Stroll down streets of Tel Aviv, lined with its whitewashed Bauhaus-inspired buildings, on a Friday morning and hit up any of the city's countless outdoor cafés, and tucked between early morning salads and the ubiquitous "Israeli breakfast," you will invariably find some version of shakshuka on the menu: a skillet of simmered tomatoes, hot peppers and spices, topped with eggs poached in the red inferno until the whites are set but the yolks are still pockets of liquid sun (see the recipe).
"To an Israeli, when you order shakshuka, it's like [when Americans order] two eggs and sausage," food writer and cookbook author Adeena Sussman, who lately has split her time between New York and Tel Aviv, explains. The dish, which came to Israel with immigrants from Tunisia, is an essential part of the Israeli breakfast canon and, in recent years, has increasingly become a popular staple of brunch menus around the U.S.
Six years ago, however, when Israeli chef Einat Admony opened her Nolita restaurant, Balaboosta, with shakshuka on the menu, few of her diners knew what it was: "They couldn't even say it back then. 'Shak-what?'" she recalls them asking, dragging out the a in "what." Today, she says only tourists ask her servers what the dish is when ordering one of the three variations she offers at her restaurants: a traditional recipe at Balaboosta; another prepared with eggplant at her new Barcelona-meets-Tel Aviv spot, Combina; and one made with spicy tomato-based chrime sauce, goat's-milk feta and za'atar at Bar Bolonat.
Admony isn't the only chef playing with the dish. After all, the root of its name means something akin to "all shaken up" in Tunisian Arabic and sounds like the Hebrew word for the action of tossing something in a pan—so the variations are endless. There's a rendition made with black kale and yogurt at L.A.'s always-busy République, numerous versions with spicy and earthy merguez sausage hanging out on brunch menus around the country, and when New Orleans-based chef Alon Shaya hosted a sold-out pop-up in New York City last year, he served a variation with shrimp and field peas—an unmistakable nod to Louisiana cuisine.
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It's a dish that easily travels, bending to conform to the cook's taste and to whatever is in the refrigerator (or the market), enhanced by almost anything added to it, from chewy chunks of haloumi to bright leaves of Swiss chard and piquant tomatillos. And, unlike other iconic Israeli foods, like hummus and falafel—which can cause furious debate about which restaurant makes the one true version—Israelis rarely argue about what the "right" way to make shakshuka is.
It is simply and delightfully accepted as is, perhaps because it started at home. "My mom would make it when . . . she didn't have any time," Israeli-born Mimi Kitani of Mimi's Hummus in New York recalls. At the restaurant, she serves a classic shakshuka made with roasted tomatoes warmed by cinnamon. "She was too tired, and she needed to do something really fast; it was like, 'Oh, shakshuka,'" she says as she makes a fast-paced hand motion mimicking cooking. "Dinner! Enjoy!" Admony remembers similar dinners when she shared a Tel Aviv apartment with friends years ago, throwing together what they had.
At its core, shakshuka is a dish that can simply be tossed together at dinner or breakfast or even at midnight—whenever you feel like shak'ing up.
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