The Origins of Couscous

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Culinary historian Lucie Bolens is said to have described primitive pots of couscous found in tombs dating back to the reign of the Berber king Massinissa.

Couscous is the form in which North Africans preserved, prepared and cooked cereals. It seems to be attested, for the time of Massinissa, by couscoussiers found in burials, but does not seem to have reached Tripolitania towards the east. Dr. Lucie Bolens, Professor of History at the University of Geneva.

The use of the verb "to seem" by Lucie Bolens is not insignificant. It is necessary to recall that this is a hypothesis, now invalidated by the work of the Institute of Archaeology of Algiers.

Many researchers have begun to refer to the hypothesis that the origin of couscous dates back to the time of Massinissa. Mostly based on the work and research of G. Camps on the Numidian King.
However, going back to his research, there is no evidence that couscous existed at that time. Houria Cherid, Institute of Archaeology at the University of Algiers.

Marianne Brisville, a doctor of history, confirms the idea that couscous appeared in the Middle Ages (and not during Antiquity). According to her, couscous originated in the Middle Ages in the Maghreb, and more precisely in the Western and Central Maghreb (present-day Morocco and Algeria), from where it spread to the Iberian Peninsula (Andalusia) as well as to the Eastern Maghreb (present-day Tunisia) and probably to Sicily, which was Muslim between the 9th and 11th centuries.

Kilien Stengel, a researcher at the European Institute of Food History and Culture, states in his book that the dish appeared in Morocco in the 10th century.

Thus, as a conquering country, Morocco under the Almoravid dynasty exported couscous to several countries in the northern Mediterranean. The Almohads also helped to strengthen the spread of this dish in the Iberian Peninsula but also to propagate it in the Eastern Maghreb

The fortunes of this language promoted by the rulers can be compared to the spread in Andalusia and Ifriqiya of dishes originating from the Maghrib Al Aqsa, starting with couscous. Mehdi Ghouirgate.

It is in this context and period that couscous first appears in an Andalusian recipe manuscript. Couscous in this manuscript is described as originating from the city of Marrakech, the capital of the Empire. In some Middle Eastern countries, couscous was also known as al maghribiyya (the Moroccan).

For example, in a recipe book written in Aleppo in the 13th century, couscous is described as Moroccan (couscous al-maghribi).

In the 16th century, a trace of this dish is found later in the book of Hassan al-Wazzan, also known as Leon the African. The explorer who travelled throughout North Africa describes the preparation and consumption of couscous in Morocco in detail: in Fez and in the Haha region (ihahan tribe).

In winter they eat salted flesh, with a meat they call cuscusu, which is made of paste that they cook in earthen pots pierced to receive the smoke from the others that are near. Leon the African.
Extract from the book.

Other works throughout history testify to the presence of this dish in Morocco, such as a certain manuscript of more than 500 recipes written by an anonymous Andalusian author called the Book of Cuisine in the Maghreb and Andalusia during the Almohad Era. This is the oldest literary record of Moroccan vegetable couscous, dating from the 13th century. In this work, the author refers to a recipe from Marrakech known as "couscous fitîyânî". This is a couscous eaten particularly by soldiers. This manuscript was found by Georges Séraphin Colin in Morocco. It is now kept at the BNF in Paris.

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References :

Kitâb al-Tabîkh fi'l-Maghrib wa'l-Andalus fi'asr al-Muwahhidin.

Moroccan civilisation: arts and cultures, Mohamed Sijelmassi, Abdelkebir Khatibi.

The Almohad Order (1120-1269): A new anthropological reading, Mehdi Ghouirgate.

Kitâb al-wusla ilâ l-habîb fi wasf al-tayyabât wa l-tîb.

Lucie Bolens, La cuisine andalouse, un art de vivre, XIe-XIIIe siècle.

And the Middle Ages invented couscous, Marianne Brisville.