Italian

The Sicilian Couscous Recipe I Practically Had to Beg For

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September 22, 2018

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When you hear the word “couscous,” Italy might not be the first place that springs to mind. That is, unless you’ve tried Couscous alla Trapanese. Topped with seafood and served with an intensely rich fish stock seasoned with cinnamon, bay leaves, and almonds, it’s one of Sicily’s most famous—and delicious—dishes, as I discovered on a recent trip.

Couscous has a long history in Sicily, specifically in Trapani, a crescent-shaped province on the island’s western coast. The hours-long process of hand rolling durum wheat semolina with small amounts of water into grain-like pasta comes from North Africa, with origins most closely linked to Berber communities. Easy to make with few tools, couscous was likely introduced to Trapani when the Aghlabids—an Arab Muslim dynasty that ruled modern-day Tunisia and eastern Algeria—launched a full-scale invasion of Sicily in 827 A.D.

Our at-home version is a showstopper in Lagostina's Rosella collection casserole pan. Photo by Julia Gartland

As power consolidated over the next 130-some-odd years, the local cuisine was infused with various Arab ingredients, agricultural practices, and traditions. Almonds, sugar, durum wheat, dried fruit, and spices that weren’t commonly found in other Italian regions like cinnamon, cloves, and saffron all took hold in Sicily during this period. (Ever wonder why Sicilians favor almond granita over chocolate gelato? Now you know!) A thousand years (and many different rulers) later, these food traditions have stayed strong, and no dish makes that more clear than Trapani’s famous couscous.

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“It’s the most important dish of the province,” Laura, my Sicilian friend and guide, told me as we explored. You can’t leave without trying it—the locals will make sure of that. “Has she had the couscous yet?” was by far the most common refrain of everyone we met. (Even after I left Trapani, I was asked the same question by anyone who found out I had been.)

And for good reason: The dish is rich and intensely savory without being heavy. The subtle spices add complexity, and combined with the texture of handmade couscous, it’s easy to devour your plate and keep wanting more.

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“I have langostina pressure cooker that I bought in the 60s in L.A. It still whistles away on the stove, looks great and is a pleasure to use. It reminds me that when you buy something great, you only have to buy it once. ”
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While the locals were keen to make sure I tried the dish, they were tight-lipped when it came to sharing a recipe. Every chef and home cook I asked waxed on about their family’s specific methods, all the while declining to divulge the secrets learned at their mothers’ and grandmothers’ apron strings.

One chef I met, Giovanna Catalano—who operates Hotel Moderno in Trapani’s Erice with her husband—had a story that’s less than typical. Her mother was extremely protective of her couscous recipe and refused to teach anyone the method, including her own daughter. (After tasting Giovanna’s take, I can guarantee this didn’t hold her back at all.)

Giovanna learned to make it by sneaking glimpses of her mother in the kitchen until she got the gist. Perhaps for that very reason, she was much more open to sharing it with me.

Here's what you need to know if you want to try and make it for yourself:

  • If you’re going to make the couscous from scratch, set aside at least two hours for hand rolling.
  • You’ll also need some special equipment, like a mafaradda: a traditional large, flat bowl with a textured interior.
  • Don’t swap out the ingredients: Only use durum wheat semolina flour; about six cups will make enough couscous for eight people, and require about one cup of water.
  • The technique is key: Start with a small amount of flour, and gradually add small amounts of water at a time. Meanwhile, use one hand to make a rotary movement, always clockwise, until small grains form.
  • Once the grains are formed, steam the couscous with aromatics (like onion, parsley, celery, bay leaves, garlic, cinnamon, and even fish heads) for an hour and a half.
  • For super-rich stock, Giovanna use head-on shrimp in the broth.

While most local chefs would say that it’s not really Couscous alla Trapanese if you don’t make the couscous from scratch, Giovanna is letting us off the hook a bit, since you need special tools (and years of practice) to get it right. Just make sure you get the best handmade couscous you can find—and if you ever find yourself in Trapani, seek out a taste of the real deal.

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1 Comment

Judy F. October 20, 2018
I have langostina pressure cooker that I bought in the 60s in L.A. It still whistles away on the stove, looks great and is a pleasure to use. It reminds me that when you buy something great, you only have to buy it once.