For many, "couscous" conjures up images of an exotic grain served in a colorful Moroccan bazaar. Despite this somewhat incorrect notion, or maybe partly because of it, consumer interest in couscous is growing and so is the market.
"Sales have been growing rapidly," said Susan Frankel, president of Melting Pot Foods, Oak Park, Ill., which carries the Marrakesh Express line of flavored couscous mixes. "I think there is a growing awareness of the product. A lot of food editors have developed recipes and more and more people are exposed to couscous in restaurants. During in-store demonstrations we find that when people try it, they like it."
Couscous has been a North African staple for hundreds of years. Over time, it spread to Mediterranean countries such as France, Spain and Italy. Although it is sometimes mistakenly though of as a grain, it is actually a pasta, made of durum wheat and water, the same as spaghetti.
The retail couscous market in the United States, estimated at $2 million, increased 30% last year, according to an offical at Fantastic Foods, Petaluma, Calif. Volume sales were estimated at 6 million to 10 million pounds by various sources. The Wheat Foods Council, Engelwood, Colo., reported the consumption of couscous more than doubled from 1989 to 1992. Many companies see these figures as indicative of future growth, as a slow but steady stream of couscous products hits the market.
The U.S. market leader is Near East Foods Products Co., Leominster, Mass., part of Quaker Oats' Golden Grain Co.
The biggest markets are on the East and West Coasts, home of many of the original brands. However, Frankel of Melting Pot reported substantial growth in all regions, including the Midwest. Until 1993, most couscous in the United States was imported, mainly from France and Tunisia. But now, U.S. Durum Products in Lancaster, Pa., produces domestic couscous, at an estimated capacity of 12 million pounds per year.
According to Sanford Wolgel, of Chestnut Hills Sales Co., Chicago, a broker for U.S.-made couscous, "Some companies believe that couscous appeals to those looking for high nutrition, convenience and upscale products. Others hear in focus groups that consumers aren't certain what it is, so they just lump it in the alternative grain category."
The wheat is mixed with water, formed into small granules, steam-cooked, then dried. The granules are sorted by size into coarse, medium and fine grades. The couscous can be reconstituted with hot or boiling water, or steamed, the traditional preparation in the Mediterranean. "It's ideal for our convenience products, because it is quick-cooking," said the official from Fantastic Foods. "You can combine couscous with a variety of [foods]."
Because the flavor of couscous is bland, it can be used in a number of interesting ways. Traditionally, in Morocco, it is served with spicy stews. In this country, some couscous is sold plain, but many companies add seasonings and other ingredients to create convenient mixes, from soups to side dishes.