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October 23, 2014 at 6:15 AM

What is Palestinian couscous?

Palestinian couscous served with lamb. File photo by Dean Rutz/The Seattle Times

Palestinian couscous served with lamb. File photo by Dean Rutz/The Seattle Times

I’ve eaten a lot of couscous over the years, both locally and overseas. One term I’d never seen until Providence Cicero’s recent review of Eva restaurant, though, was “Palestinian couscous.” She described it as “larger, rounder, sturdier pearls of wheat” than the fregola sarda accompanying another dish, serving with salsa verde as a “dynamic partner to grilled leg of lamb.” Sounded great. But… Palestinian couscous?

Turns out the name is both as simple and as complex as most other things in the Middle East. Many people use the term “Palestinian couscous” or “maftoul” interchangeably with “Israeli couscous,” and that’s how Eva co-owner James Hondros saw it. “It’s maftoul,” Hondros said. While there could be slight differences between the version he uses and others labeled as Israeli couscous, he viewed them as essentially the same.

“It looks a little different on our plates because we do a common thing, which is, you toast it a little bit.”

(Incidentally, the Osem company claims credit for inventing Israeli couscous, or at least the specific variety under its umbrella. Couscous itself has origins centuries back.)

Others, though, note specific differences. Looking to Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, the popular cookbook authors and restaurateurs — one Israeli, one Palestinian — I found this definition from Ottolenghi’s side: He wrote that all the confusing couscous names from the region are “variations on the theme of very little (or quite little), round (or pretty much round) balls of pasta,” but Palestinian maftoul is “perhaps the least familiar of the bunch.” By his definition, it’s “made from sun-dried bulgur wheat, is larger than couscous and its grains are slightly uneven, because they are rolled by hand.” It’s hard to find, he noted, but worth seeking out because it’s “so easy and forgiving to cook.”

Eva’s Hondros alerted me that it’s possible to order maftoul that meets that definition online, as with this box advertised as hand-rolled and sun-dried. Interested in a bigger challenge? Here’s a recipe for making it from scratch. Once you have it on hand, Nancy Harmon Jenkins wrote an evocative “Heart of Palestine” travel piece in Saveur last year where she describes watching women make the maftoul — “Palestinian couscous made of bulgur wheat—whole grains that are parboiled, dried in the sun, and then cracked—and hand-rolled in creamy yellow durum flour” — and provided this recipe where the specialty is “perfumed with cumin, cardamom, and other spices, and then layered with chickpeas and succulent chicken that’s been simmered with garlic and lemon.” It sounds sumptuous by any name.

Comments | Topics: Eva, Israeli couscous, Ottolenghi

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