September 23, 2019

Two Off-the-Hookah Shakshukas

Shakshuka in my household growing up was eggs scrambled with peppers, tomatoes and onions. Don’t ask me how that became a thing because neither of my parents will fess up, but I always thought any other shakshuka was subpar. I was even snobby about our family shakshuka superiority — until I moved to Jaffa, virtually Israel’s home of shakshuka — where I discovered that I’d been had. 

The 4,000-plus-year-old port town of Jaffa, home of Dr. Shakshuka restaurant, a funky throwback from the ’80s that has grown in popularity with tourists as well as locals, has exploded in recent years since I lived there. What was once primarily an Arab and Bulgarian enclave and home to remarkable restaurants like Aladin, Guetta and the famous hummusiya Abu Hassan has become southern Tel Aviv’s priciest and most sought-after neighborhood. With vast sea views, the best flea market in Israel (Shuk Hapishpeshim) and myriad boutique hotels, clubs and bars, Jaffa is Tel Aviv’s near-perfect combination of old Levant meets Euro-chic.

Why then, with all the sexy hidey-holes that Jaffa has to offer, is a shuk dive like Dr. Shakshuka still so popular? The answer may lie in the simplicity of the namesake dish and the nostalgia behind its humble roots. Like hummus, besides being healthy and exceptionally flavor-packed, shakshuka’s breakfast-for-dinner appeal has made its way around the world and has crossed the line into pop food culture territory. 

Shakshuka, a Berber word that means “all mixed up,” is thought to have originated in Yemen, Tunis or Libya. It’s essentially a mash-up of eggs poached in a tomato sauce, spiked with a mixture of tomatoes, sweet and hot peppers, onions, garlic and topped with cheese and fresh herbs. It’s usually presented in the cast-iron skillet it was cooked in and served with bread meant for sopping up soft-cooked yolk and spicy red gravy. 

Although some food historians allege it was an invention dating back to the Ottoman Empire, in Israel it is thought to be the product of a mass North African immigration of Libyans and Tunisians who sought solace in the dish’s affordable and easily available ingredients. Much like Mexican huevos rancheros — fried eggs served with rice, beans and red chile sauce — most cultures have their version of shakshuka. The Spanish serve a pisto manchego, a sunny-side-up egg atop an eggplant, pepper, zucchini and tomato stew, while the Italians like to use up their leftover ragu to make uova in purgatorio (eggs in purgatory.)

The shakshuka of modern-day Israel is diverse in color and flavor. My version, a surprisingly creamy Ashkenazi green concoction (recipe below), is made with a combination of spinach, leeks, cream and butter. When it comes to the traditional shakshuka, though, my top pick is a recipe from dazzling New Zealand-based journalist and music writer David Cohen, whose wildly popular and superbly written foodie newsletter, Middle Feast (middlefeast.substack.com) is proof that Tel Aviv is his favorite city in the world. 

I include a recipe for the picante Libyan staple condiment Pilpel Shuma, (pepper garlic sauce). I’d be happy to eat it until the end of time, with bread alone, but it elevates any version of shakshuka to new heights, even the version I grew up with but still love. 

David Cohen’s Shakshuka
Reprinted with permission from the Middle Feast newsletter

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, peeled and diced
3 cloves garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
1 bell pepper (red, orange or yellow), diced
3/4 teaspoon sweet paprika
1 teaspoon ground cumin
3/4 teaspoon turmeric
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1-1/2 teaspoons salt, divided
1 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon of tomato paste
1-pound over-ripe tomatoes, peeled and chopped
1/2 cup heavy cream
3 ounces feta cheese, crumbled
2 egg yolks, beaten
4 eggs
Handful chopped coriander

In a cast-iron pan, sauté the onions in oil for five minutes until they’re almost brown. Add the garlic, pepper and spices, sauté for another couple of minutes. Add tomato paste and tomatoes. Let the mixture simmer for eight minutes or until the sauce has thickened. (While this is happening, preheat the oven to 350 F degrees.)

Remove the pan from the heat. Stir in the beaten egg yolks and heavy cream. Using a spoon, make four indentations and carefully crack an egg into each. Season with salt and pepper.

Transfer the pan to the oven. Let it broil for five or so minutes, or until the whites are clearly done (keep the yolks soft).

Take it out of the broiler and sprinkle with feta cheese and chopped coriander.

Serves 2.

Yamit’s Green Shakshuka
1 tablespoon butter (or olive oil if you prefer)
1 leek (white part only), cleaned and sliced thinly
3 garlic cloves, minced
3 cups baby spinach leaves (or a combination of spinach and swiss chard)
1 teaspoon salt (or to taste)
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 cup heavy cream
2 teaspoons all-purpose flour
2 pinches freshly grated nutmeg
4 large eggs
2 ounces of feta or goat cheese, crumbled (optional)

Over medium heat, melt the butter or olive oil in a 9-inch skillet. Add the sliced leeks and garlic and sauté until leeks soften, about 5 minutes. Toss in the spinach (or spinach and chard) and season with salt and pepper. 

After the greens have wilted, add the cream and flour and stir until the mixture has thickened. Add the nutmeg and crack each egg into the spinach mixture, being careful not to break the yolks.

Cover with a lid and cook for approximately 5 minutes, or until the whites are cooked but the yolks are still runny. Sprinkle with feta or goat cheese and more freshly ground black pepper. Serve with crusty bread or toast and Pilpel Shuma on the side. 

Serves 2.

Pillpel Shuma (Libyan Pepper Garlic Sauce)
Great on shakshuka, kebabs or pizza

10 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon hot paprika (or cayenne pepper)
4 tablespoons sweet paprika
1 teaspoon ground caraway seeds (optional)
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 cup olive oil (not extra virgin) plus 2 tablespoons to cover
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 teaspoon sea salt

Whisk all ingredients into a smooth paste. Taste and adjust for salt and heat, then transfer to a sterilized glass jar and cover with two tablespoons of oil to prevent spoilage. Stored in the refrigerator, the sauce will last for months.

Makes 1 cup.


Yamit Behar Wood, an Israeli-American food and travel writer, is the executive
chef at the U.S. Embassy in Kampala, Uganda, and founder of the New York Kitchen Catering Co.