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Instant couscous (Recipe: sweet couscous with pistachios) {vegetarian}

Updated November 2010.

Sweet couscous

Some day, I want to make couscous.

The real way. The fluffing and steaming way. The takes-all-day way. The star of the show, Paula Wolfert, transcendent, main event way.

Some day, but not today.

For everyday, I stick with instant couscous, one of the most frequently replenished items in my pantry.

Couscous, which looks like a grain, actually is moistened semolina, shaped into tiny grain-like pellets approximately one millimeter in diameter. The semolina is sprinkled with water, rolled by hand, dusted with flour to keep the granules separate, and put through a sieve to remove excess flour and undersized pellets, which are then re-rolled into more couscous. Traditionally, in North African villages, the making of couscous is the job of the women, and it is a process that can take several days.

Instant couscous

To cook a proper couscous, you steam and dry it two or three times to achieve a fluffy, decidedly not-clumpy texture. Often it's steamed over a tagine or stew in a couscoussier, which is really just a kind of tall double boiler. The top is perforated, to allow the steam from the stew (and the flavor) to penetrate the couscous above -- a pretty wonderful way to cook. I bought my couscoussier at our local Middle Eastern market, for less than $40, but you can indulge at a much higher price point if you want stainless steel or hammered copper.

Instant couscous is pre-steamed and dried, so all that's left to do is the final five-minute steaming. Boil water, add the seasonings of your choice, toss in the couscous, turn off the heat, slap a cover on the pot, and wait five minutes. Then, fluff with a fork.

In the time it takes you to read this wonderful description of couscous from Traditional Moroccan Cooking: Recipes from Fez, published in 1958 by Madame Guinaudeau, you could make a pot of instant couscous:

Couscous is the Moroccan national dish. It will be served to you at the end of a copious meal by your host anxious to saturate your already failing appetite and you will be incapable of tasting more than one or two mouthfuls. On the other hand, if invited informally by friends and sitting round the table you are given couscous, you can, with impunity, stuff yourself with this semolina, each grain separated from the other, so light, smooth and scented, and digested with incredible ease. You must take in your right hand a chick-pea or a raisin with a handful of semolina, press and shape it carefully to form a small ball and an expert twist of the thumb should carry it to your mouth.

If you do manage to master the one-handed couscous-balling thumb-twisting maneuver, you will be rewarded with a morsel of delicious semolina, with a sweet or savory tucked inside. Or, you will find half of it dribbling down the front of your shirt, from which you will scoop it up and into your mouth. Or, you'll eat it with a spoon, and marvel that anything so simple can taste so good.

Sweet couscous

Sweet couscous with pistachios

Often served as the final savory dish at a banquet, couscous with raisins, nuts and cinnamon is another variation that makes a lovely side dish with roasted meats. [Update note: On the day I made this to photograph for you, I didn't have pistachios. Or cherries. So I made it with pecans and dried cranberries, and I think I like it even better than the original recipe.] Serves 4-6.


2 5.8-oz boxes plain instant couscous
1 tsp unsalted butter
1 Tbsp sugar
1/2 cup pistachio nut meats, roughly chopped (or pecans)
1/4 cup dried cherries (or dried cranberries)
Ground cinnamon, to taste (start with 1/2 tsp)
Ground cardamom (start with 1/2 tsp)


Prepare couscous according to package directions, adding butter and sugar to the water in the pot. When the couscous is steamed, transfer to a mixing bowl and fluff with a fork. Add nuts, cherries, and cinnamon and cardamom to taste, and stir to combine. Serve warm.

[Printer-friendly recipe.]

More recipes in The Perfect Pantry:

Couscous for a summer night
Quinoa pudding
Vegetarian couscous with dried fruit
Couscous salad with herbs
Fregula sarda with leeks and sausage

Other recipes that use instant couscous:
Curried apple couscous, from 101 Cookbooks
Chicken tarragon cous-cous, from Anne's Food
Couscous with kalamata olives, pine nuts and feta cheese, from For the Love of Cooking
Couscous, corn and mushroom salad, from Sassy Radish
South of the border couscous salad, from Albion Cooks

Disclosure: The Perfect Pantry earns a few pennies on purchases made through the Amazon.com links in this post. Thank you for supporting this site when you start your shopping here.


I love couscous. A friend of mine made couscous and the whole meal by herself. It was super delicious.

Although it would be really cool to prepare couscous the real way, I love my instant couscous. Thank goodness for Near East. Like you, I say, some day I'll try to make it the real way. Just not today. ;-)


I love Paula Wolfert. I have her book, the cooking of southwest france and it is one of my most treasured tomes! I have never cooked couscous though. Seems like it's best to start with the instant version first! :)

This is also on my "one day" list, but until then, I like the instant stuff just fine.

I like this post as lately I am looking for easy healthy foodstuffs to recommend to a friend that wants to eat healthier. He eat/cooks most of his food at work. This is an excellent idea. Thanks!

Recipe sounds great too.

I once got a strawberry couscous cake for my birthday...that was yummy too.

I think there are some things I like to make myself,by hand - pesto, perogies, pasta

but when instant varieties are actually very passable, like couscous, I really think I should focus my energies somewhere else.

Although I have a theory I'll do all this, or something, when I have a baby. but we'll see!


I'll stick to the instant, too - so good, so easy...
As to the one-handed, finger-rolling eating method...Hmmm. I just cleaned the house so maybe I'll stick to the spoon!

Cooking Ninja, a proper couscous meal is still on my to-do list!

Paz, I'm with you. Not today....

Veron, I use Paula Wolfert's Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco as one of my basic references. Her recipes are so well written and she gives lots of history and context, too.

Kelly, me too.

Meg, that strawberry couscous cake sounds so interesting. Was it smooth in texture? I can't imagine it!

B, when you have a baby, you'll be so glad that there's instant couscous, as you'll have much less energy for cooking, at least for a while! I agree, though, that it's always best to try to make something yourself -- then, if you choose the storebought, you'll know what the real thing tastes like.

Katie, I do have a way of spilling everything on me when I eat, so I tend not to tempt my fate unless good manner demands it!

Thanks for this very interesting post. Some day, I will also make couscous from scratch. But that day won't be anytime soon. Maybe when I retire, which won't be for a looooong while.

For now, I am so glad there is instant couscous. I just bought a different brand of couscous (it said on the box that it was "Maghreb style"). I haven't tried it yet, I wonder how different it will be from the usual, it's probably just a marketing ploy.

Thanks for the recipe. I like pairing a sweet couscous with a slow cooked cashew lamb stew (need to get the recipe off mom).

We think alike! When I saw your photo and hadn't scrolled down to the text, I was thinking I would really like to produce the real deal one day, just not today and maybe not tomorrow, but still...

I love the idea of sweet cous cous! Great recipe :)

I love making couscous the "real" way. Rolling the grains about with my hands, distributing the water... it all feels so tactile and close to the earth. And then there's the added benefit of losing a few couses, they become part of the stew and make it all thick and delicious. I think making couscous the traditional way is really the heart of becoming someone that can really cook Middle Eastern food. Claudia Roden's books also have great instructions for how to tackle the task, both with a couscousier and just a plain old pot and colander.

I've got a box in the pantry right now and I'm making sweet couscous for dessert tonight. Thanks so much.

Nora, I wonder if "Maghreb style" is used to differentiate it from the larger, Israeli couscous? Maghreb would be the style of Morrocco, Tunisia and Algeria, I believe (readers, please correct me if I'm wrong). The pairing of meat with fruit is typically Moroccan, and so delicious.

Neil, maybe some day....

Truffle, welcome to The Perfect Pantry, and thanks!

Ann, I would love to cook with someone and make couscous this way. I'm sure the taste and texture are amazing. This is on my list of cooking methods to master (the same list that also featured pita bread from scratch, and puff pastry -- both now crossed off!).

Sabina, welcome to the Pantry. Hope you like the sweet couscous.

The sweet couscous sounds delicious! I will have to try it with honey.

Amy, that would be delicious!

Ooh Lydia! I would never have though to make couscous into a sweet dessert. You have outdone yourself with a great recipe!

Ya know, we eat it all the time and yet I have never made anything sweet with it.

Hillary, thanks -- this isn't super-sweet, but just sweet enough to end the meal.

Peabody, I've been eating couscous for, oh, I don't know, twenty years or more, but have only recently discovered the sweet dishes. Never too late, eh?

This sounds delish! I have a similar recipe for sweet couscous, although it's a breakfast dish rather than a dessert. I'll have to give this one a try :).

I did make it the real way once, and would dio it again, as it was so light and fluffy BUT on normal weekdays it's the quick sort in our house...

The strawberry couscous cake was firm like a cake but because of the other ingredients it was smooth, but not smooth like pudding smooth...does that make sense?

Dana, welcome to The Perfect Pantry. Would love to know more about your breakfast couscous!

Kelly-Jane, making real couscous is still on my to-do list. I will get around to it, I promise.

Meg, yep, it makes perfect sense!

Oh, yum! I make a breakfast couscous that is similar with dried fruits and nuts.

Susan, do share your recipe!

I have made couscous the *real* way - and it was very good, lighter, fluffier - but not worth the time. I actually tried it while I had a baby toddling about. Just not worth the effort - but for once or twice ;-)

EKO, welcome to The Perfect Pantry. I think this is like making pita bread -- good to try it once or twice to know how to make the real thing, but then just as easy to buy it with most of the work done for you. So I definitely have to try making it in the authentic way a couple of times.

I've just done. It's marvelous - thank you for the recipe

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