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Moroccan Sardine Balls in Tomato Sauce is one of our favorite ways to enjoy fresh sardines, which are cheap and in abundance in Morocco. The dish is so popular that ground sardine “kefta” is available at the fish market, a purchase that can save a busy cook a little preparation and clean up time.
You’re not restricted to using sardines to make Moroccan fish balls, however. The fish meatballs can also be made with whiting, another popular choice in Morocco, or any other firm-fleshed fish fillets.
Moroccan Tomato Sauce
A zesty homemade tomato sauce is key to the dish’s classic flavor.
We start with ripe, fresh tomatoes that are peeled, seeded, chopped (some cooks prefer to grate them) then simmered with garlic, olive oil, parsley, cilantro, and Moroccan spices of cumin and paprika. A bay leaf is optional.
Although not essential, I saute a little onion and green pepper in the olive oil before adding the garlic and tomatoes. I also like a little heat so a few whole chili peppers go into the pot or tagine as well.
The same tomato sauce forms the basis for other Moroccan dishes, including Moroccan Kefta Tagine. In both cases, the meatballs are shaped quite tiny and the sauce can be made as spicy or mild as you like.
How to Make Moroccan Fish Balls
Seasoning for the Moroccan fish balls is nearly the same as for meatballs made of beef, lamb, or chicken. Traditionally minced sardines or whiting are mixed with salt, pepper, paprika, and cumin along with chopped cilantro and parsley.
I also like to add a little ginger, turmeric, and a clove or two of minced garlic, but overall I go a little lighter on the seasoning for the fish balls than I do for regular meatballs.
Shaping the fish mixture into traditional marble- or cherry-sized fish balls can be a little tricky. That’s because minced fish is less firm than ground meat so you’ll need a lighter hand. Wetting your hands with water will help prevent the mixture from sticking to your palms.
A Note About Fresh Sardines
If you’ve never tasted fresh sardines and are able to get them, do give them a try in this dish or in Moroccan Stuffed Fried Sardines with Chermoula. Fresh sardines lack that salty “fishy” pungency that characterizes their canned cousins. Still, they have more flavor than a very mild fish so you’re in for a real treat.
Be sure to have your fishmonger fillet the sardines or other fish you’ve selected, or buy boneless fillets. Once home, a food processor will make quick work of mincing the fish.
Serve the fish meatballs as a main dish or as a side to other fish or seafood. Moroccans tend to eat by hand using khobz in place of utensils, but you might want to break with tradition and serve saucy fish balls over rice or pasta instead.
Moroccan Sardine Balls in Tomato Sauce
- mixing bowl
For the Tomato Sauce
- 3.3 lbs fresh, ripe tomatoes
- ¼ cup olive oil - or more to taste
- 1 small onion - finely chopped
- 1 small green pepper - finely chopped
- 6 cloves garlic - or more to taste
- 2 tbsp finely chopped parsley
- 2 tbsp finely chopped cilantro
- 1.5 tsp cumin
- 1.5 tsp paprika
- 1 tsp salt - or to taste
- ½ tsp pepper - or to taste
- 1 or 2 bay leaves
- cayenne - to taste (optional)
- whole chili peppers - to taste (optional)
Make the Tomato Sauce
- Peel, seed, and finely chop the tomatoes. Set aside.
- Heat the olive oil in the base of a tagine or deep skillet over medium heat. (See notes if using a clay or ceramic tagine.)
- Add the chopped onion and green pepper and saute until tender, about 5 to 10 minutes.
- Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, 1 to 2 minutes. Do not allow the garlic to burn.
- Add the tomatoes, parsley, cilantro, spices, and cayenne or chili pepper. Bring to a simmer and cook, covered, stirring occasionally, for about 30 minutes, or until the tomatoes break down and a rich sauce has formed.
- When the sauce is done, taste and adjust seasoning. If desired, make it smoother by mashing the tomatoes or using an immersion blender sparingly. You can add a few tablespoons of water at this point if you feel the sauce is too thick.
Make the Fish Balls
- While the tomato sauce is cooking, prepare the fish balls.
- Place the boneless fish fillets in a food processor along with the garlic, parsley, cilantro, and spices. Pulse several times until the fish is finely minced and the seasoning is evenly distributed throughout the mixture.
- Set out a small bowl of water and wet your hands. Take small portions of the fish mixture and shape tiny meatballs the size of marbles or cherries.
- Add the fish balls to the tomato sauce and bring it back to a simmer. Cover and cook for 10 to 15 minutes, stirring gently once or twice, until the fish balls are cooked through.
- Remove the pan or tagine from the heat. Serve the fish balls directly from the tagine or pan with Moroccan bread on the side.
- I use a serrated peeler to peel tomatoes, but if you find that too tedious then cover the tomatoes with boiling water for a few minutes; drain and the skins will slip right off.
- Instead of peeling and chopping the tomatoes, some cooks prefer to grate them. This works best with very ripe tomatoes. Cut the tomatoes in half crosswise, remove the seeds, then finely grate the flesh to a pulp with a box grater.
- If cooking in a clay or ceramic tagine on a stove other than gas, a diffuser is a must. That's because the bottom of a clay tagine shouldn't come into direct contact with its heat source.
- And, if cooking with a clay or ceramic tagine, be sure to cook with no more than medium heat because too high of heat will crack a tagine. Be patient while waiting for things to come to a simmer.
Nutrition information is provided as a courtesy and is only an estimate obtained from online calculators. Optional ingredients may not be included in the nutritional information.
About the Author
Christine Benlafquih is Founding Editor at Taste of Maroc and owner of Taste of Casablanca, a food tour and culinary activity business in Casablanca. A long time resident of Morocco, she's written extensively about Moroccan cuisine and culture. She was the Moroccan Food Expert for The Spruce Eats (formerly About.com) from 2008 to 2016.
Thursday 6th of April 2023
Can this recipe be made in advance? Any tips?
Thursday 6th of April 2023
Yes, you can make this dish in advance. It will keep for several days in the fridge.