Shakshuka: All mixed up over a brilliant breakfast
Tunisians and Libyans both lay claim to this tomato and egg dish that has travelled the world
Fragrant shakshouka: Scoop it up with warm bread and you could be in Tripoli, Tunis or Tel Aviv.
Few things can transport me back to lazy weekend mornings in Tripoli better than a piping hot bowl of shakshuka. When I lived in the Libyan capital in 2014, the hearty tomato and egg dish was a staple of breakfast with friends. The recipe – or at least the precise blend of spices underpinning it – often changed according to the household but the basic elements were always the same: eggs lightly poached in a bath of pulped tomatoes already cooked down to a thick sauce.
My favourite was the version made by my host family with a secret spice mix passed down from mother to daughter. It was always served with a generous glug of peppery olive oil from their own grove in the Nafusa mountains west of Tripoli.
The exact provenance of shakshuka is often contested but most agree on its north African origins. The word shakshuka – roughly translating as “all mixed up” – is said to come from the language of the non-Arab Amazigh (or Berber) population indigenous to the region and existed long before borders were drawn to create Libya and its neighbours, Tunisia and Algeria.
Sephardic Jews from Libya and Tunisia brought shakshuka to the newly created state of Israel in the 1950s and 1960s but it wasn’t until the 1990s that the dish became a mainstay of menus there. Much of its current popularity in Israel is due to Bino Gabso, the son of Jewish emigrés from Tripoli. When Gabso took over his father’s restaurant in Jaffa in 1991, he changed the name to Dr Shakshuka and made the Libyan breakfast dish of his childhood the star attraction.
Next came the Ottolenghi effect. Shakshuka began appearing on European and American brunch menus – and Instagram – after it featured in the bestselling cookbooks of Jewish Israeli chef Yotam Ottolenghi and his Palestinian business partner Sami Tamimi, most notably their beautifully illustrated tribute to Jerusalem published in 2012.
To the chagrin of several Libyans I know, the book describes the dish as being Tunisian in origin. But while my Tunisian and Libyan friends may spar with each other over which of their homelands can truly claim shakshuka, they are united in resenting how often they have seen it presented as Israeli on menus in Europe and the US.
It’s the same on the backpacker trail in Asia where restaurant owners try to appeal to the Israeli travellers that form a large part of their customer base. On a visit to India a couple of years ago, I was puzzled to see something called “hum-shuka” on a menu in Goa that also featured shakshuka. The waiter told me that hum-shuka was an “Israeli speciality” and that it comprised a bowl of shakshuka topped with a portion of hummus. Libyan friends were horrified.
In a 2019 article for Israeli newspaper Haaretz, writers Rafram Chaddad and Yigal Nizri argued that taking dishes both Jews and Arabs have cooked over generations and branding them “Israeli” is, as they put it, “culinary injustice”.
They pointed out that if a Japanese immigrant in New York makes sushi in a restaurant, that does not make sushi American. “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 wrote. The same argument has been made about hummus, falafel and several other regional specialties. One Libyan woman was so incensed over how often shakshuka had been labelled an Israeli dish, she started a hashtag #handsoffmyshakshuka.
“Dishes are always the part of immigrant cultures which survive the longest, long after clothing, music and language have been abandoned,” Claudia Roden, the cultural anthropologist and food writer, has written. Before Ottolenghi, few had mapped the interconnected culinary histories of the ethnically and religiously diverse eastern and southern Mediterranean as compellingly as Roden, the Cairo-born daughter of a Syrian Jewish family.
I have fond memories of debating the origins of shakshuka with her over lunch at the Borris Festival of Writing and Ideas in 2018. In her Book of Jewish Food, Roden refers to shakshuka as Tunisian in origin. We discussed the culinary traditions associated with Libyan Jews – from the tangy tomato and fish stew known as haraimi to chershi, a pumpkin spread spiked with cumin and chilli – and how Libyan cuisine more generally is characterised by distinctive spice combinations, with savoury dishes sometimes having a pronounced cinnamon note.
It was a hankering for the freshly roasted and ground spice blends they enjoyed during family visits to Libya that led UK-based Nadine Dahan and her husband Ahmed to start sourcing ingredients and making their own during the Covid-19 pandemic. Now they have turned their efforts into a mail order company, calling it Oea after the ancient name of Tripoli (oea-libya.com).
Recently they added a special shakshuka blend to a range that includes hararat – a 10-spice blend heavy with cloves and cinnamon they describe as “necessary for every classic Libyan dish” – and bzaar, a turmeric-centred mix and Libyan kitchen staple. “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 too. It’s so flavourful and so easy to make. For me, it’s the taste of home.”
In my adopted city of Marseilles, home to France’s second-largest Jewish population after Paris, most of whom trace their roots to north Africa, shakshuka can be found in hip cafés as well as more modest canteens. My local kosher epicerie even sells the sauce readymade in jars.
I prefer to make my own, often playing with variations on the traditional – adding feta or chopped fresh coriander before serving for example. Many Libyans make shakshuka with home-cured gideed, a dried lamb meat similar to jerky. In Tunisia, merguez sausage is often part of the mix. Some add chopped red or green peppers, others go heavy on the garlic.
The Marseilles restaurant Yima offers “shakshuka de ma maman” made with zaatar, the thyme, sesame seed and sumac seasoning beloved of the Levant. I have seen American recipes for green shakshuka (adding spinach or kale) that make my more purist Libyan friends bristle, as does seeing it priced – one reported a hipster café in New York selling it for $20 – way beyond its down home origins.
Whatever you choose to add to your shakshuka, the most important thing is to ensure the egg yolks remain runny so that they mingle with the spicy sauce when served. Scoop it up with warm bread and you too could be in Tripoli, Tunis or Tel Aviv.
My own shakshuka recipe draws on several influences. The cinnamon is a very Libyan touch, as is the tomato puree to add depth (tomato paste is a Libyan pantry staple). The tomato sauce can be prepared in advance. For a heartier dish, top with cubes of feta cheese before serving.
½ tsp cumin seeds
4 tbsp olive oil
1 large onion, peeled and sliced
2 red peppers, cored and diced
4 garlic cloves, crushed
2 tsp sugar
6 large very ripe tomatoes, roughly chopped (or 800g tinned tomatoes)
2 tbsp tomato puree
½-1 tsp cayenne pepper
½ tsp cinnamon
½ tsp powdered coriander
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
4-8 free-range eggs (1-2 per person)
1 bunch fresh coriander, chopped
1 In a large saucepan or deep skillet (cast iron is preferable), dry-roast the cumin on a high heat for a couple of minutes. Add the oil and sauté the onions until translucent. Add the peppers, garlic and sugar, and cook on a medium-high heat for 5 minutes. Stir in the tomatoes, cayenne, powdered coriander and cinnamon plus salt and pepper.
2 Simmer on a low heat for 30-40 minutes, adding some water if necessary (while ensuring that the consistency does not become too liquid). Taste and adjust the seasoning.
3 With a wooden spoon, make 4-8 wells in the sauce and break in the eggs. Turn the heat down as low as possible, cover and cook for about 10 minutes until the eggs are just set. Sprinkle with the chopped fresh coriander and serve immediately with warmed bread.