Tuesday, April 9, 2013
Israeli Couscous: I Have Learned Something New
Israeli couscous from Trader Joe's holds a special place in the hearts of the Bay Area's local pro-Israel activists. TJ's, bless them, have gone on stocking Israeli products in the face of considerable pressure from the BDS crowd to get them to stop. They have all kinds of lovely Israeli products. My own personal favorite is the Dorot frozen garlic cubes, but I am aware that many of my friends at one time bought a lifetime supply of Israeli coucous from Trader Joe's, to the extent that local activists were trading Israeli couscous recipes for months, desperate to use it all up.
I confess: I never bought any. The garlic cubes, yes, and matzo in season, but not the product I thought of as the 'fake couscous'. When I first became aware of this stuff, I had no idea what I was looking at. Couscous, to me, means, well, actual couscous, and in my childhood was usually eaten in the form of tabouli. It was also generally cooked and served by Israelis, adding to my bafflement--surely Israeli couscous is no different from normal couscous, I thought, puzzled. This odd stuff from TJ's, made up of little pasta balls like tiny ball bearings was a new substance altogether, and confused me. What made it Israeli? Why wasn't it actually couscous? What the heck was this?
I've learned a little more about it though, now, and I'm fascinated enough to be planning the purchase of a few boxes. It turns out that this peculiar carbohydrate is unique to Israel, and is actually a piece of Jewish history.
Let me take you back to the 1950s, when the newborn State of Israel is struggling to survive, and to feed its exploding population. Food is rationed. Immigrants and refugees from the Arab world are flooding into their ancient homeland and new haven. Rice is a staple food for these new Israelis, but it's not readily available because of the limited food supply and lack of imports.
David Ben Gurion to the rescue! Approaching the Osem company (yes, that same Osem whose tahini and matzo ball mix you still buy today), he asks them to come up with a rice substitute that can be produced in Israel. The result, called in Hebrew 'ptitim', is a baked wheat product, shaped like grains of rice, which can be boiled like pasta and served hot or cold. Dubbed "Ben Gurion's rice", it made its way into Israeli culinary history. The round balls of 'couscous' shortly followed.
Israeli couscous is currently very chic with foodies, to the amusement of Israelis, who seem to think of it as kid food. I am fascinated by its legacy. If matzo is the bread of affliction, this is the rice-substitute of the Ingathering, a tribute to Israeli ingenuity and determination to survive and thrive. I plan to learn to cook with it, and to give it a place in my kitchen, this most Zionist of foodstuffs.