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In The Family
What Is Couscous Exactly?

This sneaky grain is really closer to pasta.

Many of us think of couscous as a grain, like millet or fine bulgur. But it’s really closer in design to an Italian pasta, even if you never make a dough. Traditional handmade couscous is formed by moistening fine semolina flour with a few drops of water, then rubbing the flour between your hands to produce tiny grain-like pasta particles. The pressure from your palms shapes the couscous into round balls, and when they’re the right tiny size, they naturally fall through your fingers. The grains are then left to dry out a bit before cooking.

Boiling the pasta in water would disintegrate such small grains, so older couscous recipes call for wrapping the grains in a linen towel and suspending them over a pot of boiling water. The steam gently hydrates the flour to produce something suspiciously grain-like. Even if it’s really a sneaky pasta.

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Max Falkowitz

Max Falkowitz is a food and travel writer for The New York Times, Saveur, GQ, New York magazine’s Grub Street, and other outlets. He’s also the coauthor of The Dumpling Galaxy Cookbook with Helen You.