Maghreb bid to secure world heritage status for Couscous

Not only does couscous have unquantifiable importance for millions of North Africans, it is also one of the strongest threads connecting peoples.
Sunday 21/04/2019
Granules of tradition. Algerian Berber women prepare couscous in the village of Ait el-Kecem, south of Tizi-Ouzou.       (AFP)
Granules of tradition. Algerian Berber women prepare couscous in the village of Ait el-Kecem, south of Tizi-Ouzou. (AFP)

TUNIS - The idea has been simmering for three years but Algeria, Morocco, Mauritania and Tunisia have filed a joint bid seeking the inclusion of couscous into UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage.

The Maghrebi application is to be reviewed at the meeting of UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee in December.

Couscous is a staple food in the Maghreb. The most basic definition of “couscous” denotes the granules of crushed durum wheat semolina that make up the base of any couscous dish. The term “couscous” commonly refers to the traditional and elaborate dish prepared with a broth of meat or fish, vegetables and spices.

The granules are steamed in a specialised cooking vessel, known as the couscoussier, which is common in Maghrebi households. When steamed, the grain becomes fluffy. A hearty red broth is poured over the steamed couscous and an assortment of cooked meat and vegetables is arranged on top of the grains.

There is no one common way of making couscous. Tremendous regional variations exist, not only among countries but even between cities separated by a couple hundred kilometres. The variations include various cooking techniques and different — and sometimes unexpected — spices, vegetables, meats or dried fruit.

Whatever couscous variations might be used, the result is blended together and simmered for several hours in the couscoussier to create a warm and comforting dish.

Couscous has been the dish of choice for Maghrebis since ancient times. The Berbers, the indigenous inhabitants of the region, are believed to have been the originators of this food.

Vestiges of primitive couscous pots have been found in tombs dating to the third century BC. Industrialisation and urbanisation have changed many food habits of the region’s inhabitants but the process of producing and cooking couscous remains often communal and celebratory. It brings families together and is part of life’s milestones, such as weddings and funerals.

UNESCO defines “intangible cultural heritage” as “traditional,” “inclusive”, “representative” and “community-based.” Algeria, Morocco, Mauritania and Tunisia must have presented a solid case to secure UN Intangible Cultural Heritage status for couscous.

The list, which showcases the world’s most treasured cultural practices, confers recognition, prestige and protection to the global cultural practices that UNESCO deems worthy of the status.

Not only does couscous have unquantifiable importance for millions of North Africans, it is also one of the strongest threads connecting peoples who have been separated in modern times by borders and politics.

Agence France-Presse said Algeria announced in 2016 a solo bid to win protected status for the dish, sparking outrage in Morocco. Filing the united UNESCO bid required overcoming years of antagonism between neighbours and rivals Algeria and Morocco.

“It’s the first time that four North African countries have come together to file a joint application,” Morocco’s ambassador to UNESCO Zohour Alaoui told the MAP news agency.

Tunisia’s UNESCO envoy Ghazi Gherairi also hailed the cooperation, posting on Twitter: “Couscous, the catalyst of North African unity.”

Couscous’s  popularity is not limited to North Africa. Opinion polls indicate it is one of the French’s favourite dishes, rivalling boeuf bourguignon, ratatouilles and raclettes.

A dish of choice. Homemade couscous served with vegetables in Tunis.      (Iman Zayat)
A dish of choice. Homemade couscous served with vegetables in Tunis. (Iman Zayat)
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