Marseille is, among other things, a great couscous city. And no wonder: couscous entered the country’s mainstream through this bustling Mediterranean port where around a quarter of the city’s 800,000 people are from the Maghreb, as Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia are collectively called.
The best couscous might be served around the family table after Friday prayers at the mosque, but Marseille does have a number of excellent couscous joints – La Kahena, on the edge of Vieux Port and popular with pied noirs, and Le Fémina, which serves barley couscous, stand out. My favorite, though, is (the famously cheap) Sur Le Pouce, a hurried, noisy place with worn marble tables set close together and a boisterous clientele. Little has changed since I first ate there almost a decade ago. It was a blustery winter evening, clammy and damp. I had just arrived on the train from Barcelona and a friend met me at the station. We walked downhill through the mostly African Belsunce neighborhood to Sur Le Pouche for dinner. Inside was warm and smoky and packed with mostly North African men, many younger, many alone, wolfing down heaped bowls of inexpensive couscous. I had been in Morocco not long before and was craving good, authentic couscous. Here it was: double steamed and waiting to be devoured.
We go a couple of times a year to Marseille and try to eat at least once at Sur Le Pouce. The menu is largely meat dominated (there is a version of their lamb couscous with meatballs in my new cookbook), though on Fridays they prepare couscous au mérou (grouper). My girls love the big bowls of the fluffy grains, ladling on plenty of flavorful broth. This time my six year old kept pace in amount (and speed) as any local in the joint.
From there we stroll downhill to Vieux Port and Pâtisserie d’Aix for some Tunisian délices and another scaldingly hot glass of mint tea. The owners are cousins of Sur Le Pouce’s and offer, simply, the finest sticky sweet zlabia, makrouth, m’karek, beignets tunisiens, and the like.