When I recently asked my husband if he’d like tabouli, a salad made of parsley, mint, scallions, bulgur, tomatoes, cucumbers and a lemony dressing, he responded that we’d just had it.
But what he referred to was couscous salad.
Sure the dishes contained similar vegetables. However, I pointed out that bulgur is the grain in tabouli, while couscous is in the salad of the same name.
He shrugged and gave me that ” if you say so” look. Then, as the good husband of a blogger, my husband said, “you really ought to write a post about the difference between bulgur and couscous.”
So here it is. Yes, tabouli and couscous salads can look similar – and so can the grains.
Bulgur and couscous do come from a common source – wheat. But there are differences.
Bulgur (on the right in the photo above), is considered a whole grain. Another name for bulgur is wheat groats. (Groats is a general term for hulled grains, including oat, rye and barley as well as wheat.) Made of durum (hard) wheat, bulgur is cracked and partially cooked before packaging.
In the US, there are 4 grinds of bulgur, ranging from fine or extra fine (the name differs depending on the brand) to coarse or extra coarse. The color variation below is because Bob’s Red Mill (on the far right) bulgur, is from red wheat. The two to the left are from more common, brown, wheat.
In the photo below, you can really see the variation in the grains of the fine and medium grinds and the irregularity of the individual pieces of bulgur.
Bulgur is a common ingredient in cuisines throughout the Mediterranean and the Middle East, even as far east as India. Besides tabouli (or tabbouleh) and other salads, bulgur is an ingredient in rice pilafs, soups, stuffing, and hot side dishes.
Although you can cook bulgur for 5-7 minutes (depending on the grind), I don’t do that. Instead, I pour very hot or boiling water over the bulgur, let it stand for a while, and then drain it well.
Unlike bulgur, couscous is not whole grain. Rather, couscous comes from husked and crushed wheat called semolina. Couscous was originally made from millet, not wheat. Technically the term covers small, round pellets made from other grains too, and even rice, corn or black-eyed peas.
However, in the US, what we refer to as couscous is the semolina wheat variety.
Couscous is made by sprinkling the semolina with water and rolling it into tin, regular granules. Most packaged couscous that I’ve found is refined. I did find a whole wheat version at Whole Foods. As you can see below, the whole wheat is slightly darker than the refined. However both are small, regular-shaped “pearls.”
Couscous is traditional in North, West and even Central Africa, as well as the Middle East.
I love couscous salads, like this minty couscous. I make them in large batches (refrigerate it, of course) and we eat the salad for days during the hot weather months.
However, the more traditional use of the grain is in hot meals, covered with meat, poultry, vegetables, and beans in a stew or broth.
In several Middle Eastern countries, couscous is also a dessert, piled in a dome with nuts, sugar and cinnamon.
It’s not just a matter of the difference between bulgur and couscous, but also the types of couscous.
The couscous we get in the West is generally pre-steamed and dried. Therefore, you simply add boiling water and let it sit for a few minutes.
True Middle Eastern couscous is not pre-steamed and requires considerably longer to cook.
The larger round shaped so-called couscous, called Israeli or Jerusalem couscous (ptitim in Hebrew) is actually tiny balls of pasta. You cook it by boiling, like other types of pasta.
Now that you know the difference between bulgur and couscous, which one do you prefer?