Algerian Berbers in the east of the country, have a particular fondness for semolina. Semolina couscous and semolina flat bread called "kesra" or "aghrum" are staple foods. One or the other is eaten at almost every meal.
My mother made semolina couscous or semolina bread everyday. I do not remember a single day of my life in her home without semolina. Algerians sometimes say that if you have semolina and a tagine, you will never go hungry, because you can always make kesra.
Kesra is cooked on a flat round griddle. In Algeria clay griddles are also called tagines (remember tagine simply means pot or pan) and metal ones are called tawa. You can use a Mexican comal for tortillas or the base of a flameware tagine to make this bread.
Algerian tagine for kesra bread.
Kesra and other breads are eaten with marqas (saucier tagines), soups salads, lentil dips, bean or chick pea soups and salads.
In North Africa, semolina flour is also used to make baghrir (breakfast pancakes), for warka pastry leaves, and of course pasta. There are many traditional North African pasta shapes, especially in Algeria and Tunisia.
Semolina couscous is actually a type of pasta. It is a Berber creation and the staff of life in the Magrhreb (also spelled Magrhib) countries of Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco. Clever Berbers also invented the couscoussier, the vessel in which couscous is steamed. It's basically a tall pot with a steamer insert.
Then later from clay
Inexpensive aluminum couscoussiers are ubiquitous in North Africa now. However, there's also a demand for expensive French-Algerian desgined and Italian made couscoussiers. These are by Alessi and cost over $400.
One of the earliest written references is in an anonymous thirteenth century Moorish cookbook. There is some evidence that the style of cooking couscous has it's origins in West Africa where couscous dishes are oftentimes made with millet.
There are written references on how quickly couscous spread to the Mashriq or Arab Levant, especially berkukis (large couscous), that later became called Maghribiyya meaning to make like the Maghrib, is a clear reference to it's origins. A 13th century Syrian historian describes four recipes for couscous, one of them is called Maghribian.
Its spread into Europe began with the Moors from Algeria and Morocco who occupied the Iberian peninsula from the 8th-15th centuries and the Saracens from Algeria and Tunisia who ruled Sicily from the 9th-11th centuries.
The Moors called couscous alcuzcuz. The Spanish Inquisition included purging the consumption of couscous but a derivative dish called migas thrived long enough for the Spanish to take it to Mexico.
The Mexican dish called migas or migajas differs from the Spanish version, but is conceptually similar in that crumbs or tiny pieces of tortilla are used rather than bread as in Spanish versions.
In Portugal the upper classes still consumed couscous up to the 17th century. I have been unable to find any information regarding contemporary couscous consumption in Portugal. I do know that Spanish and other European chefs are currently preparing nouvelle couscous dishes.
The Saracen influence in Sicily is still celebrated in what is called cucina-arabic sicula. There is even an annual Cous Cous Fest. Sicilian cuscusu is usually prepared with fish like in the Mediterranean coast of North Africa.
The Portuguese or West Africans introduced cuscuz (also spelled cuzcuz) to Brazil where it has been consumed ever since and has led to very imaginative and elaborate spin off preparations including steamed cakes and puddings.
Couscous entered France long before the French invaded North Africa. Jean-Jacques Bouchard writes in 1630 of eating courcoussou in Toulon.
Another reference is in a letter dated January 12, 1699 Charles de Clairambault writes about a Moroccan ambassador and his entourage preparing couscousou in Brittany for Ramadan. Couscous is so popular in France that in a quote that I've often mentioned a conservative French politician called it "Conquest by Couscous" which as a French chef of Algerian descent I find personally satisfying. North African ranks in the top five of favorite so called ethnic cuisines in countries such as Belgium, Germany and the U.K.
Israeli couscous is toasted berkukis. Couscous and berkukis were introduced into Israel by North African Sephardic Jews.
Machine made berkukis are basically dense pasta balls. Hand made berkukis are much lighter and fluffier, basically oversized hand rolled couscous.
The largest modern manufacturers of couscous are French, Algerian and Tunisian owned mega-corporations.