The earliest couscous was actually millet grain. Semolina pasta that was formed into tiny millet grain shapes became more popular than millet for couscous in the last few hundred years. The reason that pasta style couscous retained its millet shape or ball shape was due in part by tradition and necessity.
Part of the reason that the pasta style couscous retained a small millet or small bead shape is the lifestyle of North African people. Beduin nomadic people travel by horseback and camel. The ride can be rough. Long delicate pasta carried on the back of an animal would break apart and end up looking like tiny couscous by the end of the day.
Another reason pasta style couscous has a small shape is because water and firewood is scarce in desert regions. An average Italian pasta takes over 8 minutes of cooking time in a pot of boiling water. Couscous can be cooked with just enough water to reconstitute the couscous in about 4 minutes. No water is wasted and not much firewood is needed!
Couscous is usually accompanied by a wide variety of stewed vegetables and meats. The stew is placed on the couscous and served. The couscous can be flavored with a wide variety of spice mixtures.
Harissa is popular in Tunisia. Tunisian Fish Couscous is fish and vegetables stewed in a spicy harissa sauce that is placed on a mound of couscous. Tunisian Fish Couscous is quite saucy.
Couscous Royale refers to grilled meat that is placed on couscous. Couscous Royale is not saucy at all. For a Tunisian style Couscous Royale the couscous can be flavored with harissa.
Harissa is a key ingredient in all North African cuisine. Traditional harissa paste is only made with varieties of mild paprika peppers and red bell peppers. Dried hot peppers are added only if a spicier flavor is desired.
For Couscous Royale the term grilling can refer to cooking over an open flame, like when using a chargrill. Grilling can also mean cooking on a hot metal surface over an open flame. When cooking small delicate fish, it is best to grill the fish on a cast iron griddle, so the fish does not break apart.
Tunisian Harissa Couscous with Tilapia:
This couscous yields 1 large portion that can be shared by 2 guests.
Step 1: Cut a large russet potato into 8 large wedges.
Boil the potato wedges till they are about 3/4 fully cooked and still firm.
Remove the potato wedges from the hot water and set them aside.
Step 2: Cut a 6 ounce of tilapia filet into long wide strips.
Heat a cast iron griddle over medium heat.
Pour 1 tablespoon of blended olive oil on the griddle.
Place the tilapia on the griddle.
Season with sea salt and black pepper.
Sprinkle 1 pinch of oregano over the tilapia.
Sear the tilapia strips on both sides, till they are fully cooked and a few light brown highlights appear.
Place the seared tilapia strips on a platter and keep them warm on a stove top.
Step 3: Heat a sauce pot over medium heat.
Add 2 tablespoons of olive oil.
Add 1/2 cup of thin sliced onion.
Sauté till the onions turn clear in color.
Step 4: Add 1 clove of minced garlic.
Add 1/2 teaspoon of minced ginger.
Add 1 jalapeño that is cut in half lengthwise.
Add 4 thick carrot sticks.
Sauté till the vegetables start to cook.
Step 5: Add 3 cups of chicken broth.
Add 1/2 cup of red lentils. (Pre-cooked chick peas can be substituted.)
Add 1/4 teaspoon of cumin.
Add 1/4 teaspoon of coriander.
Add 1 pinch of saffron.
Add 1/4 teaspoon of turmeric.
Add 1 pinch of dried mint.
Add 1 pinch of oregano.
Add sea salt and black pepper to taste.
Gently boil, till the lentils start to become tender.
Step 6: Add 1 tablespoon of tomato paste.
Add 1/4 cup of harissa sauce (or 2 tablespoons of harissa paste).
Stir the ingredients.
Step 7: Add 1 1/2 cups of couscous.
Place the reserved blanched potato wedges on top of the couscous.
Cover the pot with a lid.
Allow the couscous to boil and steam for 4 to 5 minutes. (The couscous will absorb all the liquid in the pot.)
Remove the lid after the couscous is finished, so the steam escapes.
Mound the couscous high on the center of a plate, but try to leave the vegetables in the pot.
Arrange the vegetables and the reserved seared tilapia strips vertically around the mound of couscous.
Garnish the couscous with slices of Pickled Lemon and cilantro leaves. (Pickled Lemon is available in Mediterranean food markets.)
Tunisian Couscous Royale with Tilapia is perfect for a hot summer evening!