Morocco reopens debate on the origin of couscous

Culture Minister Mehdi Bensaid intends to talk to international institutions to give this dish a "Moroccan brand"

PHOTO/PIXABAY  -   Couscous

Couscous is one of the most important dishes in Arab cuisine, especially in the Maghreb, where it is most widely used. The gastronomic importance of couscous in the region has elevated it to the international level, which is why it is now easy to find it in any supermarket in the world. So important is it that in 2020, thanks to an entry document drawn up jointly by Morocco, Algeria, Mauritania and Tunisia, this dish was declared UNESCO intangible heritage. But now the Alawi country has reopened the debate on the origin of this type of food and wants to claim it as a Moroccan product.

Mehdi Bensaid, the Kingdom's Minister of Culture, has made a series of statements to the Moroccan daily 2M in which he says his aim is to put the Moroccan label on this ancestral dish. "The idea is to create a 'Moroccan label' to put an end to the debate over whether couscous is Moroccan or Tunisian," he said. The truth is that, although the four countries made a joint request to UNESCO, each of them has always appropriated this food. In 2016, Algeria announced its intention to submit a candidacy to receive this heritage, arguing that the cradle of this food was the country's own, as certain remains of 4,200-year-old semolina grains had been found in the region of Kabylia. This prompted Morocco to raise its voice and take the necessary steps to present itself.

But the UNESCO authorities managed to defuse the tension between the nations and eventually produced the joint document. In Morocco there is a saying that "couscous brings people together" because it is a dish that is shared and not eaten alone. Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO, stressed that "it is a strong sign of cultural recognition, and it is also a real diplomatic success, on a subject so important and so symbolic for the people of this whole region, and far beyond. This consensus shows that cultural heritage can be both personal and exceptional and transcend borders".


Now Bensaid wants to reopen the wound and wants to talk to international institutions, including UNESCO, so that the Kingdom enjoys this recognition only on a personal basis. Moreover, the minister's mission is not widely accepted by the institutions, and he considers "this is populism".  In a statement to the Middle East Eye newspaper, which was one of the sources involved in the preparation of Morocco's dossier, Bensaid spoke of the fact that "the management that is supposed to prepare its label file, is the same one that had prepared between 2018 and 2019 the Moroccan file for the joint application with Algeria, Tunisia and Mauritania". With this, the minister intends to reignite the war over the origin of couscous.

Although this dispute is still open and it is not known exactly which of these countries this type of cuisine comes from, what is known is that the origin of this dish is Berber. Its origins seem to go back to this ancient people who inhabited the North African region in ancient times. Couscous itself is a dish consisting of wheat semolina, usually prepared with olive oil and steamed. It is then served as a side dish to accompany various foods, whether vegetables or meat. Although this is the most common way of serving it, the different regions where it is cooked have their own versions, such as the Moroccan Seven Vegetable Couscous. Moreover, it is such a common dish in the gastronomic culture that it is served both at a normal meal and at large celebrations, and depending on the area, it is eaten with a spoon or by hand.