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Feb 16, 2011 03:16 PM

a couscous question

so I did do a search of Moroccan food and I did write down some names of places to try but now I have a question.

I have never eatten couscous in a restaurant before. Is it like ordering Ethiopian or Chinese food where the order is made for the table and its served and everyone shares?

or is it more French where you order the plate and its all yours?


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  1. To quote my enigmatic son, yes.

    1. Generally everyone has always ordered their own dish when I've eaten at Moroccan restaurants in France, be it a couscous, a tagine dish, or whatever. If more than one person orders a couscous then often a large communal bowl of sémoule will be put on the table rather than serving each of them an individual bowl - and because you get so many different bits and pieces as part of a couscous we always share between whoever wants a taste of it all. But basically it's one dish each, more the French way, I think than the Ethiopian.

      Really it depends on the habits of your group and of each restaurant though doesn't it? At many of the Chinese restaurants that I go to, each person orders their own dish, aside from a bit of swapping and sampling, whereas obv that's not the case for you.

      1. First of all i keep reading about "Moroccan" restaurants in Paris but nobody mentions the possibility that the restaurants could be Algerian or Tunisian. These three countries compose the Maghreb and couscous is made in all three.

        The whole Northwestern African world - as far South as the Gulf of Guinea and as far North as Sicily and Sardinia - is couscous territory. In fact couscous is most probably of Berber origin and there are many types of non-wheat couscous in Sahelian countries (barley, millet and mil couscous, fonio, cornmeal couscous, manioc couscous in the Ivory coast, etc.) Manioc couscous and other Subsaharan types of couscous may be had in African restaurants. They're really tasty.

        Anyway what you're interested in is Maghrebi restaurants - whether they're Algerian, Tunisian or Moroccan is not of utmost importance as long as they all serve couscous.

        Couscous is rarely served the Moroccan way, i.e. already covered with meat and vegetables and soaked with a little of the broth. Generally the semoule, la "graine" (couscous strictly speaking) will be served in one large hollow dish and the other ingredients (marka) in separate dishes. The meats (boiled, roasted, grilled, etc.) on one dish and the vegetables and broth in a tureen. Sometimes merguez are ordered on the side. In that case they will be served with the meats.

        The way to do it is that each person orders their own couscous, but the dishes when they appear on the table are collective (that is the Maghrebi service and also the traditional French service. Service à l'assiette is recent and mostly dates back to Nouvelle Cuisine). Which means that there is one big couscous dish for the whole table, one big vegetables and broth tureen for the whole table, and one or two large dishes with the meats on them and everybody picks what they ordered. Given the fact that you add the final touch in your own plate, it is difficult to serve couscous as an individual dish. Tajines on the other hand are served individually, in small tajine dishes straight from the stove.

        What you do is you help yourself with couscous on your plate, then add the meats and vegetables, then the broth. If there's harissa (chili-garlic-coriander paste) on the table you may use some (mixing it with a little broth as a final sprinkling) but that is not done everywhere in North Africa. In Tunisia the hot element is slow-fried hot green chillies. Moroccan couscous is rarely served with hot condiments. Sweet condiments like onion jam (tfaya) are more common.

        If you go to a Jewish Tunisian couscous place (there are plenty around rue Richer and rue du Faubourg-Montmartre near the Folies-Bergère), couscous will be a rather lavish affair preceded with many little tapas plates (kemia). There will be a lot of grillades (grilled lamb chops, merguez, veal kebabs, etc.) and fish couscous is also very typical of Tunisia (ask for "complet poisson"). The tfinas (slow-cooked Shabbat dishes) of Tunisian Jewish tradition are also served with couscous on the side to mop the thick gravies.

        Finally you can also have "dry" couscous, a Saharan specialty in which heavily buttered fine-grained couscous is served with a piece of meshwy (slow-roasted lamb). This is very good.

        An encyclopedia could be written about couscous but roughly these are the main ways of serving it in Paris restaurants. Oh just one more thing: "couscous royal" (served with several different meats and a couple of merguez) is a Parisian invention. It does not belong to any African tradition. But that is no reason not to order it.

        5 Replies
        1. re: Ptipois

          Ptipois ....I'm reading your post on an empty stomach and it is painful! Tell us where you find these wonders, please!

          1. re: hychka

            Yes. Sorry. I have given these in other threads but here they are.
            Only the best. Leaving out 1) the ones that are just not worth it, however famous they are and 2) the ones I don't know, and there must be quite a few.

            Tunisian proletarian couscous (my favorite): Chez Hamadi (rue Boutebrie).
            Moroccan hand-rolled couscous: L'Atlas (boulevard Saint-Germain)
            Couscous sec et méchoui: Wally le Saharien (rue de la Tour-d'Auvergne)
            Lavish Jewish-Tunisian couscous with so much food piled up that you won't be able to cry for help after eating: La Boule Rouge, on the eponymous street.
            But really with Hamadi and L'Atlas you're fine. I'm not too acquainted with good Algerian places and I'd like to know more.

            1. re: Ptipois

              great suggestions...i want to try all these at some point...Ptipois, have you ever been to Le Souk? (11th, r. Keller i think)...i really enjoyed my meal there last summer...curious if you've been and how it compares to the others in style...

              1. re: Simon

                No, I haven't tried Le Souk yet. Thanks for the suggestion.

                1. re: Ptipois

                  i don't know if it'll measure up to your favorites but i loved the vibe: tubs of spices set hapzardly outside...on a fairly untrafficked authentic mix of Moroccan grunge and 11th i told a friend of mine: "a great place for a sultry rendezvous: lowkey enough that it's not trying-to-impress but still romantic in the back alley Paris of it somewhere Indiana Jones would duck into for a quick meal w/ long lost love before flying off to parts unknown"...anyway, that was *my* experience :)

                  (and the leftovers made for a great picnic on Canal St. Martin)

        2. what an amazing bunch of replies! Thank you! To be honest, I'm only just checking because my stupid computer claimed that the post didn't go through, it was the end of the day and I just gave up in disgust. But what a lovely pile of information to discover as I sit here actually in Paris with my morning coffee. Thank you, thank you.

          In Chinese restaurants, our family typically orders an obscene amount of food and we all share. So there will be more than one dish per person when we are hoping for leftovers for lunch and less than one dish per person when we have no idea what to do with leftovers. At this point, I can't imagine going to a Chinese restaurant and just having one thing to eat.

          I am thinking Chez Hamadi for our first experience---we are often in the neighborhood and the monsters will be amused because Hamidi is the name of a character in a Canadian series they like to watch.

          That said, Ptipois if you would care to share the names of any Sahelian restaurants you find brilliant, we would be most interested. I figure Paris is a great place to try foods from African countries that haven't made it to the US yet---at least in any large numbers.

          Now to send larger monsters to the grocery store to practice their minimal French by buying milk for their banania........


          8 Replies
          1. re: jenn

            I haven't been resuming my exploration of Subsaharan African restaurants for a while, but I can name a few that have a good reputation including a few I've tested and found good. Most of them will propose dishes from other West African countries as well as those of their original place. For instance you may find yassa (which is Senegalese) in a Cameroonian restaurant, etc.
            Cameroonian: Le Bamboutos (rue Sauffroy, tested), Rio Dos Camaroes (Montreuil, untested but in guides). La Tontine d'Or, rue Jean-Pierre Timbaud (tested).
            Benin-Togo: Le Mono, rue Véron. Fifa, rue Joseph-Dijon (tested but not sure it's still going on).
            Sénégal-Mali: Nioumré, rue des Poissonniers. Mussuwam, boulevard Arago. Waly Fay, rue Godefroy-Cavaignac (tested). Babylone Bis (rue Tiquetonne, tested).
            Ethiopian if you're interested: Godjo rue de l'Ecole-Polytechnique (tested), Ménélik rue Sauffroy (tested).

            One good dish to have at the West African places (therefore not at the Ethiopian ones) is the poulet braisé, most of the time it's great.

            As for Chez Hamadi, the couscous is very good indeed (try the lamb chops and merguez), but be warned that it is a hole in the wall in the strictest sense of the term. I don't mind. Nobody I know does. Maybe some would.

            1. re: Ptipois

              not to fear! We---and I include the chowpups--- much prefer dining at tasty holes in the wall over anything else. good food outranks good decor anytime. Having traveled a lot in China and eaten everywhere from street food to stuff from people peddling on train station platforms, are pretty unflappable when it comes to appearance of our restaurants.

              1. re: jenn

                If you've eaten in China, you have graduated far enough :-)

                Chez Hamadi has had the same décor for 20 years or more. Sometimes they add a poster for the Tourist Board of Tunisia on the wall, sometimes they remove one, and so on. The place looks somewhat like a mess but if you look carefully, you'll see it is regularly dusted up to the tiniest souvenir vase hanging from the ceiling. They maintain the hole-in-the-wall look very painstakingly.

              2. re: Ptipois

                Just a quick thank you to Ptipois for his many recs for Chez Hamadi ! Just been there yesterday, and it was indeed delicious.

                I would put it on equal grounds with L'Homme Bleu (on rue Jean-Pierre Timbaud). Hamadi's couscous (semoule) is better and very different, the meats are of similar quality I'd say, but L'homme bleu has great appetizers as well (the msemen with red peppers and onions or the bricks are truely great). And even though we didn't have desserts, the pastries at Hamadi didn't look as "fresh" as at l'Homme Bleu.
                However my girlfriend prefered chez Hamadi by far.

                Avec you tried the Osbane couscous ? I'm really intrigued by it, will try it the next time.

                Anyway, thanks again !

                1. re: Rio Yeti

                  You're welcome!

                  The pastries at L'Homme Bleu come from La Bague de Kenza, an Algerian pastry shop liked by many but I find them much too syrupy for my taste. I never have the pastries at Chez Hamadi, I much prefer their humble dessert of canned peaches stuffed with a cube of tri-colored marzipan.

                  Tunisian pastries from Masmoudi (one shop on boulevard Saint-Michel right past the Saint-Michel/Saint-Germain intersection, another one on boulevard de Sébastopol) are iMO the ultimate of what you can get from Maghreb, by far they're the most delicate and tastiest. It is a short walk from Hamadi, try them, they're the best Oriental pastry to be had aside from the Syrian baklavas from Chaam (rue Monge).

                  Yes, I have tried the osbane couscous, it is like andouillette made with lamb tripe and herbs, and it is definitely not for the faint-hearted. What I do like is the couscous demi-tête (served with a roasted half-head of lamb, parsley and onions). But I always order the couscous 2 côtes d'agneau and one extra merguez.

                  1. re: Ptipois

                    "It is a short walk from Hamadi, try them"

                    I will next time !
                    This time, I went and had a Kouign Amann at Maison Larnicol... I know, not very north-african !
                    And it was followed by an icecream at Grom. :p

              3. re: jenn

                This is très off topic:
                Recently I stumbled onto a resto that not only has good eats but is also well suited for the Chinese stile of sharing all: Dans Les Landes, - again, thanx to recs from the usual suspects here. In fact we were with some Chinese friends. The 4 of us shared 6, 7 types of tapas, then we shared a main (duck). Most enjoyable spot, esp after "doing" the nearby Monge market in the morning.

                1. re: Parigi

                  In fact I think we should have opened a new thread for Dans les Landes.

                  It is an offspring of Afaria in the 15e and run by the same chef, Julien Duboué. It just opened and was reviewed by our own John T., by Sébastien Demorand, etc., and should have been blogged about by me if I weren't so lazy/busy.

                  I already went there three times. Very good indeed and quite a welcome innovation in a 5e arrondissement whose really interesting restaurants are few and far between. Perfect indeed for Chinese sharing (a style of eating I would apply to everything if I had a choice). Superior fried baby squid (chipirons) and the very best potato tortilla in la capitale. Warmly recommended.

                  No reservations except if you're more than 8. Open 11 AM-11 PM. The place is also a cafe and you may be served food outside, on the tables d'hôte (more tables d'hôte inside).