Shakshuka. Travelling in Flavours

One of these days, in great need to cheer up the quarantine here in Barcelona, I prepared my all-time favourite lunch: shakshuka. Since I first tasted it, this classic Middle Eastern dish became my number one on the hearty food list.


Shaksuka always makes me remember certain places, and that’s maybe because I’ve had it in many of the cities I’ve been. Since nine years ago when I first tried it, in a bistro in Tel Aviv, I had shakshuka in Athens – as brunch; in Eindhoven – as part of the Turkish breakfast they serve on every Sunday in Stichting Broeinest; in Istanbul – where a friend cooked it at home; in Sinaia – at Nargila, a nice bistro owned by an Arab guy; or in Barcelona – at Federal Cafe. And I’ve also cooked it at home, at each of my homes across Europe.

Shakshuka at Nova Joya in Tel Aviv
Shakshuka at Nova Joya bistro in Tel Aviv. It came in the pan it was cooked, and topped with a thin crust of bread dough which you cut, then use to dip into the creamy interior.

What does shakshuka mean

The name loosely translates to “all mixed up” in Arabic, a hint of shakshuka’s casual composition. The mix is easy to prepare, as you’re just nudging things around the pan: there are no theatrics, no pitfalls and no tricks to master, except for seasoning which can turn this dish into heaven.

Shakshuka is made up of eggs poached in a sauce of tomatoes, olive oil, peppers, onion and garlic, and commonly spiced with cumin, cayenne pepper and nutmeg. It is usually served in the iron pan it was cooked in, along with some bread, which is meant for dipping in the sauce and the soft cooked-egg.

My homemade shakshuka goes with appetizers: hummus on crispy bread and spinach and kale salad.
My homemade shakshuka goes with appetizers: hummus on crispy bread and spinach and kale salad.

History

The dish has existed in Mediterranean cultures for centuries. Still, there’s no precise timeline: some say shakshuka (also spelled shakshouka or chakchouka, or şakşuka in Turkish) originated in Turkey, while others say it’s coming from Yemen – where it’s served with Zhug, a hot green paste. A third theory states it comes from Morocco.

What’s sure is that shakshuka is a quintessential dish of the entire area starting south of Gibraltar and, following the North African Mediterranean shore, heading to remote places of the Middle East.

“The beloved mezzes of the Mediterranean, especially Antalya, and olive oil pudding, are served in egg and even rice with the name chakchouka (shakshuka) in the Tunisian and Moroccan coasts. In Turkey this is also one of the most delicious versions of vegetables. There are also those who add fried potatoes and zucchini to the Şakşuka recipe, which differs from region to region. A nice salad or tzatziki recipe is also delicious as sider” Turkish blogger Yemek says.

Shakshuka pan

What’s inside my shakshuka

Simply put, the dish is a rich tomato and veggie mix with eggs cracked in it – but, beyond that, there are lots of ways to shake it up. As veggies, classical recipes call for bell peppers but shakshuka will happily accommodate just about anything you care to throw at it, as suits your mood and the contents of your fridge, food writer Claudia Roden noting for instance that Tunisian cooks add artichoke hearts, potatoes and broad beans to the dish.

Tomatoes are the backbone of shakshuka, so they should be ripe, soft and juicy, and sauce can be sweetened with a little sugar, and balanced it with lemon juice, so that it hits all the notes: sweet, sour, salty and spicy. Besides chili, which is appears in all recipes I know, cumin is a must, and I love the earthy crunch of seeds as opposed to the more common ground stuff. That’s as far as I’m going but if you want to add yet more zest you can reach for thyme and bay.

For 4 people:

3 tbsp olive oil
1 onion, finely sliced
2 red peppers, diced
2 garlic cloves, crushed
½ tsp cumin seeds
½ tsp cayenne pepper
800g ripe tomatoes, peeled and diced
1 tsp sugar
1 tbsp lemon juice
4 eggs

Garnish:
fresh coriander
feta cheese

Heat the oil in a large lidded frying pan over a medium heat. Add the onion, cook until golden, then add the peppers. Fry until both are soft, then stir in the garlic and spices and cook for another couple of minutes.

Pour in the tomatoes and roughly mash. Stir in the sugar and lemon juice, bring to a boil, then turn down the heat and simmer for a few minutes. Taste and season, adding more cayenne if you prefer it spicier.

Make 4 nests into the sauce and break in the eggs. Eggs should be cooked slowly, to keep the yolk as soft as possible. So season them lightly, turn the heat right down as low as possible, cover with a lid and cook for about 5 minutes until they’re just set.

As finish, a handful of herbs such as parsley or my preferred coriander adds freshness, and sprinkling over some crumbled feta adds richness. Bread is, of course, the essential accompaniment for mopping up sauce and yolk.


Little extras

Variations around the world: eggs in purgatory, pisto manchego…

While they have no direct connection to each other, Mexican huevos rancheros (fried eggs served on tortillas with tomato-chili sauce, beans, rice and guacamole), or Turkish menemen (in which the eggs are scrambled) are all similar to shakshuka, proving that the eggs and tomatoes pairing is universally appealing.

Naples’ Eggs in purgatory might be the closest analogue, with eggs cooked in a pan of marinara sauce: “taking its inspiration from Il culto delle anime del Purgatorio, the cult of the Souls of Purgatory…the eggs play the role of souls seeking purification, the sauce, that of the flames of purgatory” says Napoli Unplugged.

There’s a similar dish here in Spain as well – pisto manchego, made with a sunny side up egg placed on an eggplant and tomato stew, sometimes with chorizo as well.


Claudia Roden’s Middle Eastern recipes

Recipes, says British food writer and cultural anthropologist Claudia Roden, born in Cairo in 1936, come with “emotional baggage” – and that’s why she blends them, in her books,with history, geography and ethnography. She actually started collecting them while living as part of a refugee community of Jewish Egyptians in London following the Suez crisis in 1956, and the sharing of recipes was how refugees hung on to their old life. Here is a link for some more Middle Eastern flavours including tabbouleh, couscous with fish and hamud.

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