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If couscous be the food of love, North Africans could come together

Hocine Zaourar, AFP | File photo of cooks preparing a giant couscous for a 2004 world record contest.

Experts from northwestern Africa are considering a “common” proposal to add couscous to UNESCO’s intangible heritage list in what could be a culinary patching up of regional rifts, particularly between Algeria and Morocco.

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Algeria and Morocco may share a common border, but when it comes to partaking of a common culture, it can get a bit tricky. The two North African neighbours have squabbled in the past over territorial integrity and traded accusations of harbouring “terrorists”. In recent years, the rivalry has deescalated to a soft war for influence that has included spats over who “owns” rai, a lively folk music genre, or gnawa, a mystical form of music fusing Sufi and sub-Saharan West African traditions.

If music be the food of love, there’s been no love lost between the countries. But when it comes to a beloved food staple, there appears to be some effort to play a different bilateral tune.

Experts from the Maghreb, or northwestern Africa, are currently studying a "common" project to include couscous -- the world-famous, tiny semolina balls -- on UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage list, according to the Algerian National Centre of Research in Social and Cultural Anthropology (known by its French acronym, CNRPAH).

"The issue of the ranking of couscous as a universal heritage is a project common to the Maghreb countries," CNRPAH director Slimane Hachi told the Algerian state press agency, APS, on Monday.

"The project is under way and experts from these countries will be meeting soon," he added, without providing further details.

An ancient specialty from ancient kingdoms

Couscous has long been a contentious subject, with disputes going back centuries. Some experts insist its origins are Berber -- an indigenous North African culture -- and not Arab. Others note its inclusion in ancient poems and texts from the Levant and Spanish Muslim Granada to question the North African antecedents of the healthy, delicious staple.

When asked about the roots of couscous, Ouiza Gallèze, a researcher at CNRPAH, spoke of its "transculturality, because it belongs to several peoples", according to APS.

Utensils similar to the tools used to make couscous were found in tombs dating back to the reign of King Masinissa (238 BC – 148 BC), a Berber king who unified the ancient Kingdom of Numidia by bringing together the northern part of modern Algeria, as well as Tunisia and Libya, noted Gallèze. Utensils dating back to the 9th century have also been excavated in the Tiaret region, around 250 km southwest of the Algerian capital, she added.

A UNESCO classification would be "a way to strengthen the strong links between peoples [in the Maghreb], in a way that enables them to respond to the same traditions with the same culinary expressions", she said.

Couscous is a favourite in France, where Moroccan and Algerian immigrants and their descendants carry on a competitive, but healthy, rivalry from back home. The Maghrebian staple is believed to have come to France in the early 20th century, in a case of an empire striking back, when Algerian workers migrated to France.

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