French people’s favorite dish is not very french… or is it?
For many years, in most polls that ask the French population about their favorite dish, one stands out among the others. The surprise is that this meal may not sound very French to most people: the famous couscous. This is not what you may have expected from your French courses in France.
Nowadays,French cooking classes integrate many influences from all over the world, and former French colonial possessions play a big part in modern French cuisine. Let’s head to Africa.
Couscous is a Berber dish made with semolina, vegetables and meat. The Berbers are the oldest known North African populations. This geographical space also sees various populations, Arabs, Hebrews, Phoenicians, Ottomans... Throughout history, couscous has become a local dish shared by all Maghreb populations.
With the colonization of Algeria by France, a common history began and is still continuing. Since the 20th century, canteens of Algerian workers emigrating to France have been serving couscous.
Couscous will know its first rise in the 60s with the arrival of populations called "Pieds noirs", arriving from Algeria after a long and deadly independence war. The term "Pieds noirs" ("black foot" in French referring to the black boots worn by Europeans coming to North Africa) is actually unsuitable for describing the diversity of these populations. There are Europeans, whose ancestors came from France, but also from Italy, Spain or Malta, to populate the Algerian land then conquered by France in the 19th century. There are also the Jews, whose connection to Algeria goes back as far back as the antiquity, and the most recent to the expulsion of Jews from the Iberian peninsula.
These are the ones who popularize couscous by opening restaurants where French metropolitans discover for the first time this strange semolina. This dish became quickly very popular and was adopted by France, as it combines generous rations. It brought a sense of conviviality and a whole Mediterranean world, almost exotic in the France of the 60s.
The other particularity of couscous is its nostalgic and familial side. It is undeniably linked to the image of the Maghreb mother or grandmother, whether Muslim, Jewish or “Pieds noirs”. Thus, it breaks the mental barriers built by humans. North Africa is indeed experiencing decolonization, particularly brutal in Algeria with memories wounded and still alive over several generations. However, couscous is a common element for all, which brings people of various backgrounds together, and even reconcile by its emotional dimension.
This dish can’t be limited to the Maghreb populations. Traditionally served in a common plate in which everyone picks food, couscous, by its very nature, opens to the world and brings a feeling of sharing.
The taste, the history and the generosity of this meal explains why it turned into French’s people favorite food.