The Biggest Misunderstanding in the History of Couscous

March 16, 2016

Yesterday, we explained that pearl couscous (a.k.a. giant couscous a.k.a. mograbiah) is made by repeating the couscous-making process—gradually adding water to semolina and rolling it with the palms of the hands to form small bead-like granules—over and over again so that these beads amass moisture and flour.

And while pearl couscous resembles Israeli couscous, we told you that they were not the same thing. But why?

Otherwise known by the Hebrew word p'titim (which translates to "little crumbles"), Israeli couscous are, according to NY Shuk, an artisanal food company specializing in Sephardic and Middle Eastern Jewish cuisines "more of a cousin to couscous than actual couscous. It is a small, pellet or rice-shaped pasta, similar to orzo, made from wheat flour and water" and according to The Forward, egg yolk, too.

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The differences don't end there: Whereas couscous is traditionally dried before it's cooked, p'titim is toasted; where couscous is prepared by steaming, Israeli couscous is boiled, like pasta; and while couscous is an ancient food, Israeli couscous is a relatively new invention.

The story is that Israeli couscous was born out of the food rationing of the 1950s; after Jews migrated en masse from Eastern Europe to Israel, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion sought out an alternative to the traditional staple of rice that could be easily mass-produced. The rice-shaped noodles, because they were made at the Prime Minister's request, are sometimes called "Ben-Gurion's rice." But once real rice was again readily available, p'titim were reimagined into rounder pellet shapes resembling farfel (egg noodle dough that is grated or broken into small pieces).

How did the Israeli couscous make it to U.S. (and the rest of the world)? The Forward reports that in the 90s, the Israeli chef and cookbook author Mika Sharon, who was living in New York, hosted the American chef and cookbook author Don Pintabona for dinner. He tried the p'titim and, shortly after, was serving it in his New York restaurant, calling it “Israeli couscous.”

To put it succinctly: "P’titim aren’t couscous, and they’re not particularly Israeli, but there’s no denying they go well with blackened salmon."

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Salt T. February 6, 2018
I appreciate the article's explanation of the difference between pearl(ed) couscous and Israeli couscous - but have to admit I then laughed when I looked at one of the accompanying recipes and saw its first ingredient listed as "pearled (Israeli) couscous." So, which one should we use in this recipe??!! Or is the point that it doesn't really matter? (though why devote a whole article to the difference then....)
Leo H. June 28, 2019
I agree. I may have failed in reading comprehension (possible), but after reading this, I come away with the impression that there are 3 forms of couscous???