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Shakshouka, The Comfort Food from the Middle East and North Africa

Shakshouka a comfort foodYou can’t believe a hearty dish can be healthy too. More and more gourmet chefs are proving that it can be done, but if you are not gourmet, you have your doubts. Enter Shakshouka (or Shakshuka) … another comfort food, even a staple of exotic origin. It is a simple dish of tomatoes and eggs scented and flavored by exotic spices.

If you are looking forward to another unforgettable addition to your repertoire of healthy dishes, learn a few interesting facts about Shakshouka and how you can make it varied and exciting.

Enigmatic Beginnings

References are pointing to various origins – Middle East (primarily Israel and Arab nations) and North Africa (specifically Tunisia, Egypt, Alegria, Libya, Yemen and Morocco). The name is said to have the “flavor” of Tunisian or Yemeni, but the name also brings to mind close association with Amazigh (Berber) or Arabic  to mean “mixture.”

A perusal of the map would show that all these nations are positioned around the globe; they are virtually neighbors. It is easy to understand how people moving across geographic borders must have brought with them an interesting recipe. Twists are introduced depending on the ingredients available, particularly the spices.

Basic Shakshouka: Just Getting Started

In its most basic, it is a dish that is just predominantly eggs poached in luscious tomatoes that’s spiced with cayenne pepper, cumin, paprika and chili powder. Most recipes start off by sautéing garlic and onion in a small amount of oil before dumping the peppers and tomatoes and the spices.

The dish is finished off by dropping a single or multiple eggs, (depending on how many would be sharing the dish or one’s preference) for poaching on top of the cooking blend. The steps are simple; even amateur cooks can whip it up in no time.

Looking Beyond: Exploring the World of Ingredients

This is not, however, the end of the dish. If you will travel in the Middle East and North Africa, you’re bound to taste countless of versions.

  • You can make it healthier: Use olive oil instead of regular cooking oil and add vegetables such as artichokes, Swiss chard, water cress, kale, radish greens, parsley, spinach or a combination of a few of these. Don’t be afraid to use what you want to eat or what is available.
  • More flavors please: Aside from the four basic spices, you can add any favorite flavor or what-have –you in the pantry. Try to be experimental; put in as varied spices as possible. It will be a delicious and exciting experiment knowing it will come out just as exotic and interesting. Some flavors known to be added to Shakshouka are caraway seeds, cider vinegar, honey or red wine.
  • More kick than you can handle: Who doesn’t like some fire in there? Add peppers, jalapeños and any kind of favorite chilies available in the garden or pantry to give your metabolism a jumpstart in the morning.
  • Stepping up the protein: It is not uncommon to add feta cheese or tofu in the skillet or cast iron pan full of healthy tomatoes and eggs. These step up the amount of protein in the dish, the creaminess and the richness of the full-bodied flavor as well. If you like meats, there are versions called Beef Shakshouka, Meatballs Shakshouka, etc.  It can also be cooked or served with sausages or barbecued meat. Do you know, there are even Portobello Shakshouka and Gluten-free Ottolenghi Shakshouka?

A single-pot All-day Comforting Dish

Israelites fondly remember Shakshouka as a saucy breakfast food topped with feta and served with bread. In Egypt, the Shakshuka they look as comfort food is cooked like scrambled egg that comes in leaky sandwiches when sold as a street food.

Except for the basic things about this dish, no two versions are served or cooked the same way. Its variations from one Yemeni or Jordanian restaurant to restaurants in Iraq, Tunisia or Morocco are as numerous as there are cooks. It can come loaded with a variety of different veggies.  Eggs can be cooked firm or “luzzy.” Additions can come in the forms of meat, dairy or even seafood. The sauce can be thin, thick or midway.

If there is one thing common about this dish, it is about being a single-pot-meal that’s all goodness from the toppings to the last drop of sauce inviting to be wiped clean by a piece of bread. When do you want to try your own version of healthy, delicious and comforting Shakshouka?

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