One theory about how couscous got its name says that it is derived from an African word meaning "pecked at," because the small, grainy pellets resemble the rolled bits of food a bird feeds its young.
Another -- shades of Edgar Allan Poe -- is that it is an onomatopoeic word.
I like the second explanation, and I can't think of another food that could be used to illustrate the meaning of onomatopoeia, which you will remember from high school English is a word formed by imitating a natural sound associated with an object or action. Examples are buzz, hum, hiss and all the clanking, clanging, tinkling words of Poe's poem "The Bells."
Couscous, pronounced KOOS-koos, is said to simulate the noise made by steam passing through the holes of the special utensil in which it is cooked.
The name refers both to the rice-shaped pasta made from semolina flour that is a staple of North Africa, and to the Moroccan casserole in which the pasta is cooked with meats or seafood and vegetables.
Used to be, all couscous required long steaming in a special pot called a couscoussiere -- or, for a makeshift arrangement, in a colander lined with cheesecloth and set inside a kettle.
You can still prepare it that way, but it is much quicker and easier -- if less authentic -- to start with the precooked couscous now available in many supermarkets and at stores that carry Middle Eastern foods. This couscous only needs to soak in boiling water for a few minutes.
With couscous, it is traditional to serve the fiery Tunisian sauce called harissa, pronounced hah-REE-suh. So far as I know, harissa is not an onomatopoeic word -- unless it makes you sneeze.
Harissa is made from dried red chilies, garlic and olive oil. Besides flavoring couscous, it is used to season soups, stews and other dishes. It can be found in jars or cans at Middle Eastern markets.
with couscous and harissa
1 pound shrimp (16 to 20 per pound)
salt and pepper to taste
2 cups cooked couscous (see recipe)
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/4 cup harissa
3/4 cup garlic butter (see recipe)
1/4 cup chopped parsley
Peel and devein raw shrimp and season to taste with salt and pepper. Cook on a hot grill or skillet, using a few drops of oil.
Pack couscous in 4-ounce cups and unmold on center of each serving plate. Arrange cooked shrimp around the couscous.
For the sauce, heat wine and harissa in a small skillet, then whisk in garlic butter until smooth and warm. Do not allow it to boil; boiling will cause the sauce to break down or separate.
Pour sauce over the shrimp, garnish with chopped parsley and serve at once.
Makes 2 to 2 1/2 cups.
3/4 cup water
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon olive oil
1/2 pound couscous
2 to 3 teaspoons garlic butter (recipe follows)
In large saucepan, bring water to a boil. Add salt and olive oil. Remove from heat and sprinkle couscous in the water, stirring gently. Cover and let set for 2 or 3 minutes so that the grains swell.
Uncover, add garlic butter and dry over low heat for 2 to 3 minutes, separating the grains with a fork.
Makes about 1 cup.
1 cup butter, softened
1 tablespoon finely minced garlic
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
1 tablespoon lemon juice
salt and pepper to taste
Place all ingredients in blender and blend at medium speed.
Extra may be used for garlic bread or to season vegetables.
L Waltrina Stovall is the food editor of Dallas Life Magazine.