You Call That Couscous?

Naming a Side Dish Goes One Step Too Farfel

‘Tis A Farfel Farfel Better Thing: For a time, what we call Israeli couscous was known as ‘Ben-Guron rice.’
Thinkstock
‘Tis A Farfel Farfel Better Thing: For a time, what we call Israeli couscous was known as ‘Ben-Guron rice.’

By Philologos

Published December 30, 2012, issue of January 04, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

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.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • What can we learn from tragedies like the rampage in suburban Kansas City? For one thing, we must keep our eyes on the real threats that we as Jews face.
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • "Sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather." Share this moving Passover essay!
  • Getting ready for Seder? Chag Sameach! http://jd.fo/q3LO2
  • "We are not so far removed from the tragedies of the past, and as Jews sit down to the Seder meal, this event is a teachable moment of how the hatred of Jews-as-Other is still alive and well. It is not realistic to be complacent."
  • Aperitif Cocktail, Tequila Shot, Tom Collins or Vodka Soda — Which son do you relate to?
  • Elvis craved bacon on tour. Michael Jackson craved matzo ball soup. We've got the recipe.
  • This is the face of hatred.
  • What could be wrong with a bunch of guys kicking back with a steak and a couple of beers and talking about the Seder? Try everything. #ManSeder
  • BREAKING: Smirking killer singled out Jews for death in suburban Kansas City rampage. 3 die in bloody rampage at JCC and retirement home.
  • Real exodus? For Mimi Minsky, it's screaming kids and demanding hubby on way down to Miami, not matzo in the desert.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.