Few things can bring me back to lazy weekend mornings in Tripoli better than a bowl of piping hot shakshuka. When I lived in the Libyan capital in 2014, the hearty dish of tomatoes and eggs was a staple for breakfast with friends. The recipe – or at least the precise blend of spices behind it – often changed from household to household but the basics were always the same: from eggs lightly poached in a bath of already cooked pulp tomatoes to a thick sauce.
My favorite was the version prepared by my host family with a secret spice blend passed down from mother to daughter. It was always served with a generous sip of peppery olive oil from their own orchard in the Nafusa Mountains west of Tripoli.
The exact provenance of the shakshuka is often disputed, but most agree on its North African origins. The word shakshuka – which roughly translates to “all mixed up” – is said to come from the language of the non-Arabic Amazigh (or Berber) population indigenous to the region and existed long before the borders were drawn to create Libya and its neighbors, Tunisia and Algeria.
Sephardic Jews from Libya and Tunisia introduced shakshuka to the new state of Israel in the 1950s and 1960s, but it wasn’t until the 1990s that the dish became a staple on menus. Much of his current popularity in Israel is due to Bino Gabso, the son of Jewish emigrants from Tripoli. When Gabso took over his father’s restaurant in Jaffa in 1991, he changed the name to Dr Shakshuka and made his childhood Libyan breakfast dish the star attraction.
Next comes the Ottolenghi effect. Shakshuka began appearing on European and American brunch menus – and on Instagram – after being featured in the best-selling cookbooks of Israeli Jewish chef Yotam Ottolenghi and his Palestinian business partner Sami Tamimi, including their beautifully illustrated tribute to Jerusalem. published in 2012.
Much to the chagrin of several Libyans I know, the book describes the dish as being of Tunisian origin. But while my Tunisian and Libyan friends may argue over which of their home countries can truly claim the shakshuka, they are united in regretting the frequency with which they have seen her presented as Israeli on menus in Europe and the United States. United States.
It’s the same on the backpacker route in Asia where restaurant owners try to appeal to Israeli travelers who constitute a large part of their clientele. While visiting India a few years ago, I was puzzled to see something called “hum-shuka” on a menu in Goa that also included shakshuka. The waiter told me that the hum-shuka was an “Israeli specialty” and that it was a bowl of shakshuka topped with a serving of hummus. Libyan friends were horrified.
In a 2019 article for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, writers Rafram Chaddad and Yigal Nizri argued that taking dishes that Jews and Arabs have cooked over generations and labeling them as ‘Israeli’ is, as they put it, ” a culinary injustice ”.
They pointed out that if a Japanese immigrant in New York City makes sushi in a restaurant, it doesn’t make the sushi American. “The shakshuka, which is consumed daily in Tunisia, is referred to by all as ‘Israeli’, while the cultural identity of the Tunisian community in which it was invented is erased,” they write. The same argument has been made about hummus, falafel and several other regional specialties. A Libyan woman was so enraged at how often shakshuka had been labeled an Israeli dish that she launched the hashtag #handsoffmyshakshuka.
“Tableware is still among the longest surviving immigrant cultures, long after clothing, music and language have been abandoned,” wrote Claudia Roden, cultural anthropologist and food writer. Before Ottolenghi, few people had mapped the interconnected culinary histories of the ethnically and religiously diverse east and south Mediterranean as convincingly as Roden, the girl born in Cairo to a Syrian Jewish family.
I have fond memories of discussing the origins of the shakshuka with her during a lunch at the Borris Festival of Writing and Ideas in 2018. In his Book of Jewish Food, Roden refers to the shakshuka as being of origin. Tunisian. We discussed the culinary traditions associated with Libyan Jews – from the tangy tomato and fish stew known as haraimi to the cherhi, a pumpkin spread enriched with cumin and chili – and how Libyan cuisine is. more generally characterized by distinctive spice combinations, with savory dishes sometimes having a pronounced cinnamon note.
It was a yearning for the freshly roasted and ground spice blends they enjoyed on family visits to Libya that led UK-based Nadine Dahan and her husband Ahmed to start sourcing the ingredients. and make them themselves during the Covid-19 pandemic. Now they have turned their efforts into a mail order company, calling it Oea after the old name of Tripoli (oea-libya.com).
Recently, they added a special blend of shakshuka to a line that includes hararat – a 10-spice blend rich in cloves and cinnamon that they describe as “necessary for every classic Libyan dish” – and bzaar, a blend centered on turmeric and a staple of Libyan cuisine. “Shakshuka is the ultimate comfort food,” says Nadine. “Growing up, we ate it all the time, not just for breakfast or brunch, but sometimes for dinner as well. It’s so tasty and so easy to make. For me, it’s the taste of the house.
In my adopted city, Marseille, which is home to the second largest Jewish population in France after Paris, most of which have their roots in North Africa, the shakshuka can be found in trendy cafes as well as in more modest canteens. My local kosher grocery store even sells the ready-made sauce in jars.
I prefer to make my own, often playing with variations on the traditional – adding feta or chopped fresh cilantro before serving for example. Many Libyans make shakshuka with homemade gideed, a jerky-like dried lamb meat. In Tunisia, merguez sausage is often part of the mix. Some add chopped red or green peppers, others add a lot of garlic.
The Marseille restaurant Yima offers “my mom’s shakshuka” made from zaatar, the thyme, sesame and sumac seasoning dear to the Levant. I’ve seen American recipes for green shakshuka (adding spinach or kale) that make my most purist Libyan friends bristle, just like seeing its price – one brought back a hip cafe from New York selling it for $ 20 – way beyond its family origins.
Whatever you choose to add to your shakshuka, the most important thing is to make sure the egg yolks stay runny so that they mix with the spicy sauce when ready to serve. Pick it up with hot bread and you too could be in Tripoli, Tunis or Tel Aviv.
My own shakshuka recipe draws on several influences. Cinnamon is a very Libyan touch, as is tomato puree for adding depth (tomato paste is a staple in the Libyan pantry). Tomato sauce can be prepared in advance. For a more filling dish, garnish with cubes of feta cheese before serving.
½ teaspoon of cumin seeds
4 tablespoons of olive oil
1 large onion, peeled and sliced
2 red bell peppers, seeded and diced
4 garlic cloves, crushed
2 teaspoons of sugar
6 large ripe tomatoes, roughly chopped (or 800g canned tomatoes)
2 tablespoons of tomato puree
½-1 tsp cayenne pepper
½ teaspoon of cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground coriander
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
4-8 free-range eggs (1-2 per person)
1 bunch of fresh cilantro, chopped
1 In a large pot or deep skillet (cast iron is best), dry roast the cumin over high heat for a few minutes. Add the oil and sauté the onions until translucent. Add the peppers, garlic and sugar and cook over medium-high heat for 5 minutes. Stir in the tomatoes, cayenne pepper, cilantro powder and cinnamon as well as salt and pepper.
2 Simmer over low heat for 30-40 minutes, adding a little water if necessary (making sure the consistency does not become too runny). Taste and adjust the seasoning.
3 With a wooden spoon, make 4 to 8 wells in the sauce and break the eggs. Reduce the heat as much as possible, cover and cook for about 10 minutes until the eggs are barely set. Sprinkle with chopped fresh cilantro and serve immediately with hot bread.