Tunisian Poached Fish with Olives, Preserved Lemons, and Capers

Preparation info

  • Difficulty


  • Serves

    4 to 5

Appears in

The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen

By Paula Wolfert

Published 2003

  • About

In this dish, known as kababkou in Tunisia, the chunks of fish slowly cook in receding heat after a light spicy tomato sauce is brought to a boil, then poured over the fish. As the sauce cools to room temperature, the fish is cooked. It can be gently reheated before serving.

This method can be applied to any meaty white-fleshed fish without your having to worry about overcooking. The flesh will be juicy and perfectly cooked. The dish can be served warm, tepid, or cool.


  • pounds fresh halibut steak
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 small fresh hot pepper
  • 4 to 6 baby onions, preferably red
  • 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 medium red onion, grated
  • 2 medium tomatoes, halved, seeded, and grated
  • 1 head of garlic, cloves separated
  • 1 tablespoon tomato paste
  • 1 teaspoon le tabil or ground coriander seeds
  • 1 cup brine-cured green olives, rinsed and drained
  • Flour, for dusting
  • 4 cherry tomatoes
  • ¼ cup capers, rinsed and drained
  • ½ preserved lemon peel, rinsed, drained, and cut into thin julienne
  • 1 tablespoon chopped celery leaves


  1. Rinse the fish, pat dry with paper towels, and divide into 6 equal pieces. Season each piece with salt, pepper, and ground cumin. Cover and refrigerate for at least 1 hour.
  2. Meanwhile, steam the hot pepper and the baby onions until almost tender, about 10 minutes. Stem, seed, and coarsely chop the pepper. Peel the onions.
  3. In a deep-sided medium skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil. Add the grated red onion and cook over medium heat, stirring, for 3 to 4 minutes, until softened. Add the tomatoes and cook until excess moisture evaporates, about 7 minutes. Add the garlic, tomato paste, tabil or ground coriander, olives, steamed chopped hot pepper, baby onions, and 1 cup water. Cover and cook over medium heat for 10 minutes. The sauce should be thin, light, and very hot.
  4. Heat the remaining 1 tablespoon oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Dust the seasoned fish with flour and fry, skin side down, in the hot oil for 2 minutes, or until the skin is crusty. Turn each piece of fish, fry for 1 minute, then pour the hot sauce over the fish. Add the cherry tomatoes, capers, and preserved lemon peel and simmer over low heat for 1 more minute. Remove from the heat, cover, and let stand for 15 minutes before serving. (The fish will finish cooking in the receding heat.) Garnish with chopped celery leaves.