Tunisian-Style Couscous

Sidi Bou Said Travel Blog

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Our "vegetarian" couscous.. with the MASSIVE chunk of lamb removed from the top.

Whilst on holiday in Tunisia, I'm ashamed to say that we ate very little in the way of local or traditional cuisine. Our hotel was booked on a half-board basis and largely served your typical 'Western'-style buffet (we missed their one 'Tunisian night' during our stay - d'oh!) and for lunch most days we just nipped across the road for a quick sandwich, crepe or plate of chips. Naughty us!

We did, however, squeeze in one traditional meal at a little 'restaurant' (for want of a better word) in Sidi Bou Said, recommended to us by our driver. They were clearly not used to catering for foreign tourists but, after some serious navigation, we managed to place an order of four egg brik (a crispy pastry, filled and deep fried), a Tunisian salad, two helpings of chicken couscous and two of onion couscous for the vegetarians.

Or so we thought.

In what was obviously a bad dose of the lost-in-translations, we hadn't communicated the vegetarian idea quite as well as we thought. What actually arrived at our table were four egg and tuna brik; a tuna-topped salad; and four bowls of couscous, with chicken on two and the others topped with what we can only assume to be a huge and bone-filled chunk of lamb.

Well.. we did ask for authentic. And it was certainly a cultural adventure, if nothing else.

That said and done, however, I really enjoyed my couscous once the meat was removed from its top. Tunisia's national dish, it was cooked in a way I'd never experienced couscous before. Rather than an alternative to rice or an accompaniment to salad, this couscous was a meal in its own right: coated in a tomato-based sauce and served with a pile of chickpeas and vegetables on top, it was warm and spicy and so good (ignoring the likelihood that it was all cooked in meat) that I thought I'd try and replicate it here at home.

Most of the recipes I found online followed the pattern of our own dining experience, using chicken or lamb as their base. I couldn't find a vegetarian-friendly recipe that sounded similar to that which we'd eaten, so in the end I settled on this one from BBC GoodFood and adapted it to be meat-free and compensate for some ingredients I happened to be missing.

I used:
2 small onions, chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped 2 tbsp tomato puree
Spices: 1 tsp cayenne pepper, 1/2 tsp salt, 1/2 tsp black pepper, 1 tsp cumin, 1 tsp corriander
1 500g carton of passata
800ml boiled water
1 vegetable stock pot
2 large potatoes, peeled & chopped into large chunks
1 can of chickpeas, drained
1 carrot, sliced
3 small peppers, whole
500g dry couscous

To make:

  1. In a large saucepan, lightly fry the onion and garlic for about 2 minutes on a low heat, before adding the tomato puree, spices and a tbsp of water and frying for a further 2 minutes.
  2. Add in the passata, vegetable stock pot, potato and about half the water and stir. 
  3. In a large bowl, work 2 tbsp water and 1 tbsp olive oil through the dry couscous, one spoon at a time, using a fork to separate any clumps. Once done, place the couscous into a large colander or a steamer ready to sit on top of the saucepan.
  4. To the saucepan, add the remaining water, chickpeas, carrot and peppers, stir and allow to simmer.
  5. Sit the steamer/colander atop the saucepan and cover with a lid, leaving for 15 minutes. 
  6. Fork through the couscous to separate any clumps and cover, allowing the mix to simmer on a low heat for another 30 minutes. 
  7. Now it gets messy: Empty the couscous into a large bowl and fluff with a fork. Using the colander, sieve the vegetable mix, separating the sauce from the vegetables. The sauce should then be stirred gently but thoroughly through the couscous and left to absorb.
  8. Spoon vegetables onto the top of your couscous and serve! 
NB. This recipe could comfortably serve five people.

With all that colander action, this dish was far messier and more of an effort than I expected and it'd definitely be worth investing in a saucepan/steamer set if you were making similar meals on a regular basis.
That aside, it was definitely worth the effort. With the exceptions of a different type of couscous grain and the distinct absence of meaty flavouring, this recipe was a good replication of the meal I remember eating in Tunisia. More than that, it's a recipe I will gladly add to my repertoire and use again!
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Our vegetarian couscous.. with t…
Our "vegetarian" couscous.. with …
57 km (35 miles) traveled
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photo by: kamja