3 minute read

Most Americans are familiar with the grain couscous. The not-quite-rice, not-quite-bulgur semolina staple that adds a magical texture and subtle nutty flavor to stews and side dishes. When you think of couscous no doubt you imagine a sultry Moroccan night or a Bedouin tent somewhere in the Casbah. But Sicily?

Yes! Couscous is a very popular and celebrated dish in this Italian region and especially in the Sicilian town of Trapani. Sicily even plays host to the renowned couscous festival. Let’s take a look at how the Sicilians celebrate this special culinary delight.

The Journey of Couscous to Sicily

Couscous, or cuscusu as it is called in Italy, originated in Morocco and is a staple in the Maghreb region of North Africa. Understanding just how it came to be an important ingredient in Sicilian cuisine isn’t difficult when you realize that the island region of Sicily was occupied, and influenced, by quite a few different cultures before becoming part of Italy. Because of its tremendous natural resources and Sicily’s central location it became a place of prominence among early traders and conquerors

From the time Sicily was settled by the Phoenicians in 11th century BC until its unification with Italy in 1860 no less than 12 powers sought to control the largest Mediterranean Island for themselves. At some point, and there are some conflicting stories of when, its believed during the 250 years of Arab occupation ( 827-1021 AD) couscous was introduced to Sicily. And we couldn’t be happier!

How Sicilian Couscous is Different from The Rest

There are some key differences in how couscous is served in Morocco and how you’ll enjoy it in Sicily. In the Maghreb you’ll find couscous accompanies meat dishes and some vegetable dishes or legumes. These are mainly stews and the couscous accompanies the dish as a bed for the stew.

In Sicily, and Trapani particularly, couscous is most often served with fish. Trapani has a crescent shaped coastline just perfect for catching fresh seafood. The couscous, prepared the Sicilian way, is light, tasty and highlights both the fish and the nutty grain dish.

The Incocciata and Preparation

Sicilian couscous is served differently, yes, but it's also prepared differently than the North African method of steaming the rolled grain. As you might imagine, the Italian influence of food preparation being very much an art, there is somewhat of a loving ritual involved in the preparation of the couscous.

The grain is first soaked in salted water and then comes the ancient method of incocciata, or ncocciatta, as it is referred to colloquially. This method involves taking the semolina and rolling it between the hands in order to separate the grains. There is a skill to this ancient ritual and its amazing to watch.

Couscous is then seasoned with olive oil and salt and pepper and steamed over water until softened. Once softened the couscous is added to a bowl and fish broth is ladled over the grain. The bowl is covered with towels and left to stand for about 30 minutes or more. Long enough to absorb the flavorful broth.

One of the perks of being the cook is that you can take poetic license with the broth and the couscous. Although some of the more traditional cooks around Trapani insist the broth must be made with 14 different types of fish and shellfish. Sometimes the couscous is sprinkled with toasted almonds and maybe a minimal amount of spices.

San Vito Lo Capo Celebrates Couscous

San Vito Lo Capo, a small seaside town,  sits at the northwest tip of the island of Sicily. In addition to gorgeous views and an outstanding beach San Vito Lo Capo plays host to the Couscous Fest every September. For ten days people come from all over the world and enjoy different versions of the celebrated grain dishes. Visitors can stroll the festival from noon to midnight and sample from more than 30 versions that honor this humble grain.

Couscous Fest is more than a showcase of couscous. There are two highly competitive events that select the champion couscous chef. First up is the Italian Championship and the winner of that contest goes on to challenge chefs from all over the globe in the International Championship.

There are a few additional competitors including one among enthusiastic young chefs who hold culinary institutes. Their innovative dishes are quite interesting and the contest adds to the fun vibe that is the couscous fest.

Come and Enjoy

There are many versions of this delicious grain dish but we’re sure you’ll find Sicily’s couscous dish is worthy of a celebration. Come and enjoy this delicious version of Sicilian Couscous with us!

siciliian couscous