Comforting couscous nurtured from Africa

Sharing and telling: Couscous ladies Bahia Lynch and Liz Kettle.   PICTURE: dean atkins
Sharing and telling: Couscous ladies Bahia Lynch and Liz Kettle. PICTURE: dean atkins
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Couscous... That’s the tasteless stuff you get in packets and add hot water to, right?

Not a grain of truth in it, say two women who are passionate about turning Sheffielders on to the North African staple.

“It is so much more than instant carbs. Made properly, with love and care, it’s the ultimate in comforting, nurturing food,” says Bahia Lynch, self-proclaimed couscous queen.

Bahia, 57, of Nether Edge, is biased; she grew up in Algeria where couscous is a daily staple and is far from instant.

She recalls the women in her Berber village preparing couscous from scratch - and the process taking hours and hours.

“It was a social event; every spring women in the village would meet at one house to roll the sack-loads of couscous for use during the rest of the year,” she says.

“We slowly add water to the hard, dry grains and sit around huge wooden or aluminium platters, rubbing it and rolling it with our hands until all the water is absorbed. A lot of chatting goes on at the same time,” she grins.

It takes the women an hour to get a kilo of grain to the right stage for drying down to use in coming months, or for cooking - several long and gentle steaming sessions.

“It’s a very time-consuming and complicated process but the result is so worth it. It’s nothing like the packet stuff, which is pre-cooked and in my opinion, overcooked. It never goes as soft and fluffy as it should do. We add the best olive oil we have and make delicious merka sauce to ladle over the top and it is absolutely delicious.”

“Bahia thinks the Western habit of adding sweetcorn and chopped peppers and spring onions is absolute sacrilege,” says Liz Kettle, the friend she converted to the real deal over 20 years ago.

“She invited me for a meal and it was like watching an Algerian Nigella Lawson at work,” says Liz. “To test if the couscous was steamed enough, she whacked it with a big wooden spoon. The spoon bounces back when the couscous is ready. I suppose it’s a bit like the Italian tip of flinging spaghetti at a wall to see if it sticks.”

The pair have set up their own catering business, Absolutely Couscous (www.absolutelycouscous.co.uk), preparing party food, sharing banquets for weddings and staging Algerian theme nights at Sharrow’s Harland Cafe in John Street.

The nights have been very popular, but now Bahia and Liz want their guests to learn as they eat. They are staging a Share and Tell night on Saturday, March 23, to “explain the culture and the tradition of couscous,” says Bahia.

The secrets handed down through generations of women in her Berber family will be revealed - and so will their glorious spice and preserved lemon-laden tagine and stew recipes. An £18 banquet of authentic Algerian food will include Salata Mechouia, a smoky roast vegetable salad, courgettes stuffed with spiced minced lamb, beans in rich tomato and onions and sweet pastries with almond fillings. “And couscous, of course,” says Liz.

“We will have Algerian music playing and if Bahia isn’t too tired after all the cooking, she’ll show us some Berber dances.”