August 23rd, 2011


There’s a lot of interest in couscous and couscous salad recipes at the moment, and it seems to come from people thinking that couscous is a light option. Maybe it’s even part of some diet fad, I don’t know. Eat as much couscous as you can every lunchtime and lose all your thigh wobble, drop the spare tyre and smoothen facial wrinkles. Fill up on cucumber, tomato, mint and couscous for lunch, then eat as much chocolate as you like in the evening.

I don’t think so.

Let me tell you a story about the first time I encountered couscous. This would have been in 1974 when I was a teenager, the location being Paris, France. I’d been playing guitar down in the metro subways, singing my heart out with Bob Dylan, Loudon Wainwright, the Beatles and Roy Harper. Great singers and songwriters every one. This was my job, the way I earned a living, and not a bad one either.

But my lifestyle had become a bit too routine. Each day I’d wake up in my no stars hotel room, walk across the landing to go to the bathroom in the nude hoping nobody else was about, then get dressed pick up my guitar and head down to the Metro station at Poissoniere. With one single entrance ticket which cost around eighty old centimes I could spend three, four or even six hours down underground looking for the best pitches and singing the top songs from my extensive repertoire. The top five songs would always earn me about three times as much money as anything else for the same amount of time, but my creative spirit also needed diversity. It was often warm down below, and singing at full volume for an extensive period is hard physical exercise. So I’d be tired, thirsty and hungry by about three or four o’clock in the afternoon. Therein lies the problem.

Four O’clock in the afternoon is too late for lunch and too early for dinner.

So I’d go to the little supermarket and buy a can of tuna salad, a packet of peanuts and a baguette. Every day. Maybe a can of pâté or packet of saucisson sec, or wonderful camembert cheese but basically I was making myself sandwiches when what I really needed was a proper hot meal.

Then I met Jo.
Jo was an expatriate like myself, and he came from Malaysia. He had a cheeky manner, a swagger in his walk, long jet black hair and the French girls all thought he was extremely handsome. Jo worked with me as a bottler. What’s a bottler? Well it’s somebody who does the bottling for a performer : – )

Bottling is the art of collecting coins into a hat from passers by or a gathered crowd. I say art, because a bad bottler will just about double your cash flow compared with just leaving an empty guitar case on the floor, whereas a good bottler will more than triple it, thus providing one a half times the income of a sole busker, and supporting two people. It’s company too.

Jo liked to eat and drink and smoke and lots more besides, and he also taught me how to cook later on, but that’s another story. This one is about the couscous, I haven’t forgotten. So one day we’d been doing quite well at Gare St Lazare and Jo said let’s go eat. Ok, it ‘s four O’clock again. Where’s open? We could go in a café and order sandwiches or oeufs au plat (butter fried eggs).

– Do you like couscous?

– I don’t know I’ve never heard of it. What’s it like?

– I think you’ll like it. It’s cheap, nearby and you get a big plateful.

– OK

I was led into a little cafe with Arabic script styled writing on the plate glass windows and displays of brightly coloured pastries and sweets. Red, yellow, lime green, orange even. We ignored those and walked up a very narrow spiraling staircase at the back of the shop. I probably wouldn’t have done that on my own. Seated, the menu consisted of about nine different items, each of them beginning with couscous. Recipe details were displayed alongside each item. This one is couscous with chicken, that one with lamb, the next one is couscous with chicken and lamb. Three merguez sausages or one merguez with chicken or lamb. Mechoui is a large piece of lamb shank. Special is chicken, lamb and merguez. ‘Royale’ is everything.

I think we ordered the couscous with chicken, funny I don’t remember. What I do remember first is the harissa hot chile sauce. It blew my hat off with the first tiny taste so I was very careful with the little wooden spoon. Later I was to become a harissa addict, trailing all over London trying to find the genuine Tunisian variety and not the French imitation. Then I remember Jo teaching me how not to spoil the texture of the couscous grains by pouring too much liquid from the vegetable stew onto them. Just dampen them, don’t let them swim he said, or it goes all soggy, and I duly learned.

I enjoyed the meal. It was indeed tasty and satisfying, and I felt replenished and content, once the fire in my mouth had died down. Then a strange feeling started to stir in my belly. My head was already rushing and slightly dizzy from the carbohydrate boost. They don’t serve alcohol, so no beer or red wine was involved and yet I was feeling slightly high. Jo told me that they put a magic ingredient in the harissa sauce and this started to get me alarmed. Had I been spiked with exotic substances? Lebanese Red hiding in the pimento sauce? Or was there LSD in the mint tea? Paranoia was not an unknown mental state in the nineteen seventies for various reasons. My belly was starting to hurt like a dull toothache. More like a squashed leg with pins and needles actually. Walking along the boulevard I slowed down and explained my predicament to Jo. He laughed. That’s one of the things about couscous he said. It carries on expanding after you’ve eaten it.

It carries on expanding.

Yes that’s right. Couscous is the one meal which carries on expanding in your stomach. So if you eat as much as you can while you’re still at the eating stage, then there’s nowhere else for it to go once you get into the after effect expansion stage. That’s a lesson which I learned once, right at the beginning, and for some reason probably due to my inordinate fondness for couscous recipes of all types, it’s a lesson which I keep repeating on a regular basis.

So that’s all I wanted to explain really. When you’re making up your couscous salad recipe or couscous with seafood or traditional meat and vegetable stew, unless you can afford the luxury of sitting bloated in an easy chair for an hour, or lying flat on your back on the floor, then go easy on the amount of couscous grain you consume at one sitting. Just remember that it expands in your stomach, and adjust accordingly.

Well thanks for reading all the way down to here, and I hope I may have done some small service to the world with my little warning. You may at some point wish to visit the couscous recipe blog to read some more angles on my favourite dish, or check out some books from Amazon below.

by Andy Roberts, author of DARnet blog

Amazon UK couscous recipe bookshop