Couscous, a dish beloved far beyond North Africa

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A Moroccan chef prepares a traditional couscous dish in a restaurant in the capital Rabat. (AFP)
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A Libyan family prepares to eat a freshly cooked traditional couscous dish, with lamb, onions, chickpeas, and pumpkin, in a home in the capital Tripoli. (AFP)
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A freshly prepared traditional couscous dish, with lamb, onions, chickpeas, and pumpkin, being served in a home in the Libyan capital Tripoli. (AFP)
Updated 13 February 2018
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Couscous, a dish beloved far beyond North Africa

PARIS: Couscous may be the signature dish of North Africa, but steaming plates of the stew-topped semolina are also served up in West Africa and around the Mediterranean.
Since 1998 the Italian island of Sicily has been the unlikely host of the couscous-making world championship known as Cous Cous Fest, which bills itself as a “festival of cultural integration.”
Each September chefs convene on Sicily, whose Mediterranean location opposite Tunisia has made it a cultural crossroads throughout history, battling to be crowned couscous king or queen.
Palestinian chefs George Suheil Srour and Elias Bassous won the competition last year, with a couscous topped with grilled sea bream, pomegranate and fennel crumble.
In France, from the mid-20th century an influx of North African laborers from colonial territories and French expats returning after decolonization helped popularise the dish.
But here too, couscous already had a history.
In his 1534 novel “Gargantua,” the French writer Francois Rabelais described banquets on tables featuring meats of all kinds, accompanied by soups and couscous.
The 1938 version of the Larousse Gastronomique, France’s hallowed food bible, featured an entire chapter on the dish.
Spain also has long been gobbling couscous, not least due to centuries of Muslim rule on the Iberian peninsula.
“From the 10th century durum wheat was cultivated in Spain and couscous landed on the tables of the working classes,” write Hadjira Mouhoub and Claudine Rabaa in their book “The Adventures Of Couscous.”
But the local aristocracy was rather partial too, they added — as related in the 13th-century cookbook “The Excellences of the Table,” by Andalusian gastronome Ibn Razin Al Tujibi.


Morimoto: Ironclad flavor formula at celeb chef’s first UAE restaurant

Updated 16 August 2018
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Morimoto: Ironclad flavor formula at celeb chef’s first UAE restaurant

DUBAI: Dubai is no stranger to enormous glitzy restaurants, but even by the city’s larger-than-life standards, Morimoto — a new Japanese outlet from celebrity chef Masaharu Morimoto — stuns with its sheer size and scale. Spread across two floors of the Renaissance Downtown Hotel, the restaurant incorporates numerous spaces — from sushi bar and teppanyaki station to lounge areas, multiple private dining rooms and outdoor terraces boasting those ultimate Burj Khalifa views (ideal for the cooler months).
A giant paper lantern installation — a Morimoto signature — greets you at the entrance and dominates most of the space across the levels, but apart from the occasional Japanese accent the décor is all contemporary sophistication with a dash of edginess.
As a celebrity (“Iron”) chef, Morimoto has earned worldwide recognition for successfully adapting traditional Japanese flavors to international palates, and that is likely in part thanks to his respectful approach to the integrity of ingredients. This is evident here in the quality of produce that is used across the menu, most of it flown straight in from Japan — particularly for the sushi and teppan counters.
The ode to authenticity continues in the choice of kitchen staff too; the Japanese teppan head chef conjures up some culinary magic with his effortless flair — chopping, slicing and grilling some beautiful Hokkaido scallops, which he served me on a bed of greens with Japanese mayonnaise, and lightly seared Wagyu carpaccio, the provenance of which, down to the prefecture it comes from, he is happy to share. The results, served with some house-made wasabi, are delicious examples of how simplicity, when paired with quality, is really the secret recipe to great food.
You aren’t hemmed in when it comes to ordering either. Selections can be made from across all the different menus, wherever you are seated; for example, we tried some more-ish gyoza while sitting at the teppanyaki table. These, together with some grilled shisito peppers (basically Japanese padron peppers) speckled with ponzu sauce and Maldon sea salt, appropriately whetted our appetites.
Morimoto’s nod to Americanizing Japanese flavors is evident in dishes such as the Hamachi tacos and the tuna pizza, but he also draws inspiration from the various global locations he has restaurants in. His ‘angry chicken’ has become something of a signature dish — half a succulent roasted baby chicken, with the ‘anger’ coming from a spicy Indian-style garam masala marinade, a nod to his Mumbai venue. Paired with some roasted shisito peppers, this dish, while not strictly Japanese in nature, hits the spot when it comes to taste.
My litmus test for any contemporary Japanese concept is the miso black cod dish — everyone has a version, but few manage to nail it. While Morimoto’s version, served with a ginger soy reduction, may not be the best I’ve tried in Dubai, it is a respectable iteration, if a little on the too-sweet side. The butter-soft fish, willingly giving way to the slightest nudge of my fork, was excellent though, and it is a dish I’d happily order again.
While dessert selections range from s’mores to chocolate tarts, it’s the Asian-inspired mango parfait with coconut financier and green tea sorbet that caught my eye. It does provide a refreshing end to the meal, but I’m not sure all the flavors go together. Each element is good in and of itself, but there’s too much going on in one dish and together, they aren’t harmonious. I’d enjoy the mango and coconut concoction by itself, without the green tea overpowering it.
That’s a small blip on the radar for an otherwise great meal, made memorable not least by the smart, knowledgeable service. This, together with the varied menu, is what should ensure that the worryingly vast space will fill up, even if it is with returning punters working their way through the multitude of dishes.