We think we know couscous. In the Moroccan sense though, I’m not so sure. So let’s start with a quiz:
- What day of the week is couscous eaten?
- How is it cooked?
- With what foods does it implicitly always come, when someone says, ‘we’re having couscous’.
- What is the dairy product that is often used?
When I say we, really what I mean is, ‘I’, these are just some of the important things that I’ve learned about couscous since I’ve been learning and immersing myself in Moroccan culture over the last two years. So the answers are: a) mainly Fridays b) it’s steamed above the meat and vegetables c) usually there is always lamb (or another meat) squash, courgettes, carrots, sometimes a few chic-peas and a rich broth-like gravy to be poured on top, not to mention the herbs and spices! d) a salty fermented sheep-milk butter called ‘smen’ is often rubbed into the couscous as it is separated. Smen, now there is an easy name to remember!
Twice now has couscous lived up to its Moroccan reputation for me. The idea of couscous in Morocco is something far from the quick-boil stuff that we imagine elsewhere. It symbolises a labour of love to be shared and enjoyed with family, friends and guests. Perhaps like a roast dinner, but maybe with fewer implications of stress. It is also a lot tastier than any couscous I’ve eaten in Europe. When it’s steamed the couscous itself takes on all the flavour of the meat, vegetables and spices.
The first time couscous lived up to symbolising Moroccan hospitality and good-will was in my friend’s flat in Rabat. We were invited to have couscous with the family living upstairs, but we’d already arranged to eat lunch with friends. Later that evening when I came back after a mini-mission around Rabat, the daughter-in-law came and said that they still wanted us to have some couscous. I said that they shouldn’t have, but thank you very, very much (or something to that effect in imperfect French). I was not expecting the small feast that descended from the big house above. It was about 9pm and I was presented with a steaming hot plate of couscous. The size of the gesture was quite literally far larger than what we knew what to do with. I carried the plate over to the fridge and sized it up against the width of the fridge – the plate was far too big for any shelf of the normal size stand-up fridge-freezer. We ate what we could and enjoyed it before the flies of the summer heat got to what wouldn’t fit in the fridge. That seems to be the kind of gesture that turns neighbours into friends, which is really what those neighbours are to my friend.
The second time the couscous really came as a welcome relief from the sometimes intensely stressful nature of travelling to do research. This was the picture above. This was couscous at the house of the academics that are helping me out here. I took quite a long path arriving to the place of my fieldwork and in a way I still haven’t arrived. The couscous at their house, rather than a sultry coffee in a meeting room, felt like a big hug of welcome. And like in Spain, following the meal, you aren’t shooed out the door, but invited to relax, perhaps to watch something that happens to be on a nearby TV, perhaps to sit back and have a tea.
So what can couscous tell me about research? It can tell me that it is personal. In Morocco this means that it doesn’t happen in meeting rooms and hotels. Real sharing of information happens where people are most comfortable, which is in their own homes. How I might repay all these cups of tea and meals of couscous? I’m not yet sure. I try to arrive with the small sweet biscuits that seem to be the European social equivalent of a bottle of wine. It isn’t always possible though. I think that I will be present shopping for more than just friends and family at the end of this trip.