Flash in the Pan 

The Israeli couscous sleuth

Headlines were made when the prestigious journal Nature—whose name is practically synonymous with “Mothership of Science”—published an extensive study concluding that the veritable Encyclopaedia Britannica is only slightly more accurate in its coverage of scientific topics than Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia that can be edited by anyone. How could it be that the paid professionals at Britannica can barely beat the offerings of Web surfers around the world, some of whom might very well just be killing time between online porn sessions? I didn’t think much of it until I began my research on Israeli couscous, a current darling of many chefs.

Israeli couscous is, like its North African cousin, a granular food made from semolina flour, of which pasta is also made. Couscous is, in fact, a type of pasta. Unlike the couscous varieties of Morocco, Tunisia, Libya and Algeria, in which the grain sizes are about 1/16 of an inch, Israeli couscous is more than three times that size, and roasted to produce its distinctive nutty flavor.

According to Wikipedia, “Israeli couscous is said to have been developed in response to the wave of Jewish immigrants from various parts of the Middle East after the state gained independence in 1948.”

I’ve often seen Israeli couscous on restaurant menus, usually offered as a side dish or bedding for the main event, and many foodies have bent my ear with praise for the Middle Eastern pasta pearls. According to the American Culinary Professionals, “Israeli couscous has become the ‘it-grain’ for the new millennium (even though it’s not actually a grain). It’s new, it’s beautiful, and it has a unique size and texture.”

Still an Israeli couscous virgin, I brought some home and made a warm salad of it. In a covered pot, I cooked 2 cups of Israeli couscous in 3 cups of water with a cube of organic chicken bouillon until the water was gone and the pearls were slightly al dente. Meanwhile, I sautéed two chopped onions and a chopped carrot in olive oil, with salt and crushed black pepper. While that was cooking, I cut the stems out of six leaves of collard greens, chopped the stems and added them to the pan. Then I chopped the collard leaves finely and added them to the pan, cooking just long enough for them to turn neon. I then turned off the heat, mixed in the Israeli couscous, covered the pan and let it “rest.”

After about half an hour, I mixed in a bunch of chopped parsley, four cloves of mashed garlic, a handful of chopped almond-stuffed olives, a minced raw red onion, half a brick of crumbled feta cheese, the juice of a lemon and 1/4 cup of extra-virgin olive oil. I stirred it all together and served it. It was a hit, and not bad as leftovers the next day, fried in bacon grease.

Israeli couscous fried in bacon grease? Hmmm, that sounds like a decidedly non-Kosher presentation of a food that’s grown up with the Jewish state. But you know what? So many of the problems between Israel and its Muslim neighbors are based on ancient grudges that had relevance at the time, like their shared intolerance of pork—which carried some nasty diseases. But today, the world would be better off if the warring sons of Abraham could get over it, and what better way than over a plate of leftover Israeli couscous salad refried with bacon?

Better yet, make that Lebanese couscous, whose grains are rumored to be even bigger!

Meanwhile, according to many indignant North African cooks whose writings crowd blogs and chat rooms, what’s now known as Israeli couscous has been known for centuries as berkukis in North Africa, where it originated alongside its smaller-grained cousin. According to these sources, the only thing Israeli about Israeli couscous is the name.

What nobody disputes is that the name first appeared in the early 1950s to describe a product marketed by Israeli food giant Osem, now owned by Nestlé. And the marketing of this couscous—also known in Israel as orez Ben-Gurion (Ben-Gurion’s rice, after Israel’s first Prime Minister)—was an initiative to help Jews from Persia, North Africa and the Orient feel at home in a place with little rice but plenty of wheat. The idea for Israeli couscous likely came over with the Sephardic Jews from North Africa.

So is Wikipedia correct that Israeli couscous “is said to have been developed in response to the wave of Jewish immigrants from various parts of the Middle East after the state gained independence in 1948”? Technically, yes. Even if Israeli couscous was developed centuries earlier somewhere else for different reasons, it is indeed said by many to have been developed in Israel. But by substituting hearsay—even acknowledged hearsay—for core truth, such a description might constitute a “minor error” according to the standards used in Nature’s study.

And what about the Encyclopaedia Britannica’s entry for Israeli couscous?

There is none.

So I’m going to have to score this duel as Wikipedia: 1, Britannica: 0.

flash@flashinthepan.net

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