Rude Food by Vir Sanghvi: Shakshuka, and great eggspectations

Because I write about food every week, I should have heard of shakshuka much earlier. But the truth is that I only became aware of the dish just over a decade ago. And even then, it wasn’t because I came across it at some faraway North African location. I noticed it first in India where it has suddenly become a menu standard, popping up all over the country and featuring on recipe shows.

Shakshuka, which originated in North Africa, is not difficult to make and the ingredients are inexpensive; most countries have their own version of the dish. (Shutterstock)

The ubiquity of shakshuka was confirmed for me when Ranveer Brar featured a recipe on his web series, explaining how easy it was to cook. Ranveer is bilingual in his TV/video work but he included this recipe in a Hindi show, which surprised me a little.

It shouldn’t have because shakshuka is one of the few international dishes that has crossed the linguistic barrier. Just Google it and you will find a multiplicity of recipes in nearly every Indian language. And the dish has been claimed worthy of the greatest Indian honour of them all: there are masala shakshuka recipes all over the net.

But first, if like me, you have come to the whole shakshuka boom a little late, here’s what the dish is. At its simplest level, shakshuka consists of tomatoes and peppers cooked with onions in olive oil with cumin and mild chilli powder (say paprika). When the tomato-pepper mixture has thickened (like a pasta sauce) you break some eggs and (ideally) poach them in little indentations you have made in the sauce.

Chef Ranveer Brar featured the recipe for his shakshuka in his Hindi web series. (Ranveer Brar)
Chef Ranveer Brar featured the recipe for his shakshuka in his Hindi web series. (Ranveer Brar)

It is not difficult to make and the ingredients are not expensive and though this is the basic structure of the dish, you can add or subtract what you like. Some people remove the peppers. Some add sausage to the sauce. And so on.

The reason for shakshuka’s global ubiquity is because Israel has promoted it as a classic breakfast dish. You will (apparently, I have never been to Israel myself) find it everywhere in that country and Israeli restaurants all over the world serve some form of shakshuka.

The problem with calling anything an Israeli dish is that I am beginning to wonder if there is any such thing as Israeli cuisine. Oh yes, there is a European Jewish cuisine, elements of which have travelled to America (the deli products, gefilte fish, bagels and lox etc. ) or have been absorbed into other cuisines (fried fish was the food of Portuguese Jews before the Brits annexed it), but I am not so sure about Israeli food.

This is not an Israel-specific concern; it is true of the whole region.The food of West Asia tends to be a continuum with the same dishes turning in several countries with some variations. In fact, you could argue that Middle Eastern food unites both Arabs and Jews in its similarity.

In Spain, the shakshuka can include ham and chorizo.
In Spain, the shakshuka can include ham and chorizo.

But gastronomic unity, alas, is not the most obvious consequence. There are frequent Arab vs Israel spats over the origins of dishes. One of the most celebrated has been the squabble over hummus which Israelis now claim for themselves. It is clear that hummus existed long before Israel came into existence so Arabs have been angered by what they see as Israel’s attempt to appropriate hummus for itself. (“First they stole our country; now they want to steal our food….”)

Shakshuka also provokes strong emotions because it is not really an Israeli dish at all. Its origins are in North Africa. One theory is that around the 1500s, the Spanish introduced tomatoes to the region. Locals in nearly every country in that area went on to include tomatoes in their diet and there are versions of shakshuka in Algeria, Libya, Tunisia, Morocco etc.

The Israeli claim to ownership of shakshuka is hard to defend though the country has now modified its original claim to say that North African Jews brought shakshuka to Israel in the 1960s when they emigrated there. This is plausible but it does not fully explain why shakshuka took till the 1990s to become popular all over Israel if it has been a popular local dish (via immigration) for so many decades.

I don’t want to spend too much time debating the Israeli claim to shakshuka because, as we have seen in the method of its adaptation in India, it is a dish that lends itself to innumerable variations all over the world. Within the Arab/Moor sphere of influence, there are endless versions of shakshuka. In North Africa itself, the Tunisian version can include potatoes and bread and others include keema and there are many non-vegetarian versions. In Spain the local variation can include ham and chorizo. In Italy, their version can include cheese, basil and anchovies.

Now that the dish has gone global, every country where it is cooked now makes it own kind of shakshuka. The Indian recipes I googled had ginger-garlic paste and green chillies. Many other recipes add coriander, degi red chilli powder, haldi etc. Our version of the dish is basically a sabzi with the eggs on top.

The funny thing is that long before I came across shakshuka, the ‘Israeli’ dish, we had actually been cooking it at home. We were not aware of any Arab or Jewish origins, of course.

We just thanked the Parsis.

The Parsi Papeta Par Eedu, which can also be made with fried potato gratings, as Salli Par Eedu. (Roxanne Bamboat)
The Parsi Papeta Par Eedu, which can also be made with fried potato gratings, as Salli Par Eedu. (Roxanne Bamboat)

Let we explain. One of my favourite Parsi dishes is Papeta Par Eedu. I used to enjoy it in Mumbai and later my Punjabi wife learned how to make it. There is no single authoritative recipe for the dish because it is a home cook favourite but essentially, you sauté potatoes (with garlic, onion, masala: whatever you like) and then, when the potatoes are done, you break whole eggs on top of the potatoes mixture.

If it sounds a lot like shakshuka, that’s because it is basically the same dish. The primary difference is that while the tomatoes ensure that shakshuka starts out with a moist sauce that you thicken, this is basically a dry dish. Parsis love eggs so there are many versions. Sometimes they make it with bhindi. Sometimes they add potato straws (salli) and sometimes they mix tomatoes with the potatoes. The version I loved (with eggs and tomatoes) used to be served at the Sodabottleopenerwala at Delhi’s Khan Market. When they took it off the menu, I stopped going.

At our home we started out with our version of the classic Parsi dish. But then my wife got adventurous. Why not use many kinds of peppers now that you get so many interesting peppers in Delhi? If it has potatoes, then won’t a little cured pork make it come alive? Why not try pancetta. And so on.

It has now reached the stage where our version of Papeta Par Eeda is a stateless citizen. Any traditional Parsi cook would probably give us two tight raps for fooling around with their dish. And if we tried to call it shakshuka, the Israelis would probably deny us visas. (Unless perhaps, we agreed to say that they invented hummus…)

But we like it. And though I like shakshuka in all its variations, I would love to say that given a choice, I’ll take the Indian versions over the North African/Israeli/Arab originals. The Parsis knew what they were doing when they invented the dish: the taste of a fried potato, scented with onions, garlic, masala (or whatever you choose to add) goes perfectly with a fried or poached egg.

I am sure there are people who prefer poached eggs in tomato sauce and yes, the North African shakshuka can be delicious. But when it comes to combining texture and flavour the Parsis were always well ahead of the people of Israel or of North Africa.

From HT Brunch, June 24, 2023

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