Do you know what you're doing Saturday, October 16th? Well, you do now -- or at least you should, if you're anywhere near Pasadena on that day and have any interest in Middle Eastern cooking whatsoever. Yes, we know five months is long advance notice, but it's worth it for the Couscous Festival, and tickets to the event are fast disappearing.
Organized by Farid Zadi, a longtime chef-instructor at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Los Angeles, and his wife Susan Park, both co-executive chefs of the festival and experts in Algerian cuisine, the day-long event will include a cooking demo by none other than Paula Wolfert (Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco, The Cooking of Southwest France, etc.), who will be making cornmeal couscous. Throughout that Saturday, Zadi will be demonstrating a mint tea ceremony, there will be music from Tuareg, and demos in tagine cooking, hand-rolling couscous and the proper methods for steaming instant couscous. Also look for a retail section selling Mediterranean cookware and ingredients, including the Algerian Chemlali olive oil, which Zadi has been trying to bring to US markets for a decade.
Zadi says that he met Wolfert five years ago on food forums -- they've been friends since -- and that Wolfert offered to participate in the couscous festival via Facebook. This is the first couscous festival Zadi has organized, but he's already planning on making it an annual event, considering the response he's already gotten. The festival will be held at Mama's Kitchen Incubator in Pasadena, a local commercial food preparation and education center, which is near the culinary school's home campus. As of yesterday, Zadi said that about half the available tickets have already been sold, and he may even consider extending the festival into a second day.
As for why a couscous festival, Zadi says that "couscous is the defining element of all North African cuisines. There is no special event without couscous." The chef, who was born in Lyon, France, to Algerian Berber parents, wrote in an email yesterday: "my first memories of my mother's kitchen is the aroma of steaming semolina couscous. She would add butter and olive oil between steaming, and the aroma of semolina couscous cooking with olive oil and butter would intensify until the whole house was filled with it. So couscous is country, land, family, and mother. Everyone's mother makes the best and most 'true' couscous, by the way."
Zadi says that he's been posting about the proper way to make couscous (by steaming it) on his websites (chefzadi.com and bookofrai), and teaching it in his cooking school classes, but that he's found that for many Americans, having properly cooked couscous is revelatory. Thus a couscous festival.
"I want to break the stereotypes and clichés about North African cuisines," wrote Zadi. "It seems that more people are familiar with the very rich, heavy and spiced dishes associated with special occasions and feasts. When the reality is that North African cuisines are much more varied than that. Algerians in particular eat a lot of salads, which is something that people don't normally associate with the cuisine. There are lots of light, yet very flavorful dishes, so I want to highlight those."
For an excellent profile of Zadi, read Charles Perry's article in the Los Angeles Times.
Couscous Festival: held October 16th, between 11 a.m. and 7 p.m., at Mama's Kitchen Incubator, 45 North San Gabriel Blvd., Pasadena. Tickets are $20 and can be purchased here. Advance purchase of tickets is required. Tickets are sold in two time blocks (11:00 a.m. - 2:30 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. - 7:00 p.m.) to control crowds. $20 per person includes $15 worth of food tickets. Additional food tickets can be purchased in advance or on site the day of the festival.