On a recent visit to New York, I was handed a menu in a restaurant, on which appeared the entree “Blackened salmon on a bed of Israeli couscous.” “Blackened” I knew; that’s slightly charred in a spicy sauce. But what was “Israeli couscous”? I’d lived in Israel for more than 40 years and never encountered such a thing.
It’s always been my philosophy that if you see something new on a menu, you find out what it is by ordering it. I ordered blackened salmon with Israeli couscous. The salmon was delicious. The “Israeli couscous,” on the other hand, wasn’t new at all. Nor was it couscous. It was what is known in Hebrew as p’titim, and I must have eaten it at least 100 times.
Couscous is a North African dish composed of grayish pellets of grain (most commonly, semolina, a refined form of the durum wheat used for making pasta) that are slowly steamed over a stew of vegetables and/or meat until they fluff up and absorb the stew’s flavor, after which they are served with it on top of them. Of Berber origin, the word “couscous” is also used for the pellets themselves, which are traditionally made by a laborious method of wetting semolina flour with water, adding a bit of oil and rolling the mixture between the fingers into little balls. Nowadays, though the purists frown on it, there is also prepackaged couscous, which is steamed beforehand and needs only to be scalded with hot water in order to be ready to eat.
P’titim — the word means “flakes” in Hebrew — have the form of pellets, too, but they are a type of pasta, which is to say that they are made of flour mixed with water and egg yolk and then dried and stamped or grated into shape. Like other pasta, they are cooked by boiling and eaten with sauce or gravy. Generally served as a side dish, an accompanying starch that, like rice or potatoes, goes with a main course, they are similar to the farfel of Eastern European Jewry.
How did they come to be called “Israeli couscous”? Thereby, I discovered, hangs a tale. When the mass immigration of Jews from Middle Eastern countries arrived in Israel in the early 1950s, which were years of economic austerity and food rationing, one of the newcomers’ complaints was that they could not obtain the rice that was a staple of their traditional diet.