|The Grand Mosque of Paris sells a variety of kitchen essentials. (Marie Doezema for The Boston Globe)|
North African delights on the streets of Paris
Enjoy couscous out, or make it yourself
PARIS — Food polls in France consistently indicate that couscous is among the country’s favorite dishes, and Parisian tables are proof. The culinary influence of the Maghreb — Tunisia, Morocco, and Algeria — is everywhere in the capital city, from neighborhood bistros and upscale restaurants to corner bars and family tables.
While the traditional method of making couscous yields an ethereal platter of tiny wheat granules, instant couscous (it’s pre-steamed and dried) is widely available and used by many cooks. Think of the difference between homemade pasta and strands from a package and you’re on the right track.
An essential tool for the slow food version of couscous is the couscoussiere, or couscous pot. The pot features two compartments, which allow meat or vegetables to bubble away in the bottom while the grain steams above it, absorbing flavors. Traditionally, couscous is steamed up to three times, which lends the semolina wheat a texture that is light and airy, rather than clumpy or wet.
The next time you’re in Paris and have a hankering to take home couscous or a pot, look in the shops around Barbès-Rochechouart, in the 18th arrondissement, a subway stop in northern Paris not far from the white domes of Sacré-Coeur. This is an area with a large North African population, reflected in the shops, aromas, and tastes along the streets. Here you can find the essentials for a North African feast, from piquant spices and harira, a fiery chili-paste often eaten with couscous, to steamers and brightly painted tajines, cone-shaped clay pots used for making succulent stews. The neighborhood also abounds in small cafes and eateries, good places to stop in for a glass of mint tea or the couscous du jour.
Across the river, on the Left Bank, is another well known spot for couscous, the Grand Mosque of Paris. Here you can do it all —nibble on honey-soaked pastries in a covered courtyard, smoke fruit-flavored tobacco from ornate sheesha pipes, bathe in the steam rooms of the attached hammam (the public bath), and top it all off with a multicourse feast of couscous. There’s also a gift shop with colorful lamps, fabrics, cooking pots, and utensils.
If you’d rather skip the bath and go straight for the food, head back across the river to Chez Omar in the 3d arrondissement. Popular among locals and crowded with the haute couture set during fashion week, this place serves up heaping platters of couscous in a classic setting. A few blocks away, closer to the Pompidou Center, is Le 404. This chic restaurant and cocktail spot offers a “berber brunch’’ on Sundays, featuring sweet couscous, pancakes, and other modern riffs on traditional fare.
For a less chic but equally festive outing, visit Chope du Chateau Rouge, a casual restaurant and bar in the 18th arrondissement that serves free couscous every Friday and Saturday nights with the purchase of a drink. Here you can mingle with locals from the neighborhood, sample Algerian wines, and indulge in bottomless, steaming plates of couscous and stews.
If all of the culinary adventures have left you full but with a craving to learn more, drop by the Institute du Monde Arabe, or Institute of the Arab World, in the 5th, a Jean Nouvel-designed building on the banks of the Seine where you can dine, study, visit the museum, or learn Arabic.
On a recent trip, I picked up a copy of Sarra Hamat’s “La cuisine Tunisienne’’ from the institute’s bookstore. I wasn’t just looking for couscous recipes, but also some of the smaller plates and appetizers found on Parisian menus, dishes like brik, a flaky pastry often filled with egg or tuna; carrot and olive salad; smoky eggplant dip; and mechouia, or grilled vegetables.
With couscous, pot, and recipes, you can re-create the meal of your dreams. Sheesha pipes optional.
Chez Omar 47 Rue de Bretagne, 75003 Paris, France. Telephone 01.42.72.36.26
Chope du Chateau Rouge 40 Rue de Clignancourt, 75018 Paris, France. Telephone 01.46.06.20.10
Grand Mosque of Paris 39 Rue Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, 75005 Paris, France. Telephone 01.43.31.38.20
Institute du Monde Arabe 1 Rue des Fosses Saint-Bernard, 75005 Paris, France. Telephone 01.40.51.58.14
Le 404 69 Rue des Gravilliers, 75003 Paris, France. Telephone 01.42.74.57.81
Marie Doezema can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.