Bouillabaisse may be Marseille's most famous dish, but couscous is its most popular. Some even say that that level of popularly extends throughout France. Not too long ago, Atlantic Monthly said: "North African couscous has outstripped both rice and potatoes as the country's favorite accompaniment to meat, to become, arguably, the national food of France."
Couscous entered the country's mainstream through this bustling Mediterranean port, where a quarter of the city's 800,000 people are from the Maghreb, as Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia are collectively called. Since large-scale immigration from the region began in the 1950s, couscous has been steadily integrating itself into the French kitchens of those without any cultural ties to North Africa.
Couscous refers to both the crushed but unground semolina durum wheat product as well as the whole dish. The semolina is traditionally steamed in the perforated top of a two-tiered couscoussier by the aromatic vapors of the stew cooking below. Couscous as a grain is the Maghreb's long-standing staple, its position akin to rice in Asia; couscous as a dish is the region's most celebrated culinary legacy.
In France and the US fast-cooking, presteamed semolina sold in boxes is the most commonly used variety. But non-precooked couscous, sold in bulk, is often preferred. It cooks more slowly, absorbs flavors better, and is more likely to achieve the desired texture. The aim is light, fluffy grains that are separate, moist, and tender, but not mushy.
But cooking the grains just right requires patience. "It's the toughest part," says Simone Nataf, a Tunisian Jew who divides her time between Marseille and Tunis. The semolina has to be moistened before it can be placed in the couscoussier for at least two steamings. (Algerians steam it a third time.) Between steamings, the couscous is removed and rested, and any lumps are broken up.
"The trick is using your hands," explains Aicha Muniga, a retired Moroccan teacher from the coast near Rabat, during a hands-on lesson in this delicate process.
The stew can be sweet or salty, or both. It can include vegetables, meats, poultry, or even fish. Recipes differ greatly among regions, villages, even families, with seemingly endless varieties and variations.
Tunisians are famous for their liberal side servings of a fiery red-chile sauce called harissa. It's popular with Algerians, but less so with Moroccans, and Mrs. Muniga wasn't the only one of her compatriots to dismiss the sauce when asked about it, "because of lack of flavor and imagination." But good, homemade harissa adds a different dimension of taste, a tangy kick to the dish, and it is easy to see such comments as rhetoric in a competitive, culinary rivalry.
The quality and quantity of couscous available in Marseille is staggering. Restaurants draw large numbers, and the city's eclectic ethnic mix is found hunched side by side over conical piles of steaming couscous.
The moderately priced La Kahena in the Vieux Port offers arguably the city's tastiest option. The restaurant has been making everything from scratch including a dazzling harissa sauce since 1978.
"We don't focus on the visual aspects, but on the way to cook couscous," says Ahmed, the affable co-proprietor. Half his clientele are pieds-noirs, North African-born French who have returned to France.
"They bring their families," Ahmed explains. "They are comfortable here." Muniga offers an alternative reason: "They don't know how to make couscous, because in Morocco, in Algeria, they had servants. They never learned." But, she adds, they recognize and demand good couscous.
The quicker, cheaper Sur Le Pouce, in the largely North African Belsunce neighborhood, is another excellent option. It's a noisy place, with worn marble tables set close together.
"Eighty percent of the couscous restaurants in Marseille are Tunisian-owned," Ahmed says with pride. But the restaurants seem to serve a somewhat universal form of couscous, a mix derived from the various parts of the Maghreb, from France, and from elsewhere, appropriately mimicking the city that itself is a rich cultural stew.
This colorful Tunisian specialty is a favorite of Paula Wolfert, author of numerous books on Mediterranean cuisine, including 'Couscous and Other Good Foods From Morocco.'
We have adapted her recipe to include boxed couscous, which is shunned by purists but more convenient than the alternative of multiple steamings in a couscoussier.
1/2 pound dill and fennel leaves
1/2 pound parsley
Handful of celery leaves
Handful of carrot tops
1/2 pound scallions and leeks
2 boxes (10 ounces each) of plain couscous
1/2 cup olive oil
1 cup chopped onion
3 tablespoons tomato paste
2 tablespoons crushed garlic
2 teaspoons paprika
2 teaspoons salt, or to taste
2 teaspoons ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground caraway
1-1/2 to 2 teaspoons dried red-pepper flakes
1 fresh green chili, stemmed, seeded, and minced
1 red bell pepper, stemmed, seeded, and cut into long slices
6 whole, peeled garlic cloves
Wash the greens under running water. Drain and roughly chop. Wash and chop the scallions and leeks. Steam the greens, scallions, and leeks, covered, for 30 minutes. Remove from the heat and allow to cool, uncovered. When cool enough to handle, squeeze out excess moisture and set aside.
Prepare couscous according to package instructions. Set aside.
Heat the oil in a 10- or 12-inch skillet and add the onion. Cook 2 to 3 minutes to soften; add the tomato paste and cook, stirring, until the paste glistens. Add the crushed garlic, paprika, salt, coriander, caraway, and red pepper flakes, and cook slowly until the mixture is well blended. Add 1 cup water, cover, and cook for 15 minutes.
Remove the skillet from the heat. Stir the couscous into the contents of the skillet until well blended. Stir in the steamed greens, leeks, and scallions, and mix well. Turn out the couscous onto a warmed serving dish. With a fork, break up lumps. Decorate the dish with the red-pepper slices, whole garlic cloves, and green chili.