruit paired with the salty tang of feta cheese and the bite of the green onion is a perfect balance of all the flavors that excite your tastebuds.



A semi mixed white sauce in a small blue bowl

©marcus nilsson, Food Stylist: Jamie Kimm Prop stylist: Robyn Glaser

marcus nilsson, Food Stylist: Jamie Kimm Prop stylist: Robyn Glaser

When the aromas of this Moroccan Couscous fill the kitchen, you’ll be instantly transported to a market in Morocco. Serve it with any roast or vegetable and a big salad, and dinner is done.

Weeknight Cooking

Weeknight Cooking



Pearl couscous has such a great chewy texture, and in this dish the tomatoes become a creamy sauce, making it a versatile side dish for so many meals. You can always switch up the herbs to match the rest of the meal: basil for Italian, tarragon for French - you get the idea.



Food stylist: Jamie Kimm Prop Stylist: Marina Malchin ,Food stylist: Jamie Kimm Prop Stylist: Marina Malchin

Photo by: Antonis Achilleos

Antonis Achilleos

For a weeknight when you want a lighter meal, Grilled Vegetables with Couscous and Yogurt Sauce is the perfect dinner. Each vegetable brings its distinct flavor to the mix and grilling them enhances all the flavors. Add some fresh herbs to the yogurt for a special touch.



Chef Name: Food Network Kitchen Full Recipe Name: Couscous Salad with Tomatoes and Mint Talent Recipe: FNK Recipe: Food Network Kitchen’s Couscous Salad with Tomatoes and Mint, as seen on Food Network Project: Foodnetwork.com, CINCO/SUMMER/FATHERSDAY Show Name: How to Boil Water

Photo by: Renee Comet ©2013, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved.

Renee Comet, 2013, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved.

The fact that couscous is so versatile is one of the reasons it’s so popular. Case in point: this delicious couscous salad.



Photo by: Charles Masters

Charles Masters

Warm Moroccan spices are the flavors in this chicken and couscous recipe, with apricots and chickpeas making it even more like a typical Moroccan dish. Everything tossed together gives you a serious bowl of comfort food.

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