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Couscous bil Busla (Couscous with Onions) (Libya)


The trick to wonderful couscous is to steam the grain over the sauce so that the flavors of the stew seep into every little piece. Much fluffier and more flavorful than the store-bought boiled method you’re probably familiar with.

This version also steams onions and chickpeas with the same method. You soften the couscous with chicken stock first, then make a simple stew of chicken thighs, onion, tomato paste, salt and Libya’s favorite Five Spice blend: Hararat. Hararat is cinnamon, coriander, cumin, cayenne, and allspice - I love that concept of earthy, spicy, slightly sweet. 


As that simmers, put a steamer over the pot and steam a ton of onions and chickpeas. After they’ve softened, you’ll transfer them to a separate pot to caramelize. Then put the couscous in the steamer and let it steam until pure fluffiness. Then pile it up: couscous, stew, and onions on top. 


Serves 4



  • 2 1/2 cups (600 ml) couscous

  • 1 1/2 cups (360 ml) chicken stock

  • 1 tbsp (15 ml) olive oil

  • 1 lb (500 g) Chicken thighs, boneless, cut into chunks

  • 1 onion, chopped

  • 2 1/2 tbsp (37 ml) tomato paste

  • 1 1/2 tsp (7.5 ml) ground cinnamon

  • 1 tsp (5 ml) ground cumin

  • 1 tsp (5 ml) ground coriander

  • 1/4 tsp (1 ml) chili flakes

  • 1⁄4 tsp (1 ml) ground allspice

  • 1 tsp (5 ml) salt 

  • approximately one liter of hot water

  • Approximately 7 medium onions, halved and sliced

  • 1/2 cup (120 ml) canned chickpeas, drained and rinsed

  • 1 tsp ghee


  1. In a saucepan, heat chicken stock to boiling. Place couscous in a separate bowl. Pour the hot stock over the couscous, mix, and cover. Let rest for 5 minutes, then uncover and fluff the couscous, breaking any lumps. Use a separate bowl rather than the saucepan because you don’t want the additional radiant heat from the pan. The goal is soften the grains, but not to cook them yet.

  2. Mix the spices together.

  3. In a large pot, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Sauté the chopped onion until golden, then add the tomato paste. Stir it in and cook, stirring until the paste is fully integrated; you might need to turn the heat down to keep the mixture from scorching.

  4. Add the chicken and 1 tsp of the spice blend, mixing thoroughly to coat. Cook a couple of minutes until spices release their aroma. Then add salt and water and bring to a boil.

  5. Prepare steamer to place on top of pot and put sliced onions into steamer. Reduce heat to medium, place the steamer onto the pot and cover.

  6. After about 20 minutes, check to see if the onions are softening, then add a dish of salt and the chickpeas, then put the cover back on the steamer.

  7. After another 20 minutes, the onions should be tender, but not mushy.

  8. In a separate saucepan - you can use the one you heated the stock in - melt the ghee over medium-high heat. Add the onions and chickpeas and 3 ladles of the chicken sauce. Top with another 1 tsp of the hararat spice blend you made in step 1. Let this simmer.

  9. Put the couscous into the now-vacant steamer. Check the stew to ensure there is enough liquid to steam the couscous - you might need to add some more water.

  10. Replace the steamer and cover, steaming the couscous for about 20 minutes. 

  11. When the couscous is fluffy and aromatic, prepare to serve. Put the couscous in a large serving bowl, and sprinkle with some more of the hararat. Then ladle the stew onto the couscous, with the onion mixture on top.

  12. Enjoy!


Recipe adapted from Umm Obabdiah’s website (

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