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Food & Travel

Shakshuka a Tel Aviv mainstay

Variations abound, but the principal ingredients of shakshuka are tomatoes, red bell peppers, and eggs. Variations abound, but the principal ingredients of shakshuka are tomatoes, red bell peppers, and eggs. (Ted Weesner Jr. for The Boston Globe)
By Ted Weesner Jr.
Globe Correspondent / July 1, 2009

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TEL AVIV - Spend just a day here and it’s hard not to feel politics - even history itself - swirling around your head. Everyone has a solution, an opinion, and of course, a recipe. In no time at all, you too have one. And likely many. Naturally this extends to shakshuka.

No, we’re not talking about the latest Tel Aviv teen pop star. Shakshuka, instead, just might score tops in an Israeli food election - if there were such a thing and were hummus disqualified due to term limits. The principal ingredients are basic: tomatoes, red bell peppers, and eggs. This being Israel, all cooks have lists of quirky add-ons and techniques. In its simplest form, the tomato and pepper are sauteed, after which eggs are cracked over the top and allowed to poach in the heat of the vegetables.

It’s hard to believe that more enterprising American breakfast menus don’t feature shakshuka (or for lunch or dinner, for that matter). Ana Sortun’s nearly year-old spot, Sofra Bakery and Cafe, in Cambridge, turns out a very tasty version, so possibly it’s poised to pop here.

A similar stew of vegetables and minced meat shakshuka or “goatee’’ dates to the Ottoman Empire. The egg version surfaced later all over North Africa and Spain before the expulsion of the Sephardic Jews.

“The egg is used like a piece of meat as a rich part of the meal,’’ says Sortun. Her take on shakshuka is spun less from a specific place than a questing palate. Interestingly, she dials up the flavor of her sauce with hawaj, a Yeminite mixture that includes tumeric, cumin, and coriander sourced from an Israeli spice merchant in New York and tops it with brilliant green zhoug, a spicy condiment made of peppers and sherry vinegar.

The dish is made in some form all around the Mediterranean. The Basque piperade, for example, begins with a similar saucy tomato mixture, but instead of poaching the eggs on top, they’re scrambled into the simmering sauce. The Turkish menemen includes the same ingredients baked into a thick omelet.

Properly turned out, shakshuka hits sweet, fiery, and filling notes all at once. Considering its heritage, it’s not surprising that the best known venue for shakshuka in Tel Aviv is operated by a native of Tripoli. The owner, Bino Gabso, would appear to know what he’s talking about. The restaurant is called Dr. Shakshuka and sits amid the bustle of Jaffa, the ancient port city out of which Tel Aviv grew. It’s a place that’s on every Israeli’s gastro-radar.

Dr. Shakshuka projects a highly atmospheric gestalt. Hundreds of braziers dangle from the ceiling and the lighting is low, romantic, possibly enigmatic. When the kitchen is humming, six burners are devoted to producing shakshuka. Flames jet up around the sides of the saute pans and a cook dances amid the heat, fire, and bubbling skillets, looking a little like a xylophonist relegated to hell. That is, until he gets his shift meal.

Though the restaurant’s idea of spices may strike an adventuresome palate as somewhat tame, one can still come away with an excellent trick, courtesy of the open-air kitchen. After cracking each egg on top of the tomato and pepper saute with a single hand, the agile, heat-blasted cook tips the pan forward, back, and sideways, allowing the egg white to fold into the vegetables. Instead of one ingredient piled atop another, the two are made to quietly and deliciously meld.

Poll the average Israeli and it’s not difficult to find an opinion - many opinions, in fact - about the best way to cook shakshuka. It’s just that each of these opinions (and recipes) is different. At the same time, however, it’s easy - shockingly easy - to gather consensus on one thing. Everyone here loves shakshuka.

Dr. Shakshuka, 3 Beit Eshel St., Jaffa, Tel Aviv, Israel, 03-5186560, drshaksuka.rest-e.co.il