The name used in Israel now for this pasta is actually “ptitim.”
Ptitim are fat, dried “pearls”, about 1 mm (1/32 inch) in size, made from a paste of moistened finely ground hard white wheat flour, which is then machine-extruded out through moulds, then toasted dry in ovens. There are also whole-wheat flour and spelt flour versions now as well.
The toasting process distinguishes Ptitim from other pasta (though it makes it similar to the Sardinian pasta called “fregola.”) The toasting seals the starch, helping the nodules to be cooked later in liquid without falling apart, and it also gives the pasta a bit of a nutty taste.
When cooked, the pearls treble in size, and have a dense, bouncy, chewy texture. They don’t have a strong flavour of their own, so they absorb other flavours well.
Ptitim can be used mixed into a main dish, or as the base for a main dish, or seasoned, as a side dish. It can also be used in soups or salads.
For years, Ptitim was just a food item you’d see at home. It still is perceived as “kid’s food”, as it is often served to kindergarten kids as a side dish at lunch, often with something like a chicken schnitzel, with a dollop of ketchup on the side.
It has now been appropriated by fancy restaurants in the West and elevated to the level of fine pasta, which some Israelis find amusing.
Ptitim is sold dried, in its round form, in a rice grain shape, and for kids, in shapes such as stars, hearts, and rings.
There can be a bit of static electricity from being sold in a cello plastic bag, so pour out carefully or you may end up with some on the floor or over the counter.
Note: to be clear, Ptitim is *not* the same as Mograbia (aka Maftoul, Pearl Couscous etc.), despite what you might read elsewhere, though the two can be used similarly. Mograbia is a coated couscous; Ptitim is an extruded paste. Note as well that the word “Maftoul” is sometimes incorrectly used in America to refer to Israeli Couscous.
See separate entry on Mograbia.
Cook as for pasta in boiling salted water for 10 to 15 minutes until al dente, then drain.
Or, if you are cooking in stock, try a 1 1/2 portion stock to 1 portion Ptitim ratio (be prepared to have a bit more stock, or water, to add), and simmer until all absorbed.
Toss a few handfuls into a soup for last 10 to 15 minutes of cooking.
For a nuttier flavour, toast the Ptitim in a dry frying pan for 2 to 3 minutes first (watch very carefully), or sauté in some oil with garlic, chopped onion, etc.
For a side dish, fry up in oil onions and garlic, add the Ptitim and brown them a bit, then pour on some water and simmer till cooked. Add fresh ground black pepper, salt, and maybe a bit of cumin and eat.
Individual pieces retain their shape in cooking; they don’t tend to lump together.
Fregola pasta from Sardinia, bulgur wheat, orzo, Mograbia
Store for up to a year in a sealed container.
Israeli Couscous is sometimes referred to as “Ben Gurion’s Rice.”
It was invented in the 1950s at suggestion of David Ben-Gurion (1886 – 1973), then Prime Minister of Israel. Israel had just finished the War of Independence. Many new immigrants were arriving from elsewhere in the Middle East. These new settlers depended on rice as a food staple in their cooking, but there were rice shortages.
Ben-Gurion asked Eugen Propper of the Osem food company to come up with something that people could use instead. Osem came up with Ptitim / Israeli Couscous, made originally in the shape of rice grains, as is Orzo pasta (it is still available in this shape today.)
When the rice-shaped version took off, the company then came out with the round version, which they decided to call “couscous”, and later, the shapes for children.
Aka Jerusalem couscous, aka ptitim, aka Ptitim Afuyia, aka “baked flakes” in Hebrew (פתיתים )
Sometimes incorrectly referred to as Maftoul in America, but that is actually “Mograbia.” See separate entry on Mograbia.
Martinelli, Katherine. Ben Gurion’s Rice and a Tale of Israeli Invention. The Jew and The Carrot Blog. 3 November 2010. Retrieved February 2011 from http://blogs.forward.com/the-jew-and-the-carrot/132794/
Schwartz, Susan. Why Israeli couscous was once known as Ben-Gurion rice — and more: Israel through its food. Montreal, Canada: The Gazette. 22 June 2010.