Chebtiya (or chebtia) is a typical Tunisian recipe. These are meatballs (bnadeks) that can be enjoyed by themselves, with a sauce or over couscous.
They are perfumed with dill, which gives them a very unique taste, fresh and just exceptional. It is a specialty of Mahdia that has spread all over the country and today everyone prepares it in a slightly different way.
Dill (chebete) remains essential and gives its identity to these meatballs. Mahdia is a coastal city in the center east part of the country, 140 miles south of Tunis. It is known for its Phoenician ruins and it played a leading commercial role until the sixteenth century before being replaced by Venice or Genoa.
Generally, these meatballs are prepared with meat but there are many vegetarian variants that are just as delicious. Meatballs are popular throughout the world but the Mediterraneans are the kings of meatballs, as for a meatball to be good, it must be full of aromas and in terms of spices and aromatic herbs, the Mediterranean basin is very well ranked.
My grandmother regularly cooked meatballs that looked a bit like Spanish albondigas. She told me that the preparation had be done in advance so that the various flavors had time to blend. Letting the meatballs sit for a few hours in the fridge can also make them firm when cooked, and prevent crumbling.
The meatballs must be very soft, and for the recipe to be successful, it is essential to sprinkle them with liquid regularly throughout cooking. Preparing chebtiya is a true act of love and generosity and no one in the world can resist the fateful moment, the arrival of the dish of meatballs on the table. The first thing everyone does is to estimate their share by dividing at a glance the number of guests to the number of meatballs. If the number is odd, you will have to be smart. The other great tip and this is a family secret, is to stand by the kitchen. The person who prepares chebtiya will end up turning their head for a moment at some point and at that moment, you have to be very fast!
Tunisians love dill, and couscous is occasionally perfumed with this fragrant herb. In the spring, people also add crisp scallions. Dill is powerful and delicate at the same time, it is truly an irreplaceable aromatic herb. The character it gives is unique and if it is customary to use it to accompany fish in preparations like Scandinavian gravlax, it also goes very well with certain meats such as beef or lamb.
From one version to another, chebtiya can be more or less green. We love ours very fragrant and colorful so we always go a little heavier on the herbs. The moisture they contain naturally gives a lot of tenderness to the final result and these little chebtiya literally melt in your mouth. We have accompanied them with a couscous. As they rest on the semolina for a few minutes, they allow the couscous to absorb a little of their juice. A pure delight !
Originally, chebtiya were prepared by women in the countryside. The camel riders were taking some of the meatballs with them. Every stop in the oases of the desert was an opportunity to feast and refresh a little thanks to the delicious scent of dill. This recipe is very similar to that of Tunisian tajine where we often find Swiss chard or spinach, dill and meat cut into small portions.
We love to eat them with some roasted green hot peppers. The heat of the peppers and the freshness of the dill are a wonderful combination that stimulates the taste buds and helps with digestion.
For more lightness, these meatballs can be prepared steamed in a couscous steamer (double boiler) rather than fried.
- 1 bunch flat parsley
- 1 bunch Swiss chard (or 10 oz. spinach)
- 1 bunch dill
- 1 lb beef , ground
- 2 onions
- 1 egg
- ½ teaspoon turmeric
- 1 teaspoon tabel karouia (Tunisian spice blend)
- 1 tablespoon harissa
- 1 tablespoon tomato paste
- 5 tablespoons olive oil
- 4 tablespoons couscous grain (fine semolina)
- 1 lb couscous grain (fine semolina)
- 4 carrots , peeled and sliced
- 4 green hot peppers
- 1 large onion , chopped
- ½ cup olive oil
- 3 tablespoons tomato paste
- 5 oz. chickpeas (previously soaked for 12 hours)
- ½ bunch parsley
- 2 teaspoons harissa
- 1 teaspoon turmeric
- Water (boiling)
Chop the onion, spinach, parsley and dill together. Add turmeric, tabel, egg, meat, harissa and tomato paste. Salt.
Mix well and knead by hand for 5 minutes. Add the couscous, then mix again for 10 minutes.
Leave to rest for 10 minutes, until the couscous is soaked, and mix again until firm. If necessary, add couscous.
Form large meatballs.
Heat the olive oil over medium heat and sauté the meatballs for a few minutes on each side. Set aside.
In the bottom of a couscoussier (double boiler), heat the olive oil over medium heat and brown the chopped onion and hot peppers.
Once the peppers are done with frying, take them out of the pot and set aside.
Add the tomato paste, harissa, salt, pepper, turmeric, and ¾ cup of boiling water to the hot oil.
Cook this mixture for 10 minutes over high heat.
Add 6 cups of boiling water and cook over medium heat for 45 minutes.
Meanwhile, moisten the couscous: Pour the couscous into a large dish and pour ½ cup of salted water over it. Work with your hands to moisten the couscous seeds and separate them. Cover and let rest for a few minutes while the couscous fully absorbs the water.
Separate the couscous grains with a fork or couscous sieve.
In the top of the couscoussier, place the meatballs, and the moistened couscous above. Cover and cook for 25 minutes.
Once the steam passes through the couscous, turn the couscous basket over into a large dish and gently place the meatballs with a spoon. Set aside.
Return the couscous in the top of the couscoussier and add ¾ cup of boiling water.
Place the meatballs in the couscous sauce (at the bottom of the couscoussier) to finish cooking.
Once the couscous is well drained, open it to air for 5 minutes, and cook for a second time for 10 minutes.
Once the steam passes through the couscous, pour it into a large dish, and drizzle with the fat broth that floats over the sauce. Mix well.
Arrange the couscous and meatballs. Decorate and add sauce to taste. Place the reserved hot peppers on top.