Monday, September 5, 2011

Food and Culture - Couscous

Some may consider cooking to be monotonous and lonely but cooking can be fun and entertaining.

In France, most families don’t have a domestic helper and when you are invited to relatives’ or friends’ homes, you are always welcome to give a helping hand to the host families in the kitchen. Kitchen is where cooking takes place but also where “secrets” and family stories are shared among family members and friends.

The kitchen can also be a learning place for both kids and adults and provides an excellent opportunity to enrich family relationships. When relatives or friends gather in the kitchen to prepare dishes they usually exchange news. Festivals, special days and celebrations are the times of the year when traditional dishes are made (such as Christmas lunch with its turkey and pudding). The complex and long preparation of specialties bring people together and give them a chance to catch up with each other.

The kitchen is also the place when parents pass traditional family recipes down to the new generation. I was in France this year around Carnival time when it is the period for ‘Bugnes’, a specialty of Lyon, or dough strips that are fried and sprinkled with icing sugar. While rolling out the dough and frying strips of dough my mum told me how her mother used to make another kind of bugnes (she was from Haute-Savoie) as well as stories of her childhood.

Chatting while cooking not only applies to French people. I remember the first time I made Chinese dumplings at our Chinese friend’s place. When we arrived our hosts were busy filling dough wraps and pinching the edges to close them. They were doing this with such dexterity while talking! My boyfriend (now husband) and I joined in (although inexperienced) and tried to copy their gestures. Although we were not too successful, we spent a few hours “working” and laughing together. I enjoyed the preparation of the dumplings as much as eating them later on.

Making Chinese dumplings
Food is an important element of culture that carries the national identity. One common feature is that everyone, no matter where he/she is from, loves good food. And the preparation of good food needs both “love” and time. One of my friends is married to a Moroccan man and she told me how she learnt to understand the Arabic culture by watching her mother-in-law cooking. She recalls the first time she saw her husband’s relatives making the traditional Moroccan couscous. They started very early in the morning and processed the semolina manually several times to make the perfect granules (which are thereafter called couscous). The entire preparation took the whole morning to complete! My friend enjoyed very much the festive atmosphere and said it was one of her best moments and memories.

My friends cook so well! 

Recently they made Crêpes Suzette (above)
Hong Kong Style Steamed Fish (below)
and many more delicious dishes that we enjoyed together. So lucky!!!

Whatever the country you live in food plays an important role in discovering the culture. When I first arrived in Hong Kong 25 years ago, buying at the wet market, trying to bargain with my broken Cantonese and making figures with fingers helped me to learn Cantonese. Today cooking and enjoying food with friends helped me understand Chinese culture better.


In France a lot of restaurants make couscous, some better than others.
Couscous, a well-know Arabic food, is often on schools and universities canteens’ menus but they are usually made with cheap cuts of meat and tasteless. When we were students (my boyfriend and I) used to go with our friends in a restaurant in Paris where we knew we would enjoy a good couscous. We used to order Couscous Royal which is served with mixed meats (chicken, lamb and beef), merguez (a spicy mutton or beef sausage), lots of veggies and a delicious spicy broth.

Today in Hong Kong I regularly make couscous and we are never tired of it. Here is my recipe:

  • 2 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 1 ½ pounds beef shank
  • 1 litre water
  • 1 big carrot, peeled and chopped in big pieces
  • 1 Chinese white Oriental radish, peeled and chopped in big pieces
  • 1 onion (chopped)
  • 1 leek (chopped)
  • 1 can (425 g) garbanzo beans/chickpeas
  • 2 zucchini or Jade Melon
  • 1 stalk celery, chopped thinly
  • Salt and ground black pepper
  • 1tbsp vegetable oil
  • 1 large onion, finely chopped
  • 1 clove garlic, crushed
  • 1 tsp brown sugar
  • 1 can (400 g) chopped tomatoes
  • 1 green bell pepper, finely sliced
  • 1 green chilli, finely chopped
  • ¼ tsp red (cayenne) pepper
  • 1 tsp ground cumin
  • 1/3 cup water
  • 2 tsp cornstarch
  • ¼ cup dry sherry
  • Salt and ground black pepper

  1. In a frying pan, heat the oil and brown meat over high heat until golden. Remove meat and put aside. 
  2. In same frying pan add onion, garlic and sugar (add vegetable oil if needed). Cook over medium heat for 8-10 minutes. Add chopped tomatoes, bell pepper, chilli, cayenne and cumin. Simmer 2-3 minutes. Add water.
  3. In a small bowl, mix cornstarch and sherry. Stir the mixture into the frying pan. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer 2 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.
  4. Transfer the above sauce into a large saucepan and pour in the cold water. Bring the sauce to a boil. Add the meat, previously browned, carrot, onion, radish, leek and celery in. Bring back to a boil. Reduce heat and let simmer for 1 ½ hours. 
  5. Bring the vegetables and meat broth back to a boil. Add the zucchini and chickpeas and let it simmer for another 10 minutes.  
  6. Season to taste.

Some of the ingredients: chickpeas, couscous grains, carrots 

Preparation of couscous: 
o       250 g couscous (~60g per person)
o       1 tbsp olive oil
o       1 tsp salt
o       400 ml warm water
  1. Put the couscous in a bowl with the water mixed with salt and cover.
  2. Let it rest until the grains have absorbed all the water.
  3. Once the couscous has swell up fluff it with a fork.
  4. Add in olive oil and stir well. Serve hot. Et voilà

Harissa diluted in broth

Vegetable & meat stew spooned over couscous (grains)

Note: After steps 1 & 2 I usually wrap the couscous (even the pre-steamed type) in a cheese cloth and steam it over boiling water.
The Arabs cook the grains in a couscous pan / une couscousière.
If you like the couscous grains wet spoon the spicy broth on it.
You can make the broth spicier by adding Harissa sauce (a Tunisian hot chilli sauce).

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