Einat Admony is an Israeli chef known for her modern and irreverent interpretations of Middle Eastern cuisine. Her "everyday cauliflower," for example, is made with the popular Israeli snack Bamba and peanut tahini. Admony's new restaurant in Manhattan's West Village, Kish-Kash, however, is a change of tone, dedicated to traditional Jewish North African cuisine. Why the change? Behold the power of couscous.
You may be familiar with the five-minute couscous that's available in supermarkets, but hand-rolled couscous, the kind Admony makes fresh every day in what she calls "New York's first couscous bar," requires a lot of patience, practice and time-consuming labor. First made by Berber tribes of North Africa, and to this day a staple in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and western Libya, couscous goes by many different names: The Berber called it sekruo or seksu, in Algeria it's kisku or ta'am, and in Tunisia it can be kiskisi, kisskiss, kuskusi or kusksi.
Throughout the Maghreb, couscous was traditionally prepared by groups of women, family and friends, who helped each other pass the long hours it took to make. First, they spread semolina wheat, bought by the men and freshly ground, onto a large round platter, sprinkling it with salted water and sometimes flour. They then rolled the grains with their hands, adding more water and flour as necessary, until the couscous granules formed. "The soothing sound of gold bangles on your mother's hand banging again and again against the aluminum tray is the sound of home," recalls Pascale Perez-Rubin, an Israeli food historian and journalist who grew up in a Jewish-Tunisian home. The couscous was then sifted through a special sieve to form equal-size bits. Finally it was either cooked and served or left to dry for a few days in the sun.
Before preparing, Jews moistened the dried couscous with a little salted water and oil. "Traditionally, Muslims used samneh"--clarified butter--"which the Jews avoided for kashrut reasons," says Perez-Rubin. "This made a big difference in the flavor and aroma between the two." The couscous was then steamed in a special dish called a couscousiere, similar to a steaming pot. It was placed in the upper perforated section called kishkash or kiskis--the origin of the name of Adomy's restaurant--and the stew that accompanied it in the lower pan. After the first steaming process, the couscous was left to cool, mixed or sifted again to keep it airy, then steamed once more--or several...