Breakfast / light meal: Shakshuka (eggs poached in spicy tomato sauce)

  • by

This is probably one of the most popular recipes across North Africa and especially in Israel. In my goal to only post Egyptian recipes I consistently refused to do this one dish, until, I found out: it’s also popular in Egypt.

Shakshuka. or Shakshouka. I know you’ve all heard of it, and have likely tasted it too. It’s Arabic slang for ‘a mixture’, or as one entry that I found said, it comes from the Berber word ‘chakchouka’ meaning a vegetable stew. Or even beyond that, there’s thought that the name comes from the Hebrew verb ‘leshakshek’ which means to shake. But since Hebrew and Arabic are both Semitic languages, then I’ll combine the two and translate it to: a shaken mixture. 
In any case, it was a friend of mine who continuously told me of his memories of Israel and eating shakshuka for breakfast. The poached eggs in a tomato sauce that boasted layers of complementary spicing served with fresh pita bread. I resisted.
Not because it didn’t sound appealing, but as I mentioned I’m trying to focus on Egypt. But then he sent me a recipe for this dish. I figured why not. So one cold morning, I prepared it. And yes, I was hooked. I think I ate it for three or four days straight. I was so proud of my new discovery that I called my mother to tell her the good news. Before I had told her what the dish was called, she stopped me: “shakshuka? my mother made that all the time for me!”
Apparently my mother may have been a bit of a ‘difficult’ daughter and refused to eat meat. In an effort to stem any quarrels regarding meals, my grandmother would prepare shakshuka only for my mother so she too would have something delicious to eat. And that’s how the meal got its prominence in that part of my family. 
After that, I asked other members of the family and they all nodded in agreement and confirmed to me that shakshuka is a popular dish as well, maybe not as popular as in Israel, or in the Maghreb, but definitely worthy of an entry.
But where did it come from? In Israel, it’s thought to have come from either Libyan or Tunisian Jews. So then north Africa really is the origin of the dish. Over in Morocco, it’s an egg tomato tagine, in Algeria it’s called ‘tchaktchouka’ or ‘tastira’ by the Algerian Jews. In Libya it can be served with merguez sausage or dried lamb. And in Tunisia, it’s similar to the recipe I’ll be sharing with you.
There are variations from country-to-country in the spicing, but the spices I am using are cumin, paprika and cinnamon.
Just like tomatoes, paprika is a ‘new world’ spice from the Americas brought over by European tradesmen during the days of exploration. It’s derived from sweet red peppers. It’s not as spicy as the hot pepper; but instead introduces a sweeter heat. 
Because of  the Spanish explorers, many dishes in Spain have paprika. Given the proximity and mixing of cultures between Morocco and Spain, paprika was likely brought over to North Africa via migration, but also through trade between the Mediterranean countries. All that to say, paprika likely made its way into Egypt via other North African countries, since there are not many Egyptian dishes that use this spice.

Cumin is native to the Mediterranean and is found in many Egyptian recipes, as is cinnamon, and dates back to 2000 BC and was used by the Pharaohs.

As for the dish itself, it’s hard to know how far back its history goes. It can’t be too far back, since the base is tomato which, as I mentioned, is not native to the Mediterranean countries. Likely someone began making it in one of the Maghreb countries (Morocco/Tunisia/Algeria/Libya), and through traffic between the North African countries, found a home in Egypt. 

In keeping with simplicity, I’m not doing it the way that many of the cool kids are doing it: served in an iron skillet. It’s a meal that is prepared and cooked in under 30 minutes, uses common ingredients in the house, and should be a no-sweat process. Meaning: not fancy, just tasty.
The key to making it really tasty is serving it with some fresh pita. My grandmother would add parsley at the end to give it just an extra layer of flavour, some people add feta which is also a nice addition.
Total preparation and cooking time: 30 minutes
Yield: 4 persons
1 onion – diced
5 cloves of garlic – chopped
(optional) 1 hot green pepper, or jalapeno- chopped
olive oil
1 can (500g) of whole plum tomatoes (or homemade stewed tomatoes)
1 tablespoon – ground cumin
1/2 tablespoon – paprika
1 teaspoon – ground cinnamon
fresh eggs
salt to taste
fresh parsley
1. In a deep frying pan or pot, add enough olive oil to cover pan, then add onions, garlic and hot peppers
2. Sauté until onions are soft
3. Take pan momentarily off heat source
4. Add the canned tomatoes to the pan, but break up each tomato by crushing it with  your hand 
5. Add all the spices
6. Using the empty can of tomatoes (more flavour), add water so it is about half full
7. Add some of this water to to the pan so that the sauce is just a little runny, but not like a juice
8. Return to heat source and stir
9. Cover if possible, but if you can’t, then just leave the pan on low heat stirring occasionally until the sauce is a little thicker and bubbling slightly
10. Try not to let the sauce boil too much; otherwise it could burn
11. After about 10-15 minutes, check on the sauce, if it is noticeably thicker then you can add eggs
12. Crack how ever many eggs you want into a separate bowl then pour each egg into a different area in the sauce
13. Leave the egg until it is cooked to your preference (ideally a bit runny on the inside).
14. Serve with some freshly cut parsley and bread