Israeli couscous, the pearl-shaped wheat balls that are often mistaken for a grain, may have the distinction of being the first truly Israeli food product. Cooked up in 1950s Israel, the product was just one answer to the food shortages and rations that characterized the era. Whether called Israeli couscous, pearl couscous, ptitim, or “Ben-Gurion Rice,” the popularity of this unassuming staple has since spread across continents.
The story goes like this: during the tsena, or austerity period that followed the War of Independence, rice – a staple of the diet of many new immigrants to Israel – was scarce. So David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s resourceful first Prime Minister, approached the Osem food company about making an inexpensive, mass produced, wheat-based substitute for the popular grain. What they came up with was ptitim, a rice-shaped creation made from wheat paste that is toasted in the oven. When the product took off, Osem began producing ball-shaped ptitim, which they called “couscous” because of its likeness to the shape of that other favorite North African staple.
About a decade later Osem also started producing heart and star-shaped ptitim, making it an instant hit with children. Today it remains a youth favorite and has become a comfort food for many Israelis. “It therefore came as a shock to many Israelis when this humble staple made its way to the trendiest restaurants in New York and London, where it was reborn as ‘Israeli Couscous,’” writes Israeli culinary expert Janna Gur in her book “The Book of New Israeli Food”.
Besides the name and shape, Israeli couscous bares little resemblance to traditional couscous. According to cookbook author Mark Bittman in “How to Cook Everything Vegetarian,” while both traditional and Israeli couscous are made from semolina flour, Israeli couscous is “extruded through a round mold and toasted, giving it a more uniform and larger, pearllike shape, a nuttier flavor, and a chewier texture; it’s also more forgiving during cooking.” And except for the original shape, ptitim has nothing in common with rice, a labor-intensive grain. Israeli couscous is most akin to Italian pasta, in particular fregola and orzo.
Because of the confusion over Israeli couscous, there is some difference of opinion regarding the proper way to cook the little pearl-like balls and whether to treat it as a grain or as a pasta. Many recipes call for you to cook it in a pot of boiling water until tender and to drain it like pasta; some cooks combine it with boiling broth and let it sit; yet others cook it like rice.
It other variations it is simmered and even incorporated into dessert. Chef Charlie Trotter offers a recipe for “Israeli Couscous Custard with Kaffir Lime Sauce and Oven-Dried Strawberries” that requires the couscous to be simmered for 30 minutes in orange juice, sugar and water, in his cookbook “Charlie Trotter’s Desserts”.
However you decide to cook it – and whatever you choose to call it – there is no denying the versatility of Israeli couscous. In “Hip Kosher: 175 Easy-to Prepare Recipes for Today’s Kosher Cooks”, author Ronnie Fein talks about the many uses of ptitim. “Like any pasta, couscous can be covered with sauce or put into soup, and it is first-rate for salad because it looks good and mixes well with other small salad items.”
In her recipe for “Stir-Fried Couscous with Chicken, Dried Apricots, and Pistachios,” Fein makes an Asian-style stir-fry with Mediterranean flare that can be served hot or cold. The adaptability of Israeli couscous makes it the ideal base for any make-ahead dish, whether for entertaining, a potluck, or to have ready for Shabbat.
Stir-Fried Couscous with Chicken, Dried Apricots, and Pistachios Makes 4 Servings
1¾ cups Israeli couscous 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil 20 ounces boneless chicken breast, cut into bite-size chunks 4 thick scallions, chopped 1 cup chopped dried apricots 1 teaspoon ground cumin 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon 1 cup shelled pistachios Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1) Make the couscous according to the package directions. Set aside.
2) Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a wok, stir-fry pan, or sauté pan over medium heat. Add the chicken and stiry-fry for about 4 minutes or until the meat is white and cooked through. Dish out and set aside.
3) Place the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil in the pan. Add the scallions and cook for 1-2 minutes or until softened.
4) Add the apricots, cumin, and cinnamon and cook, stirring constantly, for another minute. Add the couscous and chicken and stir-fry for 2-3 minutes to distribute ingredients well.
5) Stir in the pistachio nuts. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Eat hot or let cool to lukewarm.
• Reprinted with permission from Ronnie Fein’s “Hip Kosher: 175 Easy-to Prepare Recipes for Today’s Kosher Cooks” (De Capo Press, 2008).
This story "Ben Gurion’s Rice and a Tale of Israeli Invention" was written by Katherine Martinelli.