Shakshuka. It’s not fussy. The details don’t matter, nor the total focus of the cook. A glug or two of olive oil, a couple of tomatoes simmered into softness- canned will do in a cinch- and eggs. That’s really all you need.

Or, if the pantry or mood allows, embellishments are added. Cumin, onions, garlic, cilantro, parsley, bell peppers, sliced chili peppers… some versions even omit the tomatoes completely and use spinach instead. In Arabic, this catchy sounding dish roughly translates to “all mixed up” so by definition there are no rules to obey.  Anything goes.

Believed to be Tunisian in origin, its popularity has spread to the Middle East and has become a favorite anytime- anywhere meal in Israel. It’s a common item in restaurants, from mom & pop eateries to the bustling Tel Aviv dining scene- the bacon and eggs backbone of the breakfast menu, with a bit more color & piquancy.

Manta Ray shakshuka, Tel Aviv

That’s what I ordered at Manta Ray, a seaside restaurant bordering Jaffa where the food is good, the atmosphere informal and the views spill into the Mediterranean. Presented in an individual pan, their shakshuka was topped with grilled halloumi cheese, a nod to our Greek neighbors, alongside a country salad and a basket of soft breads.

Hummus aficionados have perfected the hummus swipe technique. For shakshuka it’s all in the dunk.  Bread is torn into pieces and submerged into the bubbling sauce while a fork is used to dig out the eggs. At Manta Ray it was brioche but other establishments serve it with Yemenite lachuch, pita, challah or government subsidized standard bread.

It’s not a difficult dish to master but there are a few pitfalls to avoid. First, if tomatoes are subpar – plastic, no aroma- they can still be used but good quality tomato paste and a bit of brown sugar should be added to keep the sauce from tasting flat. Preferably the sauce should be slightly loose, but not watery.  You don’t want a diluted puddle nor one which has evaporated into the consistency of thick paste.  According to Ynet, Tzila, owner of Tzila’s Schnitzel from Netanya says if the shakshuka is too thick, chances are it’s made only with tomato paste. She doesn’t mince her words and declares that anyone who prepares shakshuka in this manner is a miser who doesn’t know how to cook. Ouch.

The shakshuka takes time to prepare since all the components- onions, peppers, garlic- should be cooked until tender.  This is not a stir fry and crunchy vegetables are not the texture you’re aiming for. The only fresh ingredients I like are a scattering of roughly chopped coriander or parsley leaves right before serving.

As for flavorings, I normally go for North African – cumin, Moroccan paprika, sometimes turmeric but inspiration knows no borders. Here’s my weekend shakshuka combination with roasted eggplant and briny goat feta cheese.

Shakshuka with feta and smoky eggplant

Tomatoes in the bargain bin, too soft for salads, are perfect for making shakshuka.

Olive oil

1 small onion,  chopped into small pieces, about 1/2-3/4 cup

2 garlic cloves, minced

6 tomatoes, peeled and chopped or simply zipped in a food processor peel and all (high quality canned chopped tomatoes can also be used)

3 tablespoons tomato paste

6 eggs

1 teaspoon cumin

½ teaspoon paprika

1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1 medium sized eggplant

100 grams crumbled feta cheese

Handful of chopped parsley leaves

In a cast iron pan, add a good glug of olive oil so it covers the surface of the pan. Add the chopped onions and cook until translucent, about 10 minutes while stirring occasionally. Add the garlic and cook for a few seconds before adding the tomato paste and chopped tomatoes. Reduce heat and cover the pan to allow the tomatoes to melt into a sauce, about 15 minutes. Check occasionally to see if more water should be added.

Meanwhile, wash the eggplant and place on top of a grill rack positioned above the flame of the range. Keep the eggplant close but not directly in the flame. It is necessary to turn the eggplant around every few minutes to cook all sides evenly. When fully cooked, the eggplant’s peel will be blistered and charred in some parts and the fruit soft when pressed. Slit the eggplant once from top to bottom and let drain in a colander. Scrape the inside with a tablespoon, avoiding the peel. Chop the eggplant pulp so it is no longer stringy and place in a small bowl (a food processor is overkill for this job). Add a pinch of salt and mix. Discard the peel.

Continue preparing the shakshuka. Add spices- cumin, paprika, salt and freshly ground black pepper.  Create a hollow part with the back of a tablespoon and add an egg into it. Continue with the rest of the eggs. Cover and cook until the whites are set.

Remove from heat and garnish with the eggplant mash and feta cheese. Scatter a few parsley leaves on top. Since cumin tends to lose potency when heated, I sometimes sprinkle more before serving.

Serve with challah bread.

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