Shakshouka – Tunisian-Jewish Comfort Food (by Reader Request)

Shakshouka with bread

We have our first reader contribution! JD Hammond, a friend and urban planner extraordinaire, had some questions about shakshouka, a North African dish imported to Israel by Tunisian Jews in the 1950s. It comprises a vegetable ragout in which eggs are poached. Specifically, JD wants to know (paraphrased):

  1. How do we make it? He has made it before, but wants to know another recipe.
  2. How do we make it so pretty – specifically, regarding the eggs?
  3. How did this dish with this “remarkable intensity” of flavors evolve?
Tunisian shakshouka in a pan
Tunisian chakchouka, served in a pan with cilantro as garnish. (Gideon Tsang, Creative Commons via Wikimedia)

Shakshouka, celebrated in Israel as a “breakfast of champions,” has its origins in North Africa. The word comes from a Tamazight word for “vegetable sauce,” and eggs were added later by the Arab populations of North Africa. The dish later spread across the Arab world – from Iraq to Morocco – and became popular among the Jews of the region as well. In fact, shakshouka is still considered quintessential home cooking in Tunisia today. As this article states (in French), “try to tell a Tunisian at your risk and peril that shakshouka is an Israeli or American dish!” Yet it has come in many minds to be associated with Israel.

Shakshouka with bread
Shakshouka with bread, September 2014. Photo mine.

In the 1950s, Tunisian Jews brought the dish to the Israel which they immigrated to – and were, by and large, unwelcome in. (As it happens, a variant of the dish is also popular among Palestinians.) Shakshouka spread from the peripheral towns into Israeli cities, where – like other Arab Jewish and Arab dishes – it was appropriated and adopted into an Israeli national icon. Rather than admit the origins of the dish, a new etymology for the dish’s name, as originating from the Hebrew leshaqsheq (to shake), emerged. North Africans – Jews and Muslims alike – continue to make this dish in their own way, separate from the Israeli adaptation. Meanwhile, as more Israelis moved abroad in the 1980s, the dish became popular in the United States and Canada, and became the hipster breakfast du jour in recent years.

Chopped green bell peppers and habanero chilis
Peppers – bell and chili – chopped and awaiting their shakshouka fate. November 2015. Photo mine.

Of course, the way the dish has become popular is less than appealing – Ashkenazi Israelis “borrowing” the dishes of North African Jews and Palestinians whose cultures they sought to erase, then calling it their own. In addition, many argue that those such as myself who are post-Zionist should eschew the “Israeli” for the “diasporan.” Yet shakshouka is also a very clear example of how diaspora works, and how diaspora affects what we eat. Firstly, I would like to note that this dish was consumed in the Jewish diaspora for centuries before the state of Israel was even imagined – how is shakshouka not a food of “diaspora”? Secondly, I do not think that we can run away from Israel or misdeeds there if we are to explore Jewish food and its history – given that Israel, like it or not, looms large over Jewish life around the world. Finally, I think we can still enjoy the remarkable mix of flavors shakshouka provides while acknowledging its North African origins.

Tomatoes, peppers and chilis, onions, and spices laid out for cooking.
Tomatoes, peppers and chilis, onions, and spices laid out for cooking. November 2015, photo mine.

Indeed, shakshouka is versatile, intense, and remarkable. The vegetables’ softness and peppers’ spice meld against the egg yolk and firm whites to create an experience that seems simple but is so very complex: no two bites are the same. It is also versatile: the variations are legion, from the simple varieties encouraged on Tunisian expatriate forums to the complex, cheese-laden ones that have become popular on certain upscale food blogs. My friend David, who was familiar with the latter, found the recipe I used “lazy” – but in a good way, in that it is simple. Indeed, shakshouka can be and often is simple. That is key to its beauty – and it is what drew JD into wanting to make it.

Onions and spices frying in the pan
Onions and spices – key in the flavor base of the shakshouka. November 2015, photo mine.

JD’s biggest question was “how can you poach the eggs and keep them intact, without babysitting them?” I have bad news: you do really need to “babysit them.” Eggs are fragile and finicky creatures, and if you are attached to having a delightfully runny yolk and/or an aesthetic shakshouka, you will need to keep an eye on them. I advise that you make a well in the sauce, crack the egg in, and then carefully fold the whites into the sauce. You need to watch to make sure the eggs don’t overcook, and that they get in in the first place. Practice makes perfect! See the recipe for more information.

Cracking eggs into shakshouka
Right after dropping the eggs in – the ones dropped first are beginning to cook but this is where folding and “babysitting” are key! There is no lazy way with eggs in shakshouka. November 2015, photo mine. [Apologies for the rather ugly quality of this photo.]
Spicing and vegetable chopping are also frequent questions with shakshouka. Different regions have different textures for chopping vegetables and length of time the ragout is cooked, which affects the “softness” of the sauce. Some add peppers, some do not. Some use very piquant and hot spices, whereas others prefer a milder dish. In Tunisian recipes, the ragout tends to rely on more roughly chopped fresh vegetables and sinus-destroying spice, whereas Israeli and Palestinian adaptations tend to be finer. I stick with a fiery, rough shakshouka, but JD himself has globalized the recipe with a variant involving Sriracha chili sauce and cayenne pepper.

Eating the shakshouka with pita. Photo in black and white.
Eating the shakshouka – I had already dug in before Amram reminded me to take a picture for you guys! The bread is a typical pita. November 2015, photo mine.

The shakshouka here is closer to the variant common in Tunisia than that common in Israel.  One common ingredient in an Israeli shakshouka is tomato paste (the canned stuff), an ingredient I abhor in most circumstances, which often tends to become quite globby in the frying process. Tunisian shakshouka relies largely on fresh tomatoes (or canned, but not paste), and often uses a wonderfully larger amount of cilantro – my favorite spice. My recipe is based on two Tunisian recipes and one by Einat Admony, the Israeli genius-chef behind Balaboosta, one of New York’s most fantastic restaurants.

 

Shakshouka

Based on an amalgam of the recipes of Orly Olivier, Marmiton (French), and Einat Admony. I make several variations of this recipe.

Serves 2-6, depending on your hunger level and stomach size

1 large onion, diced

3 bell peppers, seeded and chopped into one-two inch rectangles or squares

1-3 small hot chili peppers, seeded and finely chopped – the amount you use depends on the spice level of the pepper and your own tolerance; I tend to stick with three smaller habaneros

4 plum tomatoes, diced or chopped

1-2 tbsp olive or vegetable oil (olive is better)

1 tbsp vinegar (many vinegars work)

1 tbsp salt

1 tbsp dried cilantro

1.5 tsp ground cumin

1.5 tsp ground turmeric

1 tsp ground oregano

1 tsp thyme

1 tsp dried rosemary

1 tbsp garlic powder or 1 clove crushed fresh garlic

2/3 cup water

6 large eggs

 

Bread for serving (optional)

 

  1. Chop up your vegetables. I am including this as a separate step for this recipe because this is very important factor to budget into your time.
  2. Heat a large frying pan, shallow wide saucepan, or similar pan, and add the oil. Then, add the onions and sauté until soft.
  3. Add the peppers (bell and chili) and continue sautéing. If you are using fresh garlic, add it here.
  4. When the peppers begin to soften, add the salt, cilantro, cumin, turmeric, oregano, thyme, and rosemary and mix in thoroughly. Keep sautéing.
  5. After a minute or so, add the vinegar. Sauté for another minute.
  6. Add the tomatoes and mix in thoroughly. Sauté for a few minutes, or until the tomatoes begin to soften. Add the water and simmer until the tomatoes are soft, and the skin has separated from the tomatoes’ fleshy part. The water should have mostly cooked down by this point.
  7. When the tomatoes and peppers are cooked until soft, it is time to add the eggs. Make six wells in the tomato-pepper mixture and crack an egg into each one. Then carefully tuck the whites of the eggs into the surrounding tomato-pepper mixture, being careful to leave the yolk alone. If you want your eggs to be super pretty, I would suggest cracking them first into a cup or several cups individually, then putting them in the shakshouka. You will need to “babysit” your eggs – the whites can be finicky. If you want your yolks solid, crack the yolk *after* folding in the whites. If your wells are deep enough, folding should be fairly simple – just push the tomato-pepper mix over the whites!
Raw eggs in cups pre-cooking
Cracking the eggs into cups to put into the shakshouka – thus they retain their integrity and the yolks can stay unbroken! November 2015, photo mine.

You should still have a little white visible on top, because…

  1. When the whites are cooked through and solid, your shakshouka is ready. Remove from the heat and serve as soon as possible. Serving in the pan and having folks dig in and help themselves is the easiest, but a wide spoon does the trick and keeps the eggs intact. I prefer to serve shakshouka with warm bread.

 

Author’s note: if you have leftover chili peppers, I heartily recommend trying the A Fiery Law cocktail, a brilliant creation by my friend, the “Kiddush Club President” of Tippling Through The Torah.

A Fried Hanukkah Miracle: Batter Doughnuts / Hanukkah Beignets

Beignets!
Beignets with some of my favorite toppings: left-to-right, Nutella, chili sugar, and cinnamon sugar – December 2014 (photo mine)

Recipe at the end of this post.

I’m normally not that into Hanukkah. The holiday itself I do not dislike – the miracle of the oil at the Second Temple was pretty awesome, and the general sense of cheer that takes over Jewish communities is welcome as people forget the solemn promise to “be nice” that they made on Yom Kippur. It’s just that compared to the glory of Shavuot with revelation and Ruth and cheesecake, the majesty of the Passover Seder, and the wackiness of having a Tree New Year on Tu BiShvat, Hanukkah is…just not that exciting. I don’t begrudge fellow Jewish-Americans for having made the holiday so materialistic and kitsch-ified to compete with Christmas – honestly, in a Christian country, what else would you expect? If it gets folks into Judaism or to learn about their or others’ Jewish heritage, that makes me pretty happy. Besides, I have neither the energy nor desire to harangue people about “messing up” a holiday that I simply just…am not that into.

There is one thing, however, that I do love about Hanukkah: the fried food, in constant supply. In order to commemorate that a day’s oil lasted eight at the Temple, it is considered traditional in most Jewish communities to eat food cooked in oil. One nearly universal thing about human communities, Jewish cultures included, is that if you tell people to cook food in oil, fried things will result. So Hanukkah is the Jewish fry-fest. You might be familiar with latkes, the Ashkenazi Jewish potato pancakes that populate both Hanukkah tables and Jewish plates throughout the winter. But there are also torzelli¸ the fried curly endives that Italian Jews eat, and the Colombian Jewish tradition of fried plantain discs (patacones). As a complete glutton for fried food – my favorite treat in a mostly healthy diet – I enjoy them all…but not as much as one category of food.

Beignets, with chocolate!
Chocolate beignets with powdered sugar – some of the powdered sugar has melted onto the beignets! – May 2014 (photo mine)

Chief among the fried food for me is the doughnut, a treat with a long Jewish history. Fried dough was already common in Jewish and non-Jewish communities in the Middle East in the 13th century, when it was mentioned by the Abbasid scholar (and medieval cookbook writer) Muhammad bin al-Hassan al-Baghdadi in a form similar to today’s Turkish lokma. Ashkenazi Jews make pontshkes, impossibly fluffy jelly doughnuts, borrowed from a Polish dessert already popular in medieval times. Moroccan and Tunisian Jews consumed local savory and sweet doughnuts alongside their Muslim neighbors, and many a Dutch Jew has delighted in the puffy oliebol. In Israel, the Ashkenazi pontshke tradition meshed with North African Jewish traditions to produce the sufganiyah – an even fluffier, sweeter jelly doughnut that is the scourge of Israeli dentists and delight of their patients. These are all absolutely, artery-clogging-ly delicious.

Besides the eating, what I like most about the Jewish doughnut is … how it is so very Jewish and un-Jewish. All of these “authentic” Jewish doughnut recipes reflect the myriad cultural influences, the worlds, and the places Jews have and continue to interact with in their cultures. There is the fact that these are all borrowed from, shared with, adjusted after contact with, and in imitation of our non-Jewish neighbors. Our ancestors were not concerned with being “pure” in their Jewish conduct, but rather celebrating the holidays with what they saw and knew throughout their lives. However, in our diasporic mindset, there is something so Jewish about that act: re-owning, retaking, and reworking the traditions of “exile” to make the diaspora “home.”

Mmm, sfenj.
Sfenj, Rabat, March 2015 (photo mine)

Of course this reworking is delicious. Let us take one of my favorite doughnuts as an example – the sfenj, an airy Moroccan doughnut traditionally eaten in the morning, often dipped in honey or sugar. (They are also known in some areas as ftayer.) Moroccan Jews traditionally enjoy a sweet version of these ring-shaped treats on Hanukkah, and some a bit more frequently than that. I was introduced to them first at a Jewish event long ago, and the unapologetic assault of carbohydrate and sugar and oil the sfenj provided had me hooked. I told myself, Hanukkah after Hanukkah, that I needed to recreate that taste. Later, when I visited Morocco myself, and learned more about the history of Moroccan Jewry, I would end up sampling and eating many, many more sfenj. They were all delicious.

I tried to make sfenj once, but got my beignet recipe instead. What happened was that I had invited two friends over, we got distracted, and when it was time to make the batter I realized that I did not have enough flour. Oops. We had a batter instead, but not the dough to shape into the traditional ring shape. The batter was fried anyway – I spooned it in, and out came fluffy, puffy balls that were sweet and chewy. In a few fits of experimentation – and one incident of “boiling Nutella” – I finally managed to get the recipe to the point that I could repeatedly recreate these fried treats. I am not sure if I should call them “doughnuts,” given that they are made with a batter. But they are not made with choux pastry, so are they “beignets”? The names “beignet” and “doughnut” have both stuck – though I lean slightly towards the former.

I’ve been making these beignets since that Hanukkah miracle – though I do intend to tackle sfenj one day. In fact, I taught a few friends how to make these beignet-doughnuts themselves, brought them to parties and potlucks, and may even bring them to work at some point. Of course, this Hanukkah, I intend to make them again as well.

Beignets in progress
Frying vanilla-ginger beignets, April 2015 (photo mine)

This recipe is quite flexible – I’ve made chocolate, vanilla ginger, and cinnamon versions of the beignets so far. They store well for a day or two in a sealed bag. Be sure to fry safely in a very well-ventilated place. I prefer to fry in a deep pan, a wok, or a large saucepan – I don’t have a deep-fryer, and you need to be able to quickly turn or flip the beignets.

Hanukkah Beignets/Batter Doughnuts

3-3.5 cups (400-450g) white or whole wheat flour

1 cup (200g) granulated sugar

1 packet yeast (or 1 tbsp fresh yeast)

~1.5 cups (~350ml) water (approximate measure)

1.5 tsp vanilla extract

3 tbsp honey or agave nectar (you can also make this up with about 2 tbsp extra sugar)

Canola, corn, rapeseed, sunflower, safflower, or vegetable oil

Optional: 1.5 tsp ground ginger (for ginger flavor)

Optional: 1-2 tbsp cocoa powder (for chocolate flavor, reduce the honey)

  1. Mix the flour, sugar, and yeast together until thoroughly combined.
  2. Add the water, vanilla extract, optional ingredients, and honey/agave nectar, and mix together until you have a thick, sticky batter. You might need to add more flour to achieve this.
  3. Cover, leaving some cracks for ventilation, and let “rise” for at least an hour.
  4. Heat oil in a deep pan or wok. (See frying tips at bottom of post.)
  5. Carefully spoon heaping tablespoons of batter into the pan of oil. You will need to scrape the batter off one spoon with the back of another spoon. I recommend not having more than five or six beignets in the pan at one time.
  6. Let cook until brown on one side, then flip (using a slotted spoon) and let cook until brown on the other side. The beignets should puff up.
  7. When golden brown on both sides, remove from the pan with a slotted spoon and place on a plate to cool.
  8. Repeat steps 5-7 until you have fried up all the batter. Depending on the size of your beignets this can make anything from 16 to 36 beignets, I usually get about 20-25 off this recipe.
  9. When they have cooled down a bit, you can season them with powdered sugar. For the “normal” ones I occasionally like to dip them in Nutella, cinnamon sugar, or sugar mixed with dried chili pepper flakes.