CITY OF COUSCOUS

Kader Attia, “Untitled” 2009

I saw the city of couscous by the French-Algerian artist Kader Attia in the Tate Modern Gallery a few years ago. Under the generic name “Untitled”, the 2009 installation recreates the Algerian city of Ghardaia with 300kg of couscous cooked then left to dry with salt, in moulds shaped like the city’s buildings. The task of literally building the city from the project was carried out by the Tate’s staff who arranged it in the room of the “Living Cities”exhibition.

I was moved when I saw it for the first time, not only for all its meanings and references – the Parisian banlieues where the artist grew up, his homage to Le Corbusier and Pouillon, who used features of Gardhaia’s buildings in their architecture, the relationship and influences between Europe and Africa and the impermanence and decaying of the city, as the couscous will crumble with time like real cities do.

On a personal point of view, couscous is one of my best loved foods, it is quick to make (for who, like me, will only ever use the precooked one), it is nutritious, has many health benefits and an amazing taste. Other cereals (quinoa for example) have more protein, but the couscous flavour is unbeatable. I accompanied it today with oven roasted beetroot, a pumpkin burger and a powerful sprinkle of herbs and spices. Couscous is the typical middle-eastern cereal but I know no limits to the toppings. Whether it consists of stews, oven cooked or raw vegetables, I dare to go beyond tradition. I understand that couscous is a basic staple of north African nutrition, like pasta, rice and potatoes in other latitudes, and that it is less expensive than other cereals like barley, spelt, millet and so on.

At the exhibition I perceived the city of couscous like a place offering well being, which is slightly out of the context. At the same time it connects me with my roots. Even in Sicily, the southernmost part of Italy, couscous is part of the culinary tradition. Having in mind the low, flat roofed Mediterranean buildings of the south I look again at the city of Ghardaia on the wooden floor. It is doomed to erosion, and the plans are to act by adjusting it or building it again when it is nearly unrecognisable. What a challenge!

I cannot avoid to think of my home town in Italy, recently hit by a hurricane on the Tyrrhenian coast. With many roofs and walls collapsed and all the pine trees in the main boulevard eradicated by the violence of the storm, the calamity has changed it in its individual, characteristic features. It takes a huge endeavour and time to build it as it was, or better. I have no doubts that art curators and workers have a much easier task.


I am more keen on writing than on following the rules of culinary tradition, like they do for sure in the south. But thank you for dropping by and… have a lovely couscous dish. 

For a pleasant start of the day or relaxing time read https://toastsandthoughts.blog/2018/12/10/a-poem-for-breakfast/

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