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A variation on shakshuka

Eggs and tomatoes aren’t the first combination that may come to mind, but when you discover shakshuka*, you wonder why it has taken you so long to find this dynamic  flavor duo.  I was introduced to this dish a few years ago when it was all the rage.  Suddenly it was everywhere, and everyone had their own variation.

However, the seemingly “new” dish goes back to the 16th century of Ottoman North Africa, after the explorer Hernan Cortés introduced tomatoes to the region.  Thought to have originated in the country of Tunisia, many Maghrebi countries (the northwesternmost part of Africa along the Mediterranean Sea) claim the dish - Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, and Morocco where it remains a menu staple.  The Middle Eastern countries of Turkey, Israel, Palestine, and Yemen also make their own variations. 

So what is shakshuka?  Eggs are nestled in a sauce of tomatoes, onions, garlic, olive oil and a variety of spices, commonly paprika, cayenne pepper, cumin, and nutmeg, and the hot sauce poaches the eggs.  Served  with bread to sop up the tomatoey-eggy goodness.  It’s simple food that is so good.  

Five hundred years of history, countless countries, home cooks, and chefs have influenced the variations on this humble dish.  I’ve made many versions, each one being slightly different from the last.  Many recipes don’t suggest Feta Cheese, but I find it adds a nice salty addition and fits my belief that all things are better with cheese!  Israeli versions of shakshuka tend to include Feta cheese.  

The Italians even have a version of shakshuka called Eggs in Purgatory. How it got its name is not truly known, but this Neapolitan dish, “uova in purgatorio”,  represents the eggs as “souls” in purgatory represented by the bubbling tomato sauce - thus caught between heaven and hell.  The Catholic faith is a strong influencer in Italy, apparently even in the local cuisine.  The sauce can be a bit spicier with the addition of red chile flakes, or seasoned with garlic and basil.  No matter what it is called, it’s delizioso!

Chef Yotam Ottolenghi, the Israeli chef and cookbook author, shares multiple versions in his cookbooks.  In his book Jerusalem, he states in one of the recipes head notes, “Having published recipes for shakshuka once or twice before, we are aware of the risk of repeating ourselves.  Still we are happy to add another version of this splendid dish….”, and adds seasonal variations for winter with the addition of potatoes, and eggplants in the spring.  Ottolenghi reportedly also does a green shakshuka using spinach, green onions, olive oil, butter, lemon juice, cumin, and yogurt.  I need to find that version and give it a try.  

Another one of my favorite chefs and cookbook authors is Virginia Willis.  She shares a Southern riff on shakshuka in her awesome book, Secrets of the Southern Table: A Food Lover’s Tour of the Global South, with a recipe for Skillet Baked Eggs in Tomato Gravy with Spinach.  

The sauce is a traditional Southern style tomato gravy, using bacon fat, tomatoes, onion, garlic, flour, and milk.  Typically,  Southern-Appalachian tomato gravy is simply served over biscuits or rice.  Here the gravy, along with the bacon crumbles, fresh herbs, and spinach makes a garden fresh bed for the eggs to poach.  I increased the spice level to my taste, topped with Feta cheese and herbs,, and served with toasty mini naan bread.  Biscuits, toast, or a crunchy baguette work well as sopping devices too. 

No matter which recipe or variation you choose, a hearty dinner is on the table in no time.  Shakshuka lends itself to so many interpretations….and my mind is bubbling with new ideas.  Stay tuned!

Here's the link to Virginia Willis' version:


*Reference note: 

Pronounced:  [shah-SHOO-kah]   But there are many spelling variations: shakshuka, shakshuka, chachouka, chouchouka, or chakchouka.  


Cookware note: 

I made my shakshuka in my BK Carbon steel large skillet.  It gets really hot and goes from stove top to oven.  Cast-iron or stainless steel skillets would work too.

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