Couscous, originally a Maghrebi dish, has been steadily growing in popularity over the years in other regions like Europe and North America. I get asked if it’s vegan quite a bit, I’d imagine due to confusion around the vegan status of pasta.
Is it vegan? Yes, couscous is vegan. Couscous is simply small (~3 mm or 0.12 in diameter) steamed balls of pulverized durum wheat semolina.1 It’s a type of pasta, however, it’s only the wheat middlings of durum so it contains no egg. Therefore, it’s 100% plant-derived.
Keep in mind this goes for the plain variety. There’s a ton of flavors on the market these days. For example, Parmesan is common. But, the regular kind is good to go.
Why Couscous is Considered Vegan
Couscous Derives from Wheat
Couscous has the appearance of a grain, but it’s actually considered a pasta—specifically, “Moroccan pasta.”
Its application (often being topped with stews, etc.) and the fact that the starch gelatinizes both contribute to the food product’s classification as pasta.
It’s made from semolina that’s been dried, cooked, and crushed into small, particles roughly the size of a grain of rice.2,3 Though, in Israel and other parts of the Middle East, couscous tends to be on the larger side and resembles small balls.
Semolina is simply the product of durum wheat which is the second most cultivated wheat worldwide after common wheat, though it represents only a small percentage of global wheat production—about 5% to 8%.4
Keep in mind the term semolina is also a common term for the coarse middlings from other varieties of wheat and grains, like maize and rice.
Wheat middlings are just another product of the wheat processing—the milling process—other than the flour itself.
This portion of the wheat constitutes a good source of fiber, protein, and micronutrients like phosphorus. Wheat middlings have a variety of uses in the food industry including pasta, breakfast cereals, and couscous.5
Couscous In Itself Contains No Milk Products
Couscous in itself is 100% plant-based and thus vegan.
However, there are many recipes that call for the addition of various animal products. For example, in many African countries, couscous tends to be served with milk for breakfast.6
There’s also a dessert dish that’s another point of confusion. The word semolina is also used to refer to a sweet dessert dish made from semolina and milk.7
The raw material couscous is made from has properties that are useful in certain desserts such as pudding.5
Because couscous derives from semolina, a lot of folks associate it with the non-vegan dessert.
But, the couscous application of semolina contains no animal products by default. So, if you purchase a box of semolina from the store, it should be 100% wheat middlings.
Couscous Recipes Needn’t Contain Meat
In the Middle East, lamb stew was traditionally served over a bed of couscous.3
However, meat is just one of many toppings you can use. A quick search should render numerous vegan couscous recipes—Moroccan spice, roasted vegetables, etc.
Couscous Lacks Typical Non-Vegan Pasta Ingredients
Pasta in itself is always vegan but can undergo processing wherein animal-derived ingredients are added.
The word pasta simply means “paste” or “dough” in Italian, and the product is made mostly from water and flour starch. The term can be used to describe thousands of extruded foods including spaghetti, macaroni, vermicelli, lasagna, and noodles.8
Pasta varieties, in general, tend to be made from semolina, though other flours can be used.9
The process involves combining water with flour causing the starch to gelatinize. Gelatinization is the process in which intermolecular bonds of starch molecules break down in the presence of heat and water, which allows the hydrogen bonding sites to be exposed to more water.
Semolina via durum is a very popular wheat for pasta due to its high protein content. The high protein content allows it to withstand high heat during preparation and the pressures of mechanical manipulation and kneading.10
The protein in durum wheat flour also helps pasta maintain its shape during cooking and gives pasta its characteristic elasticity.
Different types of pasta vary in shape and ingredients, giving rise to the varieties you’ll encounter in stores.
Flavorings and colorings can be added which can spell trouble for vegans.9
For example, most manufacturers of pasta want the end product to have that deep golden color.
For this reason, egg is often added. The desirable yellow color can be enhanced by the addition of egg yolks, a common ingredient in pasta.3
However, this is more of an issue for pasta varieties that derive from other wheat sources so this isn’t a problem for couscous. It so happens that durum wheat is higher in carotenoid pigments compared to other plants, which helps contribute to the rich color characteristic of pasta made from this particular wheat source.11
So, fortunately, for vegan lovers of couscous, egg yolk is not used in the production of this type of pasta.
So, that pretty much wraps it up for couscous. If you’re a fan of this healthy wheat product, fear not because it’s considered vegan. For similar reading, I wrote an article on the vegan status of rice you can check out here.
- Shulman, Martha Rose (February 23, 2009). “Couscous: Just Don’t Call It Pasta”. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/24/health/23recipehealth.html
- Anonymous. From our test kitchen— couscous. Fine Cooking 63:74, 2004.
- Understanding Food: Principles and Preparation (Page 359). Amy Brown – Wadsworth Cengage Learning – 2011
- “Global durum wheat use trending upward”. world-grain.com. “Global durum wheat use trending upward”. world-grain.com. https://www.world-grain.com/articles/8777-global-durum-wheat-use-trending-upward
- Wheat Middlings Composition, Feeding Value, and Storage Guidelines. https://www.bookstore.ksre.ksu.edu/pubs/mf2353.pdf
- Aboubacar A, and BR Hamaker. Physiochemical properties of flours that relate to sorghum couscous quality. Cereal Chemistry 76(2): 308–313, 1999.
- “Semolina – Definition”. Merriam-Webster. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/semolina
- Gallagher E. Formulation and nutritional aspects of gluten-free cereal products and infant foods. In EK Arendt and F Dal Bello. Gluten- Free Cereal Products and Beverages. Academic Press, 2008.
- Boyacioglu MH, and BL D’Appolonia. Durum wheat and bread products. Cereal Foods World 39(3):168–174, 1994.
- Mariani BM, MG D’egidio, and P Novaro. Durum wheat quality evaluation: Infl uence of genotype and environment. Cereal Chemistry 72(2):194–197, 1995.
- Cole ME, DE Johnson, and MB Stone. Color of pregelatinized pasta as infl uenced by wheat type and selected additives. Journal of Food Science 56(2):488–493, 1991.