If shakshuka is not yet on your food radar, then it soon will be. And be prepared to fall head over heels for this homely Tunisian favorite that may well be the region’s most delicious onomatopoeic egg dish.
Even though it sounds as if it ought to mean “all shook up” à la Elvis, the word shakshuka actually means “all mixed up,” a subtle distinction. Its charm is based on a trio of basic ingredients: tomatoes, fried or poached eggs and some form of chili pepper. Sounds simple, but as in all such deceptively easy recipes, the devil is in the detail.
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In Israel, the cult of shakshuka has especially taken wing, becoming as ubiquitous as hummus and falafel. Introduced to the country by Jewish immigrants from North Africa, it is now found on cafe and restaurant menus throughout the country, served from dawn till dusk.
The mother of all shakshuka dishes is served at the eponymous Doctor Shakshuka in Jaffa along with a range of Libyan favorites, but on Tel-Aviv’s Ben Yehuda Street you can find small, hole-in-the-wall cafes that serve nothing but shakshuka. Choose the fiery heat level, specify the degree of softness of your egg yolk and select from a range of extra toppings and ingredients such as fresh herbs, eggplant, feta, merguez sausage, tahini or tofu.
A daring “green” shakshuka — made with leeks and spinach in a creamy sauce with no tomatoes — is fast becoming popular. A shakshuka baguette I encountered, however, was to my mind an innovation too far — in looks, like something you’d find in a medical textbook; in taste, much the same.
A rose by any other name might smell as sweet, but to shakshuka mavens the dish would just not have same the exotic appeal if it was simply called baked eggs in tomato sauce.
Shakshuka: Debating recipe tips
The tomatoes in this dish need to be really ripe and packed with flavor. Peeling is preferable but optional. Canned tomatoes are acceptable, though they don’t have quite the same textural quality. On the other hand, some prefer it this way.
Red peppers are sometimes fried with the tomatoes, although a strong, vocal faction contends they should be chargrilled separately and added to the sauce once the latter is cooked. Some avoid them altogether.
Use very fresh spices, or the sauce will taste flat. Add them at the start and fry gently in olive oil before adding the tomatoes. Popular spices include cumin, caraway and black pepper. Paprika, chili pepper, cayenne, harissa or a similar fiery spice is the key. Garlic is optional but eminently desirable. Ditto onion. Or both.
The sauce on which the eggs will rest should not be too liquidy, so make sure you cook it until it largely evaporates.
Use eggs at room temperature, because a cold egg will cook unevenly. The whites take longer to cook than the yolks, so timing is tricky. Some cooks cover the pan to solve the problem, but that tends to overcook the yolk. Still, some folk run a mile from a runny one. Others separate the eggs, cooking the whites till set before adding the yolks. Personally, I feel this lacks the proper aesthetic.
If you want to add extra ingredients, do so either just before adding the eggs or at the same time.
Shakshuka can be cooked in either a large communal skillet to dish out as required or in individual dishes so you can serve them in the pan in which they were cooked.
Mop up your shakshuka with good bread. No argument.
Shakshuka: A starting point
The recipe is intended as a guide. Regard shakshuka as a free-wheeling dish dependent on personal preferences and ingredient availability.
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 50 minutes
Total time: 1 hour
Yield: 4 servings
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, finely sliced
1 red pepper, diced
4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 teaspoons sweet paprika
1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/2 to 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 pounds tinned tomatoes (or ripe tomatoes in season)
2 teaspoons sugar (optional, depending on the flavor of the tomatoes)
1 tablespoon lemon juice
4 to 8 eggs, depending on size/hunger
Salt and pepper to taste
Small bunch of fresh coriander or parsley, roughly chopped
Heat the oil in a large, lidded frying pan over medium heat. Add the onion and cook until golden, then add the pepper. Fry until both are soft, then stir in the garlic, paprika, cumin seeds and cayenne pepper and cook for another couple of minutes.
Add the tomatoes and sugar, if using. Bring to a boil, then turn down the heat and simmer for 30 minutes. Taste and season, adding more cayenne if you prefer it spicier.
Make 4 to 8 shallow indentations in the sauce, and break in the eggs. Season them lightly with salt and pepper, then turn the heat down as low as possible, cover and cook for about 10 minutes until the eggs are just set.
Sprinkle with coriander or parsley and serve.
This breaks the shakshuka rules — it has no tomato! — but makes an excellent brunch or breakfast dish.
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cook time: 15 minutes
Total time: 20 minutes
Yield: 2 to 3 servings
1 large leek, sliced
2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil or butter
3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 teaspoon sweet paprika or chili flakes
6 cups spinach or kale, chopped
1/2 cup sour cream
A little freshly grated nutmeg to taste
1/4 pound feta or goats’ cheese
Fry the leek in the butter or oil in a wide frying pan for about 10 minutes. Add the garlic, and when the aroma rises, add the paprika or chili flakes, then stir in the spinach until it starts to wilt.
Add the sour cream, nutmeg, salt and pepper and stir to mix well.
Make shallow dips in the sauce, and break an egg into each one. Cook for a few minutes or until the eggs are done to your liking. Cover the pan briefly if you think appropriate.
Sprinkle with the cheese and serve immediately.
Main image: Shakshuka is a Tunisian dish that can be eaten at any meal of the day. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clarissa Hyman