One of the most exotic of all North African dishes is couscous. Served in a restaurant that is using it to balance the food budget, it can be an overcooked, underseasoned bore. Cooked properly and garnished with care it can become a stunningly handsome presentation that deserves to be a banquet centerpiece.

Before heading to the kitchen, the novice couscous cook will be better able to cope if several areas of confusion are cleared up.

First, couscous is the name of the finished dish and of its central ingredient, a small-grain cereal of the semolina family. Second, recipes from different North African countries and even from different regions of the same country vary - there is no single "real" recipe and changes should be made to suit available ingredients. A simplified, very tasty version utilizes only the grain, meat, chick peas and onions. Third, the traditional cooking vessel - the hourglass shaped, two-piece couscoussier - is useful but by no means essential. A cheesecloth-lined colander that fits tightly into a pot will do the job.

The following recipe is that of Diane Bendahmane of the Carnegie Foundation office here, who lived for several years in Morocco. DIANE BENDAHMANE'S COUSCOUS (Serves 3 to 10) 2 pounds couscous grain (such as Rivoire brand) 2 pounds chicken pieces, or lamb cut in chunks 1 tablespoon salt 1 teaspoon black pepper 1 teaspoon tumeric 2 onions, peeled and chopped 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves (optional) 1 cup chick peas, soaked overnight

Dampen couscous with tap water and place in top of couscoussiere or cheese-cloth-lined colander. Place meat, seasonings, onions and chick peas in bottom of pot. Fill with water (being careful, if using colander, to keep water from touching it) and fix top in place. Cover couscous with a damp towel and wrap another towel around the separation between the two parts to hold in steam.

Cook 45 minutes after steam begins rising through couscous (or 1 hour to 1 hour and 15 minutes if using lamb). Empty couscous onto a large plate or shallow bowl and work about 1 1/2 cups of cold salted water into the grain with your hands. (The object is to break up all lumps. Continue, using more water if necessary, until this is done. Wear rubber gloves to protect the hands.) Remove meat from broth and keep warm. Taste broth and adjust seasoning. Add to the broth the following vegetables, or others according to season and availability: 3 onions, sliced 1 small head cabbage, sliced 2 cups zucchini, cut in finger-size chunks 2 turnips, peeled and cut in finger-size chunks 2 cups butternut squash or pumpkin, cut in finger-size chunks 1 handful raisins 1 tablespoon butter

Return fluffed-up couscous to its container and recover with towel. Replace on bottom, rewrap second towel and place once steam appears. Remove top and repeat fluffing process with cold salted water and an optional 2 tablespoons of butter. Heap couscous on a serving platter and arrange vegetables and meat on top. Pour a small amount of broth over all. Serve the remainder in a sauce boat.

Note: Many people choose to add "zip" to couscous by the use of a hot red paste called harissa. It may be mixed into a cup of sauce along with red pepper flakes. Start with about 1/2 teaspoon harissa and 1/4 teaspoon pepper flakes. (Red chili paste, available at Oriental groceries, may be used in place of harissa.