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/

GREEN DAY

From left: braised greens, avocado, coriander pesto with tofu, pine nuts and yeast flakes, steamed broccoli with extra-virgin olive oil and lemon juice; all on ciabatta bread.  

“When you momentarily feel happiness during the day, jot down what you’re actually doing at the time. You may be surprised at what you discover– take note, and commit to prioritising more of these activities in the future.”

I read these words in an old magazine I grabbed from the near shelf while I was toasting bread for lunch and said to myself, “The idea for this blog was sudden and unpredictable and I knew from the beginning that it was going to work for me!” Thinking about how to re-interpret lunch in a creative way, putting it into practice and working on it with some commitment, choosing colours and vegetables by trying to vary as much as possible, taking a picture (I am cheered by this step!) editing the picture by giving it a little virtual light, sticking it on the laptop screen and being inspired by some volatile indeed constructive thinking while doing all of before, all this would be jotted down as one of the right things to do an done of the good moments of the day.

I am taking notes about what makes me really feel happy and, on the opposite side, about what takes my attention forcefully but soon reveals itself a wast of time. Sometimes valuable time is spent by our own choice in activities that do not nourish us either for basic needs (food, warmth, love) or the extras (ex. intellectual needs, knowledge). We may be wrongly judging what activities we should take part in or may just not be aware that something is not working for us, maybe even detrimental. But we cannot fake how we feel when we listen to ourselves, so let’s hang those pictures of good vibes in our wardrobe with a good caption, open all drawers and throw the paranoia out.

I make my four green toasts appear on the worktop after a 1,000 hours long (but worth the hardship) effort of buying bulky bags of vegs and getting them ready separately. I cut the broccoli florets, then soak, drain, steam and dress them with olive oil, salt and lemon juice. Then I prepare the greens by first removing all the ribs, lay the leaves on the worktop each at a time and cut them in stripes that are not too big, then soak them two times. It is the most boring phase, when I sometimes do meditate, but Green Day is accompanying the labour today, that makes meditation uneasy. When I braise the greens with olive oil, garlic and chilli I try to figure out my life without music and vegetables, it would be a basket case. In the meantime, pine nuts (cashew nuts are also good) are soaking in water until they’re soft, then I mix them in the food processor with silken tofu and my chosen herb, coriander this time, otherwise basil for an Italian flavour, add a spoon of natural yeast flakes. I had put the avocados in the fridge because the tiny label said “ready to eat”, but I reckon it is not ripe yet. I cut it anyway and pour lots of lemon juice to make it softer. I find the avocado stone fascinating and like to hold it in my hands like a de-stressing ball!

I cut four half moons of toasted “ciabatta” bread and lay them onthe worktop, all different but monochrome, ready to lift you up with a little more punky noise.

If you liked this, read also https://toastsandthoughts.blog/2018/12/01/rock-me-on-cars-and-buses/