North African Meatballs Recipe (2024)

By David Tanis

North African Meatballs Recipe (1)

Total Time
1 hour 15 minutes
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In France, meatballs are called boulettes, and by far the favorite versions are the spice-scented North African type. Most of the neighborhood Tunisian and Moroccan restaurants in Paris offer them, served as an appetizer or a side, or in a fragrant main-course tagine with couscous.

This recipe is an amalgam of several that I found on my bookshelf, among them one called boulettes tangéroises in an old French cookbook. Since I like things a bit spicier, my boulettes are more like Tunisian ones, in which hot pepper is more assertive.

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Yield:4 to 6 servings, about 36 meatballs

    For the Saffron Tomato Sauce

    • 2tablespoons olive oil
    • 1and ½ cups finely diced onion
    • 3garlic cloves, minced
    • 2tablespoons tomato paste
    • 1inch piece cinnamon stick
    • Large pinch saffron, crumbled
    • Salt and pepper
    • 3cups chicken broth, vegetable broth or water

    For the Meatballs

    • 1and ½ cups cubed day-old firm white bread
    • 1cup milk
    • 1pound ground beef or lamb
    • 1large egg, beaten
    • 1teaspoon salt
    • ¼teaspoon black pepper
    • 4garlic cloves, minced
    • teaspoon grated nutmeg
    • 1teaspoon ground ginger
    • 1teaspoon turmeric
    • 2teaspoons paprika
    • ¼teaspoon cayenne
    • ¼teaspoon ground cloves
    • ¼teaspoon ground coriander
    • ½teaspoon ground cumin
    • 3tablespoons chopped parsley
    • 3tablespoons chopped cilantro
    • 3tablespoons finely chopped scallion
    • All-purpose flour, for dusting
    • Olive oil or vegetable oil

    For the Couscous (optional)

    • 1cup giant couscous, m’hamsa, or medium couscous
    • 2tablespoons butter
    • ½cup golden raisins, soaked in hot water to soften, then drained
    • Salt
    • ¼teaspoon ground cinnamon

Ingredient Substitution Guide


  1. Step


    Make the sauce: Heat oil over medium-high heat in a wide, heavy bottomed saucepan. Add onion and cook without browning until softened, about 5 minutes. Add garlic, tomato paste, cinnamon and saffron, and stir well to incorporate. Season generously with salt and pepper, and allow to sizzle for 1 minute more. Add broth and simmer gently for 5 minutes. May be made several hours in advance, up to a day.

  2. Step


    Make the meatballs: Put bread cubes and milk in a small bowl. Leave bread to soak until softened, about 5 minutes, then squeeze dry.

  3. Step


    In a mixing bowl, put squeezed-out bread, ground meat and egg. Add salt, pepper, garlic, nutmeg, ginger, turmeric, paprika, cayenne, cloves, coriander and cumin. Mix well with hands to distribute seasoning. Add 2 tablespoons each of parsley, cilantro and scallion, and knead for a minute. May be prepared several hours in advance, up to a day.

  4. With hands, roll mixture into small round balls about the size of a quarter. Dust balls lightly with flour. Heat a few tablespoons of oil, or a quarter-inch depth, over medium-high heat and fry meatballs until barely browned, about 2 minutes per side. Drain and blot on paper towel. Simmer meatballs in saffron-tomato sauce, covered, over medium heat for about 20 minutes, until tender.

  5. Step


    Meanwhile, make the couscous, if desired: Cook according to package directions, fluff gently and stir in butter and raisins. Season with salt and cinnamon, and toss well.

  6. Step


    Garnish meatballs with remaining parsley, cilantro and scallion. Serve with couscous and roasted tomatoes if desired.



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Cooking Notes


To distribute spices evenly in meatballs, just take a mini whisk and beat the spices/minced garlic into the egg or eggs ALONE briefly before mixing them into the meat mixture. The liquidity of the eggs will carry the spices everywhere without the need to overwork the meat.


Delicious and pretty easy. It's a great dish to make with ground turkey, since both the sauce and meatballs are so well spiced you don't miss the fat or flavor of red meat. I served it with sautéed spinach on the side, and made a quick tahini yogurt sauce to go on top (plain greek yogurt, tahini, and lemon juice)


Great and delicious. Made this with oatmeal instead of bread to satisfy a gluten intolerant family member, dried minced onions for scallions as I had none, over brown rice not couscous--also for gluten-free purposes. I had some hot beef sausage from a neighbor that I mixed with ground beef so skipped the cayenne. Rather than brown on stovetop, my usual treatment is to bake in oven for 30 minutes at 350F, this makes the preparation more relaxed.


I baked the meatballs as well at 350 for 30 minutes...much less cleanup and mess. Overall a delicious meal.

Merle Gilmore

I've made this twice now - it was better with extra-lean ground lamb. And wonderful with roasted cauliflower as a side dish. The second time I used smoked paprika (a mistake) - I'm going back to the original Hungarian style.


I have made these a dozen times. I rarely follow recipes but did so here always using lamb. The meatballs are beyond fantastic. While the sauce is something to go back to always again I simply glazed them with pomegranate molasses, honey, roasted sesame oil and a dollop of mustard and when I put these out to parties of eighty people they were gone in minutes while the guests were begging for my recipe.


Excellent recipe and adaptable to different ground meats; I'll make it often with a couple adjustments.
• The sauce was bland. I added some of the spices used in the meatballs to the sauce which helped. Also put in a small can of diced tomatoes for a double recipe.
• In my opinion, saffron is so subtle that it is wasted among the strong spices. I won't bother with it next time.


It's really hard to describe how delicious this is. It looks daunting, with all of the spices, but it's really just one step in the recipe ("dump them in"). I purchase spices in the bulk section so it doesn't break the bank.

Changes I made: I used packaged bread crumbs + milk (easy; awesome). No cilantro (can't stand the stuff). Doubled the recipe for leftovers (no trouble).

This is seriously one of the best things I've made. Ever.


This was a "twofer" since I was cooking for myself and my husband. We made as directed on April 11, 2015. The best part was that leftovers got turned into meatball "sandwiches" reheated and put into warm pita bread along with Joyce Goldstein's yogurt sauce and a Greek Salad (Mediterranean Made Easy cookbook). Yum!


This dish has become one of our family standards.

If you like this recipe as much as I do, here's a tip so that you'll be ready to make it faster in the future:

All at once, make a multiple of the spice mixture and keep it in a labeled bottle to use in the future. I always double this recipe (big family), so I make a spice mixture of eight times these amounts, which lasts me through a total of 4 double recipes.

Maria B.

I made the recipe with canned tomato chunks instead of the suggested tomato paste and broth, as recommended by another person. the sauce was thick and super delicious!


To the people whose sauce turned out watery, did you flour your meatballs? When you do that and simmer them in the sauce, plenty of flour breaks away from the meatballs and incorporates into the sauce to thicken it to the point is should have a nice viscosity.


Made this tonight for my family. Left out the cayenne since my one year old loves spice but not spicy!l Best meatballs I have ever made, hands down. Used ground turkey & thickened the sauce up a bit more but otherwise, followed recipe exactly. Excited to use lamb next time. The spice combo is spot on.


Ahhh - too many spices….too much time….I too, come home from work quite harried. I put on some enjoyable music and prepare meals like this to unwind. My wife and I can sit down, relax, enjoy some good food and wine and unwind together while sharing our days.

Preparing food such as this recipe is good for one's soul. Purchase the ingredients. Put aside the time. The rewards are great. (Tasty, too!)


Delicious and going into heavy rotation! Made meatballs with lamb and used exactly the spices the recipes calls for, but made about 24 and baked them on a greased parchment paper in the oven (350 F, about 35 min). The sauce was good, but too liquid for my taste. Next time I might use diced tomatoes instead of paste &broth. And I served it with a Turkish-style "dip": Yogurt with salt, grated cucumber and garlic. A good way to cut the spice for more sensitive eaters/ kids!


I LOVE this recipe and have come back to it many times. Great to serve friends. I make as written with lamb. Reminds me so much of the North African restaurants I would frequent when I was studying in France. To save time in the kitchen (and fat and starch that really don't add anything), I just drop balls of the meat mixture right into the sauce to cook them. Saves time, bother and mess, makes the sauce richer with flavor, and makes it a much healthier dish.

Halcyon Hibiscus

Delicious and fun to make recipe. I too baked the meatballs at 350 for 30 minutes with just a dab of olive oil on each meatball for moisture as I used a mix of ground chicken and ground turkey. I used sourdough bread crumbs so there was no need to soak them in milk. A wonderful meal on the day of our first snow here in New England!


I tried coconut milk when serving to kosher friends and it is FANTASTIC. Now I only use coconut milk.


I have made this a number of times, as written, except using Impossible ground for the “meat” and a somewhat heavy hand with the spices, rather than strict measurement. It is excellent, one of my mixed family of meat lovers and vegetarians favorite meals. It would be easy to make it vegan by using flaxseed or applesauce instead of egg for the binder and nut milk.


Pretty good! Baked the meatballs at 350 like another reviewer said, so I added about 1 tsp of flour into the onions when sauteeing them to thicken the sauce. Also used the tip to mix the spices and herbs first before adding egg, meat, etc. Next time I'd like to try the canned tomato version of the sauce instead.


I love this dish. After following the recipe closely, I tried making it without flouring and sautéing the meatballs - just added to the sauce after shaping them. They were just as delicious, the sauce was not at all watery and it was a lot less work.


Thanks to LH for tip about blending spices with eggs. It made it much easier to mix and evenly distribute into the beef. Used berbere spice mix (contains most of the spices listed in recipe). Recommend decreasing broth from 3 to 2 cups, end result was a bit soupy even after boiling down the sauce in Instant PotUsed high pressure 10 minutes, then 5 minute natural release. Meatballs were juicy and tender. Will make again for sure, very flavorful and done in less than an hour.


I've made this twice, and will often. I eased way down on the saffron and added a splash of lemon juice. I served over Farro (and just mixed it into the leftovers) and threw in half a bunch of Kale to the simmering meatballs and sauce. Next time I may add raisins or prunes. This is a yummy base!


Delicious recipe and the sauce is so so good! The only change I would make for next time is to salt and pepper the breadcrumbs (I used lightly processed oats). I felt the meatballs would benefit from more seasoning and as I did season the meat, I assume it was diluted by not seasoning the binding.


I made a gluten free version of this by using gluten free bread and gluten free Pearl couscous. Everything was great but the sauce was way too watery so I added extra tomato paste and crushed up some tomatoes to thicken it up. It was still thin but an improvement.


This was great, made it with ground bison and omitted all pepper and cayenne due to my 7 year old's sensitivity to spicy food. The sauce was DELICIOUS. Some said it was bland, but adjusting the salt helps a lot, as does letting the sauce cool and then reheating so the flavors really come together. Served first with couscous, but on the second day used rice with leftovers. We like both options, and served with tzatziki and naan, along with some calabrian chilis for spice for the grown ups.


I made this as written except mixed my spices in with the beaten egg before adding to the meat/bread mixture. I had expected more flavorful meatballs so may increase my cayenne and use some Harissa next time. I also baked my meatballs for 30 minutes at 350 F which was very easy, covering them with aluminum foil throughout the cooking to avoid drying them out. I look forward to the leftovers as for the two of us, we have enough for a second sort of combination meal.

Anne Knauer

Saffron is so expensive where I live (MN USA) does anyone know of a mediocre replacement? I can buy .25 oz for $20 at Costco but that makes this meal unattainable.


The sauce was delicious with vegan meatballs. I also substituted rice for the cous cous.


I made this recipe for dinner tonight. It was excellent as written. Well seasoned but not too hot. In addition to the couscous, I roasted a pint of cherry tomatoes with evoo and Mediterranean seasoning. In response to Bill, not all of the milk was squeezed away, but the bread was well-soaked going into the meat mixture. Your meatballs may be too dry unless you add some milk, perhaps 3 tablespoons to 1/4 C.

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North African Meatballs Recipe (2024)
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