King Louis IX of France, better known as Saint Louis, went crusading. He didn’t plan to liberate the Holy Land and retake Jerusalem, as crusades were purported to accomplish; oh no! His Majesty had much more ambitious aspirations:
To conquer the entire infidel world, rather than marching on Jerusalem, he led the seventh crusade to Egypt. Don’t worry – his GPS did not malfunction; he simply decided that any war on any Islam countries would qualify as Holy War, especially since the Royal spies had assured the King that Sultan al-Malik al-Salih was on his last breath, and there was no one else to defend the mighty empire, originally founded by legendary Saladin.
It seems strange that the French King, brought up by a powerful mother, a victorious crusader herself, and married to a no less powerful wife, would underestimate the power of women, but he did, and lost the war to Sultana Shajar al-Durr, the late Sultan’s widow, who consolidated her power on the strength of mamluk spears. The luckless crusader lost his army and ended up in captivity. Make a long story of the hapless seventh crusade short, His Majesty came home six years later and went about the kingly business of making heirs to the throne.
This unfortunate experience has not stopped the zealous future Saint Louis. He waited until his three sons came of age, ordered his younger brother to join the party, and embarked on a new crusade, this time heading for Tunis. This time, the crusade was defeated … by food. The King’s piety moved him to extensive penances and frequent fasting, but above that, in a country full of fruit and vegetables, the crusaders would not touch any local food; they consumed only meat and fish, says French forensic pathologist Dr Philippe Charlier (https://www.dailymail.co.uk). No wonder the army fell victim to scurvy caused by lethal lack of vitamin C. King Louis IX of France, vanquished by food, shared the fate of his troops.
“East is East, and West is West, – remarked Rudyard Kipling, – and never the twine shall meet.” The eighth crusade met with rich Tunisian culture, colorful, spicy, and healthy, and lost. This post is a tribute to one of my students, a lovely and talented Habiba Querghi from Tunisia, who graciously shared with me her recipe for Tunisian Couscous.
Obviously, the main player in this delectable main course is couscous. You have to cover the grain with water and put it aside until it softens.
Meanwhile, you get your meat ready, preferably lamb, preferably bone in.
Get your spices ready, or use store-bought ones, if you are not proficient in making your own from scratch.
Here comes the crucial moment: this is what the poor crusaders were lacking in their diet – vegetables, especially bell peppers, hot peppers, onions, and potatoes, all rich in vitamin C. Combine meat first with onions, then with the rest of your veggies, including carrots that add vitamin A, another important nutrient.
Meanwhile, your couscous should be nice and soft, and you make sure of it by rubbing it with your hand, says Habiba.
I hope you have soaked and pre-cooked your chickpeas, as Habiba does not use canned beans (neither do I). Beans also nourish your body with plenty of vitamin C.
It’s time to put everything together by using what Habiba calls “couscouserie,” which is essentially a two-level cooking pot, where the bottom level contains meat and vegetables,
while the top is essentially a colander where the grain cooks in the meaty steam for about 20 minutes. For lack of this special pot, you can use a steam basket.
Serve it by covering steamy couscous with juicy vegetable and tender lamb meat that practically falls off the bone. Had Louis IX of France deigned to partake of this fantastic native dish, perhaps his Tunisian adventure might not have ended in a complete fiasco.
- 1 cup of couscous grain, uncooked (makes 2 cups when cooked)
- 2 lbs meat, bone in (preferably lamb)
- 1 cup chickpeas, precooked
- 1 large yellow onion, sliced in semi-circles
- 1 – 2 medium potatoes, peeled and cubed
- 1 – 2 carrots, cut in large pieces
- 2 green bell peppers, cut in wide stripes
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- Complete Seasoning, Jerk Seasoning, ground black pepper, chili, paprika, salt, tomato paste, Harissa (hot chili pepper paste) to taste
- Cover couscous with warm water, put aside until soft, about 20 minutes.
- Saute meat in oil with onion and spices until lightly browned, cover with water, bring to boil, reduce heat to medium, cook for 30 minutes.
- Add vegetables and chickpeas, bring to boil. Rub couscous by hand or mix with spoon, place into top part of pot or steam basket, simmer together for 20 minutes.
- Serve meat and vegetables on the bed of couscous.