Investigating Food in Film: Berber Couscous from Babel

It's little surprise many famous movie scenes involve food; there's a certain pleasure in watching characters eat the foods we enjoy in real life or grapple with the familiar challenges of cooking, say, lobsters. But have you ever been watching a film and someone mentions a food you've never heard of? Or there's a dining scene and you can't pay attention to the dialogue because you're too distracted wondering what the heck they're eating? This series is devoted to answering those questions.

Babel is not what many would call a "foodie flick." The 2006 drama, which takes on issues such as terrorism, poverty, immigration and miscarriages, isn't exactly designed to make your stomach rumble with hunger.

Mine did anyway when I was re-watching the film this past weekend. Perhaps it was because I already knew the often tragic outcomes of the intersecting storylines that I was easily distracted by one particular dinner scene.

As young brothers Yussef and Ahmed eat supper, their father inquires if they have been able to kill any jackals with the rifle he recently purchased. A series of uncomfortable glances follows, for earlier that afternoon Yussef shot at a tourist bus and the boys (mistakenly) believe the woman they hit in the bus has died. A tense moment, needless to say, and one that occurs over a communal meal that looked so delicious I found myself hungry in spite of myself.

I had to rewind a few times to make out what they were eating, and although there are no direct shots of the dish, it becomes clear it's some sort of large bowl of rice with vegetables. Based on this observation and the fact that this portion of the film is set in rural southern Morocco, I inferred that the family was dining on couscous, specifically a variety favored by the Berber people. Staples of the cuisine of this ethnic group (found not just in Morocco but across northern Africa) include tagines, game meat and couscous, which is seasoned with various spices, cooked in butter and often crowned by a shank of some sort.

I was content to drool over the brief shots of the dish, but if you're feeling adventurous, you may want to check out this rather daunting recipe. Sadly, I cannot recommend a place to find Berber couscous in Houston; indeed, when I wrote about the gaps (as I saw them) in the Houston food scene, many people chimed in bemoaning the lack of a true Moroccan restaurant.

I passed these comments along to someone who works with a very talented Houston chef who hails from Morocco, so perhaps 2014 will bring us some Berber couscous...

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