By Sal Cania
Israeli culture is a fascinating intermixing of many traditions and their foods, in large part due to their geography, but more importantly because of the history the modern state that resides in the hotly contested region has. Early settlers hailed mostly from Eastern Europe, bringing with them many of the local foods they had incorporated into their culture after their several millennia long Diaspora. But, as is common in many settler colonial societies of the era, they fervently adopted local fare. Hummus? Palestinian. Couscous? Lebanese. Shakshouka? Tunisian. Many of these dishes are known in the United States now by their Israeli versions, and that is in no small part because of the Jewish Diaspora that has roots in many regions around the country.
One dish in particular, Shakshouka, roughly translated from Arabic as a “mixture”, is a delicious composition of tomatoes, peppers, onions, cumin, and the star of the show: poached eggs. It’s currently a staple dish in many North African diets, as well as sharing traits with similar cuisine in Mexico, Turkey, and Spain. This is not surprising, since the meal is nutritious, inexpensive, and simple.
I first discovered this little gem when I traveled to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in 2012 as part of a scouting trip for the business school I worked at. Our goal was to sample aspects of Israeli culture, food, and learn about the business climate and major industries present in their economy. As you can imagine, food and drink took center stage pretty quickly, largely because the trip organizer had planned a number of fantastic dining experiences to draw us in. Sitting in a board room at an Intel processor factory was somewhat less interesting.
Shakshouka, mainly served for breakfast on trip, was the one plate I went for each day. Alongside pita for dipping and the traditional smoked/pickled fish that Israelis love to eat for breakfast, I was easily full until 2pm. Lunch, after a morning plate of Shakshouka, was not even important. We ate it anyway, because they served plenty of other amazing treats, and kept the [Israeli] wine flowing all day long.
Fast forward to May of 2014, when my wife found this great recipe for the dish, I realized that I had actually forgotten about my Shakshouka experience. Looking to try new things to complement our usual Vermont summer evening meals, we went for it. To start out, we followed this recipe to a “T”, and it came out very well, if a bit dry, but I suspect that was because we left it on for the full simmer time. This is a meal, after having now cooked it, that I can see being extremely versatile and offering opportunities to change out ingredients without adversely changing the overall concept. See: huevos rancheros.
In this age of post-colonialism, a dish that successfully made its way around the Middle East has somewhat ironically come now to Vermont, not at the tip of a sword, but rather the internet. It’s a fitting example of the change we’ve seen over the last century, but also a reminder that some things stay the same. Plus, who wouldn’t like spicy poached eggs in tomato sauce? My fellow Italians, take note.