I’m just gonna start off by saying that it took me a long time to get this recipe where it needed to be before I published it! Notice that I skipped a week here and there from posting? Yup, introducing Cape Verdean Cuscuz, she’s to blame! Making cuscuz is an art and a science, and don’t you let anyone tell you otherwise!
First and foremost, I give full credit to mamá (my grandmother) for showing me how to make Cape Verdean cuscuz. I tested and re-photographed this recipe many times because I needed it to be as perfect as hers! I’m show you how to make it in a traditional binde (claypot) because that’s just how Mamá makes it.
What is cuscuz?
I realize that not everyone knows what cuscuz is. Truthfully, Cuscuz is kind of hard to define. Simply put, cuscus is a Cape Verdean breakfast food that’s made mainly of corn flour or mandioca (yucca) flour. The corn version (this one) also contains sugar, cornmeal and mandioca starch (aka manioc or tapioca starch). Most people add a touch of cinnamon. The dry ingredients are moistened with water and steamed in a binde, which as I mentioned, is a traditional Cape Verdean clay pot. Most Cape Verdeans use a flower pot (yes, one that you can find at the Home Depot) and insert it into a large tin can. The seam is sealed with a paste that’s made from the reserved corn flour, and the cuscuz is covered and steamed on the stove top.
The end result is sort of like a cornbread (I’m cringing as I say that because it tastes nothing like the cornbread that we eat in the US), but honestly that’s the closest thing I can compare it to. Feel free to come for me in the comments if you can make a better comparison! As I mentioned, cuscuz can also be made with yucca flour, but that’s an entirely different post for another day.
Cuscuz is typically served with other Cape Verdean breakfast foods like re-heated rice, fried eggs, fried fish, linguica or fried cachupa. Most people make it on the weekends but heat it up for a smaller breakfast during the week with coffee.
Cape Verdean vs. Brazilian Cuscuz
Brazilians have their version of cuscuz. I’ve never had Brazilian cuscuz, but from what I’ve seen online, they have a version that is very similar. Brazilian cuscuz is also steamed, although I’m not sure if a claypot is traditionally used in Brazil. They use something called a cuscuzeira, which is a modernized pan used to make cuscuz. Cuscuzeiras can be tricky to find for sale in the U.S. but I was able to find one online. (I’ve never used it, by the way).
Should I use a binde or a cuscuzeira?
This is your choice, but traditionally Cape Verdean cuscuz is made in a binde (clay pot). In Cape Verde, the binde has more of a dome shape and has more than one hole in the bottom. In the U.S., I’ve only seen unglazed terra cotta flower pots used as bindes. This substitution likely came from the fact that the traditional Cape Verdean binde is not sold in the U.S.
The binde is placed on top of a metal canister (usually a large emptied out metal can) that’s filled ⅓ of the way up with water. Paste made from the cuscus flour is used to seal the seam where the the binde meets the can. This seal keeps the steam in the binde.
If you’re not up for the challenge of assembling a binde/metal can device, you can opt to use a cuscuzeira. Just keep in mind that a cuscuzeira is much smaller than the binde used in this recipe. I believe it’s roughly half the size, so you’ll need to scale the recipe down.
Mamá swears the binde yields better tasting cuscuz. As I’ve mentioned, I haven’t used my cuscuzeira yet to make the comparison, but I’m taking Mamá’s word for it!
Disclaimer time! As you know, flower pots are not designed for cooking. I’ve been eating Cape Verdean cuscuz made in a flower pot my entire life, but I cannot attest to its safety. Some sources say that unglazed terra cotta is safe for eating, but I haven’t conducted any other research to confirm that. If you have concerns related to food safety, using a cuscuzeira is your best bet.
List of Ingredients:
- Yellow corn flour is the main ingredient and can be tricky to find. I’ve had luck finding it in Portuguese and Latin markets though.
- Yellow pre-cooked cornmeal is commonly labeled ‘masa harina’. You’ll only need about a cup. It helps give the cuscuz structure.
- Tapioca starch comes from the yucca plant. Tapioca starch is also labeled as tapioca flour, or manioc starch. This recipe only calls for a few tablespoons, but it’s an important binding agent, so you’ll need it.
- Granulated sugar adds sweetness, but don’t over-do it or Mamá will talk about you!
- Cinnamon is added to enhance the flavor. I use 1 tablespoon, some people use more and some don’t use any.
- Water is an important ingredient because it holds everything together. I use anywhere from 2 and ½ to 3 cups of water (added a little bit a time). I explain my theory on when to use 2 and ½ cups versus 3 cups in step 2.
- Cooking spray is optional but recommended if you want picture-perfect cuscus. I find that when I grease the pot with butter, it sticks to the binde a little. You can use butter in place of spray, or you can use both!
- Salted butter is preferred to serve with cuscuz. There’s no salt in the recipe itself, so the salted better gives the cuscus a nice taste.
Tools you’ll need:
- Your hands! The ingredients are combined using your hands, no whisk or spatula is needed.
- A very large bowl. I’m not exaggerating, a 30-inch steel mixing bowl is ideal. You’ll be mixing a lot of flour with your hands so it’s gonna get messy. If you think you’re gonna be making cuscus regularly, invest in a large steel mixing bowl. I store mine in my basement when it’s not being used, since it won’t fit in any of my cabinets.
- A mesh strainer is used to sift the ingredients into the binde. You need this!
- A clay pot. Make sure you read my disclaimer regarding food-safety above. I bought my flower pot at Ace Hardware for like 5 bucks. You’ll need one with a hole in the bottom and preferably no grooves on the inside. Also, make sure it’s an unglazed terra cotta pot.
- Parchment paper or a coffee filter to cover the hole at the bottom of the binde.
- An empty 28 ounce metal can. I repurposed a large coffee can. My can won’t last forever but I can easily buy another one.
- Foil and a glass lid to cover the cuscuz while it’s steaming.
- Cuscuzeira: this is a modernized aluminum cuscuz pan. If you have one of these, you don’t need the flower pot, metal can, foil or glass lid. Cuscuzeiras come with their own lid. Remember you’ll need to adjust the recipe since a cuscuzeira is smaller than the binde used in this recipe
Step 1: Combine the flour, cornmeal and starch
Using the largest mixing bowl that you can find, combine the flour, cornmeal and tapioca starch using your hands. The mixture will feel very soft and silky. Take a few minutes to mix the ingredients thoroughly. Set ⅓ of a cup of this mixture aside. You’ll need it to make paste to seal the binde later.
Step 2: Add water
This recipe calls for 2 and ½ to 3 cups of water. You can use cold or room temperature water. It doesn’t need to be freezing, right from the faucet is fine. Add the water to the flour mixture, just a little at a time, and continue to mix with your hands.
The flour should feel moist but not wet. You’ll know it’s moist enough when it holds together when you squeeze it in your fist. If the flour falls apart easily when you unclench your fist, it’s not moist enough. I have this crazy theory that slightly less water is needed when the air is humid, so in the summer I use 2 and ½ cups, but in the fall and winter months I use 3.
Step 4: Add sugar and cinnamon
Generally I use 1 and ½ cups of sugar and 1 tablespoon of cinnamon. Feel free to use a little more or a little less to suit your taste. Add the cinnamon and sugar to the moistened flour and mix again with your hands. I don’t add the sugar and cinnamon before the water because I don’t want it to get sticky or muddy.
Step 5: Fill the pot
I use cooking spray to grease the binde. Some people prefer butter and that’s fine, but I use spray because I think it’s a better non-stick agent. I also cut a small round piece of parchment and place it at the bottom of the pot to cover the hole. You can use a coffee filter but I find that the parchment doesn’t leave as much of an imprint. Remember, I photograph my food!
To sift the flour, I put the clay pot right in the steel bowl. Sifting the flour gets messy so I like to have something to catch it in. Use your mesh strainer to sift the mixture into the binde. Use your hands to rub the mixture against the mesh basket. You’ll need to apply a little pressure to press the moistened flour through the strainer basket. You’ll notice that the flour will start to accumulate on the underside of the basket. Tap your hand against the strainer to release the flour as it accumulates.
Do not pack the flour or press it down when you’re filling the binde! I know it can be tempting to do this! If you do this, the cuscuz will become too dense and the steam won’t penetrate. If the steam can’t penetrate, you’ll end up with dry, or worse, broken cuscuz.
Once the binde is full, you can use the back of a spoon to press the top layer down very gently.
Step 6: Assemble the binde
Assembling the binde is simple. You’re just going to fill the metal can about ⅓ of the way with tap water and place the clay pot into the can. You shouldn’t have to worry about the bottom of the pot touching the water because of the way that the pot is shaped.
Add a few tablespoons of water to the flour that you reserved earlier, and use your fingers to make a paste. Press the paste against the seam where the can and the binde meet. You want to seal this off to ensure that the steam doesn’t escape while the cuscus is cooking. The paste should go around the circumference of the binde, as shown in the photo below.
Step 7: Cover and steam
Use foil to cover the top of the binde. Poke holes in the foil to allow the steam to escape. Place a glass lid over the foil and steam the cuscuz over medium heat for about 40 minutes.
Condensation will start to build on the inside of the lid around the 20-30 minute mark. If you notice the condensation sooner, that’s ok. After 40 minutes, you should be able to smell the cuscus. It will have a sweet smell.
Turn the flame off and let the binde cool to the touch. You’ll need to remove the paste from the seam and you don’t want to do this while the binde is still hot.
Step 8: Release the cuscuz and serve
After the binde has cooled down and you’ve taken the paste off, carefully remove the pot from the can and take off the foil and lid. Be careful! The water inside the pot is still hot!
You can run a butter knife along the inside of the binde to release the cuscuz from the sides, but you may not need to. Place a large plate over the top of the binde and invert the cuscuz. You can knock on the sides and top of the binde if you want to, but the cuscuz should release on its own.
You’ll hear when the cuscuz is released because it’s heavy! Lift up the binde and cover the cuscuz with a kitchen towel until you’re ready to serve it. We keep our cuscuz covered on the breakfast table so it doesn’t dry out. We only uncover it to cut a slice.
Slice the cuscuz with a sharp knife and serve it with salted butter!
I was being very modest with the butter in this photo! I normally use way more butter than what’s pictured below.
Cuscuz serving and storing tips:
- Serve Cape Verdean cuscuz with softened butter! Softened butter is way easier to spread. Normally Mamá serves it with spread (aka fake butter). I’m not gonna pretend that I didn’t grow up on spread! As long as it’s salted, spreads easily, and tastes like butter, you’re good! What’s good enough for Mamá is good enough for me!
- Keep a kitchen towel draped over the cuscuz while serving. To prevent it from drying out, only uncover it to take a slice, and then cover it back up again.
- Use a large sharp knife to slice your cuscuz.
- Wrap any leftover cuscus in foil and store it in the refrigerator. Seriously, this part. Cuscuz is very dense and surprisingly holds a lot of moisture! It will get moldy if you store it at room temperature in a plastic container. You don’t want to see what moldy cuscuz looks like!
- Leftover cuscus can be heated up in a steamer. I think I actually like it better on the second day. The second steaming makes it so soft and moist!
- Leftovers will keep in the refrigerator for 3-4 days
- Finally, switch it up! Although butter is my favorite topping, you can serve it with papaya jam, sweetened condensed milk or honey. Some people eat it with milk and sugar in a bowl!
Want to try some other Cape Verdean recipes?
Traditional Cape Verdean Cuscuz
- 32 ounce bag of yellow corn flour
- 1 cup pre-cooked yellow cornmeal (this is labeled as )
- 2 tablespoons tapioca starch (also known as manioc starch or tapioca flour)
- 1 cup of granulated sugar (can use less if desired)
- 2-3 cups of room temperature water
- 1-2 tablespoons 1-2 tablespoons of cinnamon
- Cooking spray or a few tablespoons of salted butter for greasing the binde
- Salted butter, softened for serving
- Empty the bag of flour into the large metal bowl. Add the cornmeal, and tapioca starch, and combine them with your hands.
- Add ¼ cup of water at a time and use it to moisten the flour mixture. I usually end up using 2 and ½ cups to 3 full cups. Take a handful of the flour mixture and make a fist to squeeze it in the palm of your hand. If it sticks together without falling apart, that means you have enough water. If the flour mixture is powdery or falls apart when you unclench your fist, you need more water.
- Add the sugar and cinnamon and continue to mix using your hands.
- Grease the inside of the binde (clay pot) with a coat of cooking spray or 1-2 tablespoons of softened butter.
- Use a small piece of parchment paper (a coffee filter also works well) to cover the hole at the bottom of the binde. Using a mesh strainer, sift the flour mixture into the binde. Don’t pack the flour down!
- Once the pot is full, use the flat edge of a spoon to gently press the top of the cuscuz down. Cover the large opening of the binde with foil, poke a few holes in the foil and cover the pot with a glass lid. Set aside.
- Fill the large can about ⅓ of the way with water from the sink. Place the can on the stove and put the binde in the can. Combine the reserved flour with a few tablespoons of water and use your fingers to make a thick paste. Use the paste to seal the seam between where the can and the binde meet. Make sure you seal the entire circumference of can.
- Steam the cuscuz over a medium flame for about 40 minutes. You should be able to smell the cuscuz when it’s done, and condensation will build up on the inside of the lid.
- Once the cuscuz is done steaming, turn the flame off and let the binde sit until it’s cool enough to touch. Use a metal spoon to chip the hardened paste off of the binde. Carefully remove the binde from the can.
- Uncover the binde. If needed, run a butter knife along the edges of the cusuz and place a dish over the opening of the binde and invert it. Lit it sit for 2-3 minutes. You can knock on the top and sides of the binde to help release the cuscuz. Lift the binde slowly and the cuscuz should come out easily.
- Slice the cuscuz lengthwise and serve immediately with softened butter. Cover the cuscuz with a dish towel while it’s being served. To store it, wrap each slice in foil and store it in the refrigerator for 3-4 days.