Algerian Couscous – Steamed couscous covered in a lamb and vegetable stew with chickpeas
Couscous Arabic: كسكس, kuskus is a North African and to a lesser extent Middle Eastern dish of steamed balls of semolina, traditionally served with a stew spooned on top. Couscous is also the name for the uncooked semolina balls.
Each family, village, province, country has their own version of stew to top the Couscous, but just about everyone has the same method for cooking the semolina grains – steaming.
Say goodbye to instant Couscous that has already been steamed. Sure it’s quick, but the texture isn’t at all the same as the light, ‘fluffy’ and tender steamed version, every grain separate from its neighbour, yet come together so harmoniously when scooped along with the flavoursome stew.
Yes steaming is the traditional and best way to cook Couscous.
Couscous is cooked in a Couscoussier, Kiskas كِسْكَاس couscous cooker that consists of, a deep pot for cooking the stew with a shallower steaming basket on top. I’m sure the earlier pot(s) were made of a more organic material however, these days they are often made of metals such as stainless steel.
I recommend buying a Couscoussier whether you’re really into North African food or not. As It’s not only great for this national dish of North Africa, you can cook soups and stews in the base pot and you can steam vegetables and other grains such as rice, in the steaming basket.
I call this Algerian Couscous even I’ve not followed an Algerian recipe from the web or otherwise. I have worked on perfecting this recipe for a few years now – yes that long! changing it each time and not always writing down what changes I made. So when I did get it right that one time which my husband remembers and reminds me of, it didn’t matter much because I forgot to write it down.
الحمد لله I remembered to write the recipe this time, as I was cooking.
I finally got my husband’s verbal approval “this is REAL Algerian Couscous” on the recipe I’m sharing today, that’s good enough for me to justify ‘Algerian’ in the title. Maybe I should have called it “Algerian-approved Couscous” instead.
I’ve not added so many vegetables to the stew just our favourites carrot, courgette, celery . In my husband’s family they often add turnip and korchef / cardoon, really you can add a whole variety of vegetables and legumes of your choosing.
Lamb is our favourite meat for couscous, though mutton or beef are good alternatives. I’m yet to try chicken stew with couscous.
In Algeria, Couscous is often called ṭa`ām طعام, literally meaning “food” and you can see why. It’s everything you could ever want or need in a plate of food – just my opinion.
For all my North African foodies who know their couscous and are thinking this dish looks too dry to be REAL Couscous. Rest assured, after I stopped photographing my husband went back and covered the couscous with the rest of the stew / sauce.
Algerian-style Couscous; steamed semolina grains with a lamb, vegetables and chickpea stew
- 2 tablespoon olive oil
- 500-750g halal lamb pieces, on the bone (I believe I used the leg cut)
- 1 ½ medium brown onions, finely chopped or grated
- 1 teaspoon Ras El Hanout spice mix
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 teaspoon ground coriander (or 3 tablespoon finely chopped coriander stem)
- ¾ teaspoon fine sea salt, or to taste
- ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon (cassia)
- ¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
- dash of harissa paste, or to taste
- 1 L water
- 2 small-medium carrots, washed, peeled and cut in half lengthwise
- 2 celery stalks, washed, trimmed and cut to same length as carrots
- 1-2 courgette, washed, trimmed and cut into quarters - cut in half crosswise then again lengthwise
- handful of cooked chickpeas (about ½ 400g tin, drained and washed)
- 250 grams fine couscous (not instant - it's already pre-steamed)
- 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil, divided plus more for greasing steaming basket
- 390 ml water*, divided
- small pinch of fine sea salt, to taste (don't go heavy on this remember, your stew will flavour the couscous)
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
- Over medium heat, warm oil in the base pot of your Couscoussier. Add meat, allow it to brown a few minutes before turning and browning on all sides. This should take about 8-10 minutes.Remove the meat from the pot and set aside.
- Reduce heat. In the same pot add onion and cook, stirring often and scraping if necessary to make sure the meat residue doesn't stick.Cook until onion is soft and translucent. about 5 minutes.
- Return meat to the pot along with spices and seasoning and cook for another few minutes, stirring often. Add water, increase heat and bring to a boil, cover but leave ajar - slightly open and reduce heat to a simmer. Allow to cook for 40 minutes before adding the vegetables. Allow to cook for another 20 minutes.
- While your stew is bubbling prepare the couscous. Place couscous in a large bowl, with a fork stir in ½ tablespoon olive oil or the traditional way by rubbing the couscous between your hands, until it's grain is evenly coated. In the same way you did for the oil, sprinkle and stir ¼ - ? cup water. Set aside. The key to couscous is not adding all the water at once or you will flood the semolina grains. It's better to add the water a little at a time.
- Once the stew has cooked for the allotted time, uncover. Grease the inside of the steaming basket with a little olive oil, place basket on top. Once you see the steam coming through it's time to add the couscous. Pour the couscous as evenly as you can, into the steaming basket. Once you see steam coming through the top of the couscous, cover and allow to steam for 10 minutes.
- Remove steaming basket and leave the stew to continue cooking uncovered. Pour couscous back into your large mixing bowl. Separate the grains with a fork or your hands (be careful it will be hot!), add a pinch of salt then gradually mix in ½ cup water in the same way as you did before. Place the steaming basket back on top of the stewing pot, allow the steam to come through, add your couscous to the basket, again in an even layer and repeat the steaming process for a further 10 minutes.
- Remove basket, add chickpeas to the stew then repeat above step for the couscous, except this time don't add salt and gradually stir in ¾ cup water instead.
- Remove the steaming basket and tip the couscous back into the mixing bowl, separate the grains and stir/rub in the remaining olive oil and butter.
- Serve couscous ideally in a large shallow serving dish/plate, decorate with vegetables from the stew, add meat to the centre and cover with plenty of sauce.
You may need more or less water for the couscous, depending on the quality of your couscous etc. I used homemade (not by me though!) couscous for this recipe but other brands, such as Zakia fine couscous work too. UK Cup measurements used, 1 cup = 250ml You can easily double this recipe, here is how; for the stew use twice as much meat, vegetables, water and chickpeas but only 1.5 times the amount of spices. For the couscous, use twice the amount couscous, water etc and cook both the stew and couscous for the same length of time as the original recipe.