It starts with a flurry of text.
Where is the couscous!!? When are you going to cook our food in that column of yours? My Tunisian godsiblings want to know.
I love couscous, but I am intimidated to cook it. Who am I, daughter of chopped liver and brisket, to attempt my Auntie Brigitte’s couscous? I text her tentatively. Should I buy a couscous maker? A real one? Will you teach me? She reassures me, “It’s more forgiving than French food. I’ll teach you. Let’s Facetime”
I remember sitting around their table eating couscous. I remember stealing mouthfuls from their ancient gorgeous couscous maker. I remember mint tea in special glasses intricately adorned with gold. I remember pumpkin fried in honey. I remember harissa and fava beans in cumin, peeled hot and plump into our mouths.
I remember finally being grown enough for a shot of Boukha… and needing to sit down after. These are my family. Not by blood but by choice, by some indescribable commitment our fathers made in the schoolyards of New Bedford, Massachusetts. Sons of immigrants, children of the Holocaust, they grow up to be doctors and lawyers, more successful than their fathers’ wildest dreams. We grow up together. Babysit each other. Share synagogues and holidays and trips to Cape Cod and Quebec. From a boyhood bond, there are generations of something more than friendship. Their grandchildren play. How do people become family? I am only sure that I don’t know… but they are. Their food feels like part of me, like Rosh Hashannah tfina pikalah and Pesach Shabbat msoki and evenings of French tutoring. Je suis desolee, Tata Brigitte, I never came close to fluent.
It was only later that I learned we were supposed to dislike each other. To bicker over whose food was better. To compare spices and dishes with disdain. I remember at summer camp, a girl confiding in me that a boy told her he didn’t like Sephardic girls. I was stunned into silence. It had never occurred to me that we weren’t all like siblings. I remember another girl telling me she hated everything Ashkenazi, the food, the music, the whole culture. I am grateful to have been raised with the idea that Jewish was Jewish. I am grateful that when confronted with these tensions I was so shocked. I was raised to believe that within Judaism there was no “they,” only “us.” All of us our traditions were sacred and worth keeping, all of our food worth eating — and worth sharing with each other. My Tunisian Auntie praised my mother’s chopped liver. My playmates, her children begged my Mom for matzo balls and mandelbread. I fell for mint tea and couscous. All Jewish. All Delicious. All family.
I love Tunisian couscous. It brings back so many beautiful memories. I want to cook Tunisian Jewish food, just like my Auntie Brigitte. Because I grew up eating it. Because it is delicious and I miss eating it. Because as the this awful era of COVID-19 stretches on, I miss them all terribly. I remember bringing my husband to Auntie Brigitte’s house to meet her on his first trip to Boston and him eating her couscous. Unbelievable, he said. In the kitchen, alone, she said, his French is so beautiful. It’s perfect. Trust me there is no higher compliment. I want my daughter to eat it, to smell cinnamon and roses and mint and steal handfuls of perfect fluffy couscous. So I need to learn how to cook it.
I decide If I am going to cook it, I am going to do it for real. I want to cook real Tunisian Jewish food, just like my Ta-Ta Brigitte. I don’t mean a box of Near East with a chicken broth and a little cinnamon and cloves. I can make a passable couscous for an American who doesn’t know better, I know how to add cinnamon, cloves, honey, and nutmeg to a pot of chicken until it tastes vaguely North African, but could I make real Tunisian couscous?
It begins with a series of Facetime calls on Thursday afternoons. My Auntie cooks and I take diligent notes and pepper her with questions. She is bemused by my dogged determination. I order specific couscous brands and write five pages of notes. There are hundreds of texts to try to get it right. I want it to be perfect, to be authentic. It’s precious to me and I am nervous to present it to the world. My godsister Clara suffers many midnight calls and finally says, “Pfft! Whoever says it’s not authentic, you give them my number! They are welcome to call me!”
The feeling of couscous running through my fingers floods me with warm feelings. It is such a tactile beautiful joy. When the familiar smell of coriander, roses, cinnamon, mint, and meat rises and fills my home, I am overwhelmed with joy and nostalgia. I text my Auntie crying, it smells just like your house! I miss the smell of you! it’s like you are here! Oh, I haven’t seen you for so long! The distance between my extended family and me, placed on us by adulthood, by careers, by the pandemic keeping us apart longer than ever, feels erased. My house smells like your house, and I can’t wait to feed my daughter your couscous.
I’ll raise her like I was raised. That Jewish is Jewish. That love is love. That anyone you love can become family, and we are all, as Jews one big family. What more important lesson could I pass down, especially as division and cruelty threaten to tear our country apart?
I love my Jewishness and I love yours. No matter what you serve this Shabbat. Let’s eat.
Brigitte’s Tunisian Shabbat Couscous with Beef
This recipe is a labor of love, communicated over three Facetime calls, and many texts. I am so excited to share this with you. It is rich and homey and subtle and filled with warm spice, but not hot. Serve with harissa and fresh mint. The couscous itself is fluffy and yet not overly soft, still toothsome. You’ll never go back to a box!!!
1¼ pound of Dari brand couscous, medium size, about half the container
Dried edible roses
1 cinnamon stick
1 teaspoon sweet paprika
A pinch white pepper
½ teaspoon Pink Himalayan salt
1 cup Chickpeas bought dried and cooked
5 stems of fresh mint Mint ( 3 for recipes,
A large handful of Coriander leaves (otherwise known as Cilantro)
5 celery sticks
4 pieces of turnip cut into 2 inches pieces
Store-bought or homemade harissa
Zucchini cut in 4 pieces
Half an onion
A mix of Kulkie (sometimes spelled kolichal or kalechl, it is a beef shank meat) blade roast, and short ribs, about a pound each, 4 pounds of meat total ( You can leave the meat out if you like and it makes a great vegetarian entree)
Steaming The Couscous:
Begin by making the couscous. Brigitte advises you to make Thursday. Cut the couscous bag with scissors to avoid a mess. Pour half a 2.2-pound bag into a long shallow bowl, similarly shaped to a tagine, as large as you can find. Run clean hands through the couscous a few times, checking for any burned bits of semolina.
Before you steam the couscous, you must wet it. This ensures it will swell the proper amount. You’ll need one cup of water, but you’ll pour it one third at a time. Pour the first amount of water through your fingers. With one finger, gently rotate the bowl in a circular motion. With your other hand, your dominant hand hold your fingers together until your fingers and thumb form an open circle, held close together at your finder tips but not touching. Now rotate the bowl while your fingers, held in that circle, shift through it, ensuring the couscous doesn’t clump. Do this one-third of a cup at a time. The couscous at this stage should be wet, and soft enough that if you picked it up, you could clump it into a ball.
Now that you have wet the couscous and it has swollen to twice its size, using the same motion, dry it with your fingers. You want the couscous that is now wet and swollen to become dry and swollen so it will not clump when cooking.
Drizzle with vegetable oil about 1 ½ tablespoon. You want the grain to be double in size and feel dry. It should rain through your fingers. Add about 1 teaspoon of salt, preferably pink salt.
Take a medium pot and fill it about halfway with water. Take it to a medium bowl. Pour the couscous into the steamer that fits tightly on the pot. Wipe away any stray pieces of couscous. Cover the couscous with a lid and steam for 30 minutes. Rinse and dry your that large shallow bowl you were using.
After 30 minutes Remove the steamer and, with oven mitts on, bang the side. Put half a cup of warm water at the bottom of the bowl and ¼ teaspoon of baking powder in the bottle of your large shallow bowl. Mix. Pour the couscous back into the large bowl. Toss together while very hot - with a spatula this time not your fingers. You want to lay the couscous out as flat as possible so it cools nicely and doesn’t clump. Cover with a kitchen towel and let cool. Once cool place in refrigerator until Shabbat.
Beef and Vegetable Stew for Couscous
Cut Blade roast and Kulkie ( or any collagen heavy shank cut) into medium-sized chunks. Not too small.
Cut half an onion, roughly chopped. Drizzle vegetable oil and coat the bottom of a large stew pot. When the onion is translucent and soft add the meat and brown on both sides. Now add all the spices. Smash 1 cinnamon stick and break off a medium-sized fragment, a pinch of salt and white pepper, `and 2 destemmed dried rosebuds, crumbled into powder between your fingers over the pot. Cook for ten minutes. Add a handful of coriander leaves, mint stems( keep leaves on the stem for easy removal), and a tablespoon of Harissa. Cut carrots, celery, and turnips into long thick even strips. Add about 3 cups of water, just enough to cover vegetables and meat. If cooking without meat, add only about 1 cup of water, just enough to cover vegetables. My Auntie is insistent you do not season the vegetables or they will become overly soft. Cook for 2 hours.
After about 2 hours, when the meat and carrots are tender, add Zuchinni, chopped into quarters, and about a cup of chickpeas. Cook about another half an hour. All of this can be done the day before Shabbat.
To Serve the Whole Beautiful Shabbat Couscous
Take the stew and place it on the stove. Place the couscous into the steamer. Put the steamer atop of the stew pot. Reheat the stew for 15 minutes with the couscous on top to warm the whole dish and infuse the couscous with flavor.
Serve couscous in a long shallow bowl. Arrange meat and vegetables artfully on a platter and garnish with mint. Serve with broth and harissa to be added individually.