Winter, 1972, was when I first saw couscous, steaming in big metal pots in the student cafeteria in Strasbourg, France. As soon as I spotted the huge mounds of small, delicate white wheat granules, I wanted them. They just looked so good. When it was my turn, the grim Alsatian cafeteria ladies ladled onto my tin plate what looked to be about three cups of couscous. She then spooned over it a lot of gravy before crowning it with a roasted pigeon (because…France). Like many of us raggedy students, I went up for seconds.
Grape Leaves, 129 S Oak Park Ave., offers many Moroccan dishes – like couscous – and the owner, Karim Benyaich, is from Rabat, and he tells us his recipes are his mother’s.
For starters, we had the Chicken Pastilla Sampler, with pastillas, hummus, babaghannough and a salad. Much of that may sound like Middle Eastern food, and in fact there are a lot of similarities between the widely known foods of the Middle East, like hummus and babaghannough (or baba ghanoush), and the foods of Morocco. The pastillas, long crisp pastry tubes stuffed with vegetable and protein, are distinctly Moroccan and they contain chicken, aromatic herbs, and sugar. Years ago, I took a cooking class in Essaouira, Morocco, and I was amazed at the quantities of sugar added to the savory dishes. There’s a lot of sugar produced in Morocco, so they tend to add it generously; Benyaich told us, this sugar is not from cane but from sugar beets (also the source for half of all the sugar used in the United States). Pigeon is the traditional filling for pastillas, but now chicken is more common.
At Grape Leaves, our Moroccan couscous with lamb contained lots of vegetables. This fantastic looking dish was very lightly seasoned with turmeric and ginger, and the lamb was as tender as we’ve ever had. Benyaich told us that his lamb is from New Zealand, adding, “You can use lamb from anywhere, because it all depends on the seasoning and preparation to make it delicious.” At Grape Leaves, lamb is rendered tender by cooking in a traditional tagine, an earthen ware pot shaped like a teepee. Benyaich told us that slow cooking in a tagine “keeps all the flavors in.”
If you want to add a little heat to your meal, Benyaich keeps harissa (a chili paste condiment) behind the counter.
Grape Leaves is BYOB, but I was happy to pair the meal with freshly made carrot juice: the sweetness of the root vegetable, like the sugar in the chicken pastilla, complements the herbal flavors and chili heat of the food.
Was the couscous at Grape Leaves as delicious as the couscous at the student restaurant? It was, objectively considered, much more delicious, but not the same. Like Proust’s madeleine, no dish of couscous will recapture the magic of the first couscous I had in a French student cafeteria a half-century ago.