Couscous Tfaya with sweet onions and sultanas

Couscous Tfaya with sweet onions and sultanas calls for a Qadra or Kadra method of cooking and making a broth. Tfaya is the sweet topping that comes crowning the couscous when it’s served.

Before we go further ahead, let’s remember what is a traditional Qadra spices and flavouring mix is about:

  • Onions,
  • Smen (Moroccan aged cured butter),
  • Oil,
  • Salt and pepper,
  • Turmeric,
  • Ginger (see the story of kadra on the original post about Qadra),
  • Saffron (optional),
  • A cinnamon stick for the sweet version of couscous.
Unlike the rest of North African cuisines, most of Moroccan couscous recipes are usually prepared without garlic nor tomatoes. A few types of herbs can be used, depending on the recipe. or none, such as in today’s recipe of Couscous Tfaya.

This couscous was not common in all Morocco. It’s safe to say that some cities are more into it than others. People have moved around with their recipes and now it’s widely known in the country. Ksar Lekbir (up towards the North of Morocco) has an interesting way of presenting it in multiple layers especially during Eid El Mawlid (In Remembrance of the Prophet’s birth).

Couscous Tfaya is also commonly prepared in Fez, Taza, Meknes. Deep down and towards the centre of Morocco, it’s rather the savoury versions of couscous that are really the thing.

My sister makes an amazing Couscous Tfaya and while I’m writing this recipe and using my old pictures I took in my London flat, I’m thinking to ask her to make a huge couscous during the weekend.
There is something special about eating a couscous in a family gathering, it just makes it taste better.
I went easy on the sugar so there is less caramelized topping than usual
So now that you should know what Kadra is about (see my last few posts about it), let me tell you a bit about Tfaya or T’faya.
In the rest of Morocco, Tfaya is a sweet topping from which the name of the dish comes from. It’s usually caramelized or confit of onions with dried raisins (sultanas) in some cases. It’s mostly flavoured with cinnamon.
However, in Fez, and besides the sweet Tfaya, we happen to have a savoury Tfaya. It’s made of lamb cuts which are slow-cooked until the meat is tender and melt-in-the mouth. These meat cuts will be topped with a reduced onion paste-like layer, hard-boiled eggs and fried blanched almonds. It’s a heavy hearthy yummy mix which we only serve during major happy events (Weddings, family gatherings. I’m not fan of red meat but I love this dish!
To make couscous Tfaya, the cooking happens in 3 stages corresponding to the 3 layers:
– A kadra for the meat and its broth
– A Tfaya for the sweet topping
– A steaming method for the couscous grains, ideally on the top of the kadra while it’s cooking.
We assemble the couscous and garnish it with hard-boiled eggs and whole or crushed fried almonds and serve it piping hot.
Like anything in sweet Moroccan dishes, sweet does not mean dead sweet but rather enough just to bring the sweetness of the vegetable out..It’s all in the balance, which is what makes a difference between a good dish we want to remember and one that we want to forget about.
My part
You could use pigeons instead of chicken as it was done the old days.

Serves  6/8 persons
Prep: 20 min – Cooking: 90 – 120 min
For the kadra
  • 1.500 g chicken, cut into 6 pieces and skined off (or nice chunks of lamb meat from the shoulder)
  • 200 – 300 g of onions, finely chopped
  • 200 g of chickpeas
  • 100 – 150 g raisins
  • 1 cinnamon stick, about 10 cm tall
  • 1 teaspoon turmeric
  • A good pinch of saffron
  • 10 cl of oil
  • 1 tsp of smen (Moroccan aged and cured butter)
  • 1 tsp of white/black pepper mix
  • Salt

For the couscous

  • 500 g of fine or medium grains of couscous (we prefer the fine version)
  • 40 ml of oil
  • 500 -750 ml of cold water
  • 1 tbsp of salt
  • 1 tbsp of smen, (replace with the white part of blue cheese or just butter)
For the Tfaya topping 
  • 1 kg of onions, ideally yellow or white onions, finely sliced
  • 1 tsp of ground cinnamon
  • A good pinch of salt
  • 100 – 120g sugar or 50%-50% sugar/clear honey
  • 3 tbps of oil
  • Additional ingredients according to Ksar El-Kbir’s recipe: 1 of each: smen, saffron, turmeric and black pepper 
  • 2 ladles of the sauce from the kadra (filtered without onions)
We always serve extra marka (broth) along with couscous should people
want to add more 
Pre-soak the chickpeas overnight. Soak the sultanas for 1 hour in warm water.

Make the kadra

Place the couscoussier (or double boiler) over medium heat.

In the bottom of a couscoussier, place a few tablespoons of water, spices except saffron, oil, meat or chicken and stir. Do not try to brown the meat or fry it or sear it. Just let the meat absorb all the spices for a few minutes but flipping it over. Make sure nothing burns at this stage. Not browning or searing the meat allows it to absorbs the spices and benefit from them and that’s how traditional cooking is always tastier and the meat remains tender.

Add enough water to cover the chicken (or meat). Add the chickpeas and cover. The red meat will take longer to cook so adjust the cooking time accordingly. Check for water level so the pot does not burn. You also need to keep about 500 ml of sauce in the end of the cooking process as we need it for the couscous.

Halfway of kadra cooking, start steaming the couscous.

Prepare the couscous

Most of us now buy a precooked couscous but most of Moroccans will never soak the grains and stir them after 5 min then serve them. A steamed couscous has absolutely nothing to do with that 5 min thing. A steamed couscous is fluffier and lighter. However, you can shorten the steaming times to 5 min each (multiply by 3).

All brands are not equal. At home, we do prefer Dari brand which I also find in London (sold in Turkish and North African groceries).

In Morocco, we use a traditional type of couscoussier (top right) or a sort of cone or a round
 recipient that we place on top of pressure cooker (such as this one bottom left).
It can be also been a steaming rice basket (Choumicha has featured women using it in many villages around Morocco)

I prefer to direct you to Christine Amina Belafquih’s amazing Moroccan cooking page for the steps to steam couscous. You can also watch the incredibly talented Chef Mourad Lahlou’s video on the subject (I tend to use the broth for the 3rd steams sometimes).

But before you head to the page, please read these points:

  • Never cover the top of the couscoussier while steaming couscous
  • While adding water to the couscous, do it gradually, when you feel that couscous has absorbed the previous addition. Let it cool for a few minutes and add more. Usually the first steaming requires about 200 ml, the second requires more (about double) and even more in the 3rd steam…But you still have to be careful and adjust according to the brand used.
  • Observe the cooking time
  • Make sure the water or broth from the bottom couscoussier does not get to the couscous grains on top. When the pot is full, it tends to splash from inside and dampen the bottom grains, which is not good as they might overcook.
  • To break couscous lumps after each steaming time, make sure you do it delicately. Big lumps can be broken with a wooden spatula while small lumps require hands and feel, not forks and pressures.
  • Check the seasoning after you add smen and have the grains infuse with it. Like pasta, it’s not nice to serve a tasteless couscous, even the sauce can’t compensate for that.

Prepare the Tfaya topping

Slice the onions thinly, put them in a saucepan or deep skillet with a pinch of salt and the 2 ladles of filtered sauce from the kadra . Cook over low heat the onions are tender and all water has been absorbed, This step should take about 10-15 min on medium heat Covering the pan will help the onions cook through.

Some people prefer to boil the onions in water and discard it before caramelizing them since some types of onions can turn bitter. If you choose good sweet onions, boiling is not required.

Add the oil, cinnamon, sugar, raisins and let slowly caramelize, stirring occasionally. If you choose to make the Tfaya following the version of Ksar el-kbir city, add the other ingredients at this stage or even before.

Let caramelize and reduce for another 10 min at max.

Assemble and serve couscous Tfaya

Spread the couscous in a serving dish. We like to form a sort of well in the middle.

With a laddle full of sauce/broth/marka, go around and try to poor it all around so most of the couscous grains absorb some of it. Place the chicken cuts or the meat in the centre. Use a sort of frying spatula to fish chickpeans and spread them on the top of the meat.

Place a layer of tfaya on the top of the meat and finish off by sprinkling fried almonds and halved boiled eggs.


The couscous turns yellow once the sauce is added and the grains are
nicely infused with it. I also like to serve extra Tfaya on the side for those who want more.

Serve bowls of the Kadra sauce on the side for those who want their couscous wetter. You should never serve a very wet couscous but always serve extra broth on the side to adjust the texture to their liking.


Some people like me do not digest smen when it’s added in the end (in the grains). I suggest you add it to the sauce in the beginning of the cooking process. As for the bit related to the grains, add it before steaming the grains for the second time. The flavour will be there but It’s not overwhelming. Just nice.

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