Israeli couscous (KOOS-koos) has a history that speaks to both politics and palate. In the years immediately following the creation of modern Israel, the infant state was flooded with immigrants whose native diets depended on rice—a rare commodity in that emerging, food-strapped nation. David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, challenged a leading food manufacturer to develop a wheat-based substitute. The company answered with a rice-shaped pasta, similar to orzo.
Nicknamed “Ben-Gurion’s rice,” the pasta was immensely popular. Eventually, it took the rounded shape you’ll find in supermarkets today. In Israel, its name, ptitim afuyim, translates as “baked flakes.” In the United States, you’ll find it marketed as “Israeli couscous,” “Jerusalem couscous” or “pearl couscous.”
Israeli couscous is a completely flour-based pasta, made of hard-wheat flour, shaped into spheres, then oven-toasted. Pearls are roughly the size of a peppercorn and cook in about 5 minutes.
Enthusiasts love its slightly toasty flavor and tapioca-like mouth feel. In Israel, it’s a popular children’s dish flavored with tomato paste, but it lends itself to many grown-up dishes, like the Mediterranean Couscous Salad.
Make a quick stovetop casserole by sautéing onions and garlic, then adding dry Israeli couscous with a little broth, tossing in olives, artichoke hearts, cherry tomatoes and feta cheese. Unlike traditional couscous, it won’t clump together in salads. It makes an eye-catching base for a platter of fish or lamb. And die-hard fans have it for breakfast, simmered in milk or juice along with a cinnamon stick.
—By Jo Marshall, a food writer in Deephaven, Minn.