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Origins - couscous, ptitim, mograbiah, fregula ... the same but different

"This is Jerusalem in a nutshell: very personal, private stories immersed in great culinary traditions that often overlap and interact in unpredictable ways, creating food mixes and culinary combinations that belong to specific groups but also belong to everybody else." Yotam Ottolenghi

From the top row and left to right - couscous, ptitim, mograbiah and fregula - and of course they all have other names, Israeli couscous, pearl couscous ... Plus there are other products with which they are sometimes confused such as orzo - the rice shaped pasta.

Yotam Ottolenghi opens his introduction to Jerusalem with reference to two dishes from his and his fellow author, Sami Tamimi's childhoods in Jerusalem - very similar and yet very different. A dish of couscous with tomatoes and onions for Palestinian Sami and his mum and a dish of ptitim with tomatoes and onions from Ottolenghi's Italian Jewish dad.

They include in the book a variation of Sami's, which they call simply, Couscous with tomatoes and onions. Yes a variation, because that's what they do is it not? Cooks in general I mean, and this pair of cooks in particular. And if I'm honest, my favourite cooks are those who take a traditional recipe and add a twist to it. So the twist here is to incorporate the Iranian thing of creating a crust on your couscous - well if it was truly Iranian/Persian, it would be rice, not couscous. So a true amalgamation of cultures.

I searched a bit further and found that Ottolenghi has yet another version on his website that he calls Couscous with grilled cherry tomatoes and fresh herbs - this time with herbs and the tomatoes added on top rather than incorporated into the couscous. Interestingly though I had difficulty finding the simple version that seems to have been the foundation stone for these variations, and which seems to be a common comfort food for Palestinian families.

Then there's the ptitim version. What is ptitim you might ask? Well it's an invented ingredient.

"Ptitim was created in 1953, during the austerity period in Israel. Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, asked Eugen Proper, one of the founders of the Osem food company, to devise a wheat-based substitute for rice. The company took up the challenge and developed ptitim, which is made of hard wheat flour and toasted in an oven. Consequently, ptitim is sometimes called "Ben-Gurion rice". Wikipedia

As you can see it looks very similar to pearl couscous or magroubiah, from Lebanon via north Africa. The larger balls of couscous are steamed not toasted or extruded like pasta, which I suspect is how the product you find in the supermarket called pearl couscous is made. So when I looked online for ptitim or magrabiah dishes with onions and tomatoes I found a bit of a mish-mash - one of these dishes even combines two types of couscous.

Here are a few that I found. From top to bottom and left to right: Couscous and mograbiah with oven-dried tomatoes from Epicurious; Israeli Couscous with tomato and olives, from Jessica Gavin; Pearl Couscous with Tomato Sauce, from The Food Network (more confusion here - is this ptitim or magroubiah?); Israeli Couscous With Sautéed Cherry Tomatoes and Basil from The New York Times (I'm pretty sure this is ptitim); Red Ptitim from Super Delicious and probably the nearest to the original Ottolenghi dish, which Wikipedia does indeed mention as "popular among Israeli children, who eat it plain, or mixed with fried onion and tomato paste."

And then there's fregula - which is from Sicily and therefore influenced by Italy, Arabs and North Africa. Fregula is definitely pasta, but it's toasted after being formed. And here I found the perfect modern dish for something basic and sort of original - Fregola with charred onions and roasted cherry tomatoes (from Food and Wine) - 'charred', 'roasted cherry tomatoes' - honestly how of today can you get? It's a favourite new ingredient of Nigel Slater's too.

The point of all this though, - the slightly different forms of the basic ingredient, with a bewildering and confusing mix of names, then the basic comfort food for children, gradually transformed over time into something that matches the times, is that origins are interesting and important but not the be all and end all of food. Indeed it's truly wonderful how dishes have evolved and continue to evolve.

"Firstly ... arguments about ownership, about provenance, about who and what came first ... are futile because it doesn't really matter. Looking back in time or far afield into distant lands is simply distracting. The beauty of food and feasting is that they are rooted in the now. Food is a basic, hedonistic pleasure, a sensual instinct we all share and revel in. It is a shame to spoil it.

Secondly, you can always search further back in time ... Nobody 'owns' a dish. ... because it is very likely that someone else cooked it before them and another person before that. ...

Thirdly, ... the food cultures are mashed and fused together in a way that is impossible to unravel. They interact all the time and influence each other constantly so nothing is pure any more. In fact nothing ever was. Jerusalem was never an isolated bastion. Over millennia it has seen countless immigrants, occupiers, visitors and merchants - all bringing foods and recipes from four corners of the earth." Yotam Ottolenghi

And not just Jerusalem of course. What a pity that the same arguments cannot be applied so happily to people. I was going to write about that today, together with the notion of exile, but I'll leave that until tomorrow.


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