What Is Couscous?

Updated: Feb. 13, 2024

If you're wondering, what is couscous, this guide is for you! The tiny, round ingredient is nutritious and easy to prepare at home.

Tender, round couscous is an appealing addition to any dinner plate, whether piled in a fluffy bed under a tasty stew or tossed into a dinner salad. But what is couscous, exactly? Here’s a starter guide to couscous: what it’s made from, nutrition benefits and how to cook with couscous at home.

What is couscous?

Pronounced (KOOS-koos), couscous is traditionally enjoyed in North African and Middle Eastern cuisines. You’ll also find it in quite a few Mediterranean recipes. Although couscous looks like a whole grain—similar to rice or quinoa—it’s actually pasta! It’s made from semolina, which is coarsely milled durum wheat. You can also find couscous made from spelt or barley flour. Most couscous is sold pre-cooked and dried, making it quick and easy to cook.

What is Israeli couscous?

Israeli couscous is a larger variety of couscous, sometimes made by hand rather than by machine. The large, chewy pearls are especially delicious served in salads and soups, where the texture stands out more than finer couscous.

What is pearl couscous?

Pearl couscous is the same thing as Israeli couscous, just by a different name!

Quinoa vs. couscous

Both quinoa (pronounced KEEN-wah) and couscous are small, round, tender grain-like foods. While couscous is a small pasta, quinoa is actually a seed. Both are grouped with grains for simplicity’s sake, since they’re generally eaten that way. Both are high in fiber and rich in nutrients.

They’re different in several ways, however. Quinoa, an ancient South American grain, is naturally gluten free. It has a nutty flavor that can be slightly bitter (always rinse before cooking). Couscous is generally made from wheat, and has a mild, nutty flavor.

Is couscous healthy?

Whole grain couscous is a food high in insoluble fiber, which offers myriad potential benefits, including aiding digestion, lowering cholesterol, bolstering heart health and balancing blood sugar. Along with fiber, couscous is a good source of protein, which will make you feel fuller longer. It’s also rich in vitamins and minerals, including zinc, iron and selenium, an antioxidant that may offer benefits for the immune system and heart health.

Couscous is especially healthy compared with non-whole grain options, like white rice. Cooking with refined couscous (rather than whole wheat) will provide less fiber, protein and nutrient value.

Is couscous gluten-free?

No. Couscous is made with wheat, so it is not safe for gluten-free diets. Some gluten-free substitutes for couscous include whole grain quinoa, millet, sorghum or buckwheat.

How to Cook Couscous

It’s easy to cook couscous! Simply combine couscous with water or broth, following a ratio of one part liquid to one part grain. Unlike rice or pasta noodles, couscous doesn’t need to be boiled: Boil the liquid on its own, then stir in couscous and remove from heat. The couscous will absorb the liquid and soften. Its mild flavor takes on seasonings well, so try adding butter or oil, dried herbs and spices to the mix, as in this seasoned couscous recipe.

How to Eat Couscous

Couscous is a versatile ingredient! It’s traditionally served as a base for many Middle Eastern stews and tagines. It’s a healthy side dish for meat and bean dishes, and a good protein option for vegan diets. Add couscous to soups to make them heartier and more filling, or serve as a breakfast cereal with raisins.

Couscous Recipes

There are so many tasty ways to incorporate couscous into your weekly meal rotation. It’s a great filler for lunches and a good way to switch up the carbs when you’ve already had pasta and rice all week. Here are some of our favorites:

  • Couscous meatball soup: Similar to an Italian wedding soup, this couscous-based soup warms you right up and is packed with nourishing ingredients.
  • Couscous tabbouleh with fresh mint and feta: Instead of bulgar wheat, you can use couscous as the base in this tabbouleh instead. This is a great lunch to meal prep for the week.
  • Colorful couscous: Julienning the sweet peppers will take longer than cooking the actual couscous in this simple side dish. Pair this colorful couscous with salmon, chicken or steak.
  • Sweet potato and turkey couscous: Make this dish when you need to use up leftover turkey from bigger meals. The sweet potatoes and the couscous are light, fluffy additions to this flavorful dish.
  • Greek couscous salad: You’ll want to make this salad again and again once you try it the first time. Greek couscous salad works as a light meal on its own or as a side to chicken or salmon dinners.