Stuck in a small tent for a month-long basic training in the Israel Defense Forces, we observed with amazement as Moti unleashed an appetite of mythic proportions: At breakfast, he downed two loaves of bread, half a dozen eggs, a plate of cheese and three or four apples –– a gargantuan amount of food that, come lunchtime, seemed to have completely disappeared in the endless repository that was his stomach. Then it was time for stacks of meat, mountains of rice, rivers of soup, all of which barely held Moti until dinner.
Saturday mornings, however, were a particularly difficult time for Moti; The base’s kitchen closed for Shabbat, and he was not in the least content, like the rest of us, to feed on sandwiches for a few hours. And it was on one such morning, with his stomach rumbling, that Moti — a look of determination on his face worthy of Odysseus — stormed out of the tent and came back a few minutes later with a few ingredients he had thieved from the supply room.
“Now,” he said, smiling, “I’ll show all of you what a REAL breakfast is like.”
What he intended to make, he said, was shakshuka.
Almost instantly, a flurry of sighs and grunts rose to the air.
“A Greek? Making shakshuka?” said Tzachi, a short and temperamental man with warm brown eyes and a hairy chest. “Please, that’s Moroccan food, leave it to us.”
“Moroccan?” came a voice from the other end of the tent. “How dare you, punk?” It was Danny, and he wasn’t happy. Shakshuka, he said, originated from Tripoli, and was brought to Israel by Libyan Jews. Greeks and Moroccans, he said, have no right to claim it.
It didn’t stop there: Nir, whose grandparents immigrated from Kiev in the 1920s, said that it was none other than his Ukrainian bubbe who made the best shakshuka in the world, and Dima, a lanky and silent Russian, lyrically recounted how his Indian neighbor in the desert town of Dimona makes a shakshuka which, he was sorry to inform us, was certifiably the world’s best.
As there cannot be so many contenders to the crown, we band of brave soldiers engaged in that most manly of affairs: the swapping of recipes. And while the historical origins of shakshuka eluded us, we were struck by one fact: All of the recipes were virtually identical, give or take a pinch of salt here or a dash of oil there.
Listening to the heated debate, I began to ponder whether shakshuka may be an extended metaphor for Israeli society. Like the men in the tent, shakshuka, too, had multiple origins, immigrated from different countries and cultures and was infused with foreign influences. Like the men in the tent, shakshuka has transcended its origins and transformed into a bona fide Israeli.
I had little time to ponder, however, as hunger was pushing Moti to the brink.
“You talk so much,” he said, visibly annoyed. “Step back and let me cook.”
He pulled out the ingredients, a small portable stovetop and a pan, and with surprising dexterity did the following:
Recipe for Shakshuka
Makes four servings
4 tablespoons olive oil
2 large onions, yellow or white
1 medium can crushed tomatoes
2 fresh tomatoes, large
4 cloves of garlic
1 red pepper
1 green pepper
1 hot pepper, preferably cayenne or jalapeno
1 teaspoon ketchup
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 large loaf of bread
In a large, deep pan, heat oil, approximately 2-3 minutes. Chop onions finely, and saute in oil, stirring occasionally, until golden in color. Peel garlic cloves, chop or slice finely, and add to onions, stirring once or twice.
In a separate bowl, chop the red and green peppers, and mix with crushed tomatoes. Grate the fresh tomatoes, and add to the mix, along with the ketchup and the brown sugar (this will neutralize the tomatoes’ acidity). Finely chop the hot pepper, and add according to taste, with the tame adding a sliver of the fiery stuff and the brave throwing in the whole thing. Stir until all ingredients are mixed in with the tomato sauce.
Pour tomato-pepper mixture into the pan, and stir into the onions, garlic and oil. Cook on a medium-high flame for 5-7 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the mixture begins to bubble. Reduce flame to low and cover pan, leaving a narrow crack. This is important, as it allows the liquid to reduce. Cook for 15-17 minutes more, stirring every two minutes or so.
Next comes the tricky part: Break the eggs over the sauce, making sure they don’t touch one another. Cover the pan completely, raise flame to medium and cook for another 4-6 minutes, or until eggs are no longer runny. If you like your eggs well-done, allow an additional 2-3 minutes.
Remove from flame and divide equally, making sure each diner has an even number of eggs, and eat, using the bread to soak up the sauce.
The recipe is the ultimate in Middle Eastern comfort food, but it translates well into the local food scene. Try it on a cold Sunday morning, possibly with a glass of Ouzo, Arak, or any other anis-based liquor. A properly prepared shakshuka may take the rest of the day to digest, unless you’re Moti — he was hungry an hour later.