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Couscous de Poisson

March 12, 2021
Photo: Justin CovingtonPhoto: Justin Covington

For years I had heard about the deliciousness of spicy Tunisian fish balls in a stew served over couscous from serious eaters like Jeffrey Steingarten, the former food columnist for Vogue. He told me that couscous de poisson was a specialty of the Tunisian Jews—possibly from the island of Djerba, where only a handful of Jews live today. A few years ago, I met Annie Berrebi, a Tunisian home cook living in Paris’ 16th arrondissement. She makes the dish weekly, either for Tuesday lunch or on Friday night for her family.

Featured in: Up Your Couscous Game

Great for: Rosh Hashanah


Fish Balls

  • 1pound grouper or other meaty white fish
  • 1pound fresh soft-flesh white fish, such as sole, flounder, or whiting
  • 8spring onions or large scallions, diced
  • 1bunch of fresh parsley, chopped
  • 2teaspoons salt, or to taste
  • ¾baguette, soaked in water and drained
  • ¼teaspoon freshly ground pepper, or to taste
  • 2teaspoons harissa, or to taste
  • 5large cloves garlic, 4 of them minced
  • 3large eggs
  • Olive oil for frying
  • 2fresh tomatoes, peeled and diced, or one 6-ounce can
  • 1heaping tablespoon tomato paste


  • ¼cup olive oil
  • 1onion, peeled and diced
  • 2large cloves garlic, minced
  • 2tomatoes, fresh or canned, peeled and diced
  • 2teaspoons tomato paste
  • 2teaspoons harissa, or to taste
  • 2cups fish stock or water
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
  • 1leek, halved lengthwise, cleaned, and sliced
  • 2zucchini, sliced
  • 2medium potatoes, peeled and cut in half
  • 2stalks celery, sliced
  • 3carrots, peeled and cut into thirds
  • 1yellow winter squash (such as butternut), peeled and cut in large chunks
  • 1cup chickpeas, cooked fresh or rinsed and drained from a can
  • 1pound couscous
  • 2tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro for garnish
Yield: At least 10 servings


  • Step 1

    Prepare couscous according to directions on the package, and set aside.

  • Step 2

    Start to make the broth. Heat the oil in a soup pot. Sauté the onion and one of the minced garlic cloves until the onion is translucent. Add the tomatoes, tomato paste, and harissa, stir, and continue cooking over low heat. Then add the fish stock or water, salt and freshly ground pepper to taste, the leek, zucchini, potatoes, celery, and carrots.

  • Step 3

    While the broth is simmering, start to make the fish balls. Break up the baguette and soak pieces in a bowl of water. Grind both kinds of fish, plus the spring onions or scallions, garlic, and the parsley, and 1 teaspoon of the salt, in the bowl of an electric food processor fitted with a steel blade.

  • Step 4

    Add the remaining teaspoon salt, the pepper, 1 teaspoon of the harissa, and the eggs to the food processor. Squeeze out the bread and add to the mixture, then blend again. The texture should be paste-like but not mushy. If it’s too thin, add some more bread; if too thick, add a little water. Chill the fish mixture in the refrigerator for a few minutes.

  • Step 5

    While the fish is in the refrigerator, add the squash and the chickpeas to the broth, after it has been simmering for about 5 minutes. Cover the sauce and simmer for another 15 minutes, or until the squash is cooked. Then remove the pot from the heat and set aside.

  • Step 6

    While the broth is simmering, take the fish mixture out of the refrigerator. Dip your hands into cold water, then mold the fish mixture into balls a little larger than walnuts and place them on a large plate. You should have about three dozen balls.

  • Step 7

    Heat 1/2 inch of olive oil in a large, heavy frying pan, and sauté the fish balls until they become golden. Depending on the size of your pan, you might want to do this in two or even three batches. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels.

  • Step 8

    Discard all but about 1/4 inch of the oil from the pan. Add the tomatoes, pressing them down, and the remaining garlic clove. Cook for about 5 minutes. Pour in about 2 inches of water, and stir in the tomato paste and the remaining teaspoon of harissa. Bring to a boil, and add the fish balls. Reduce the heat and simmer, uncovered, for a few minutes, coating them with the sauce.

  • Step 9

    Pile the couscous in a pyramid on a big serving platter, then arrange the fish balls and the vegetables around it. Ladle the broth all over and garnish with the cilantro.