Like a Goulash
Setting Your Shakshuka Straight
Shakshuka’s phenomenal growth in popularity over the last decade brought increased Western attention to the wide variety of cuisines spanning North Africa, the Middle East, and the Sephardic diaspora. Virtually every culture across the Mediterranean basin has at least one variation on braised vegetables with eggs, each reflecting a different side of this unpretentious yet vibrant dish. That’s why we feel frustrated by how many European restaurants and social media recipes default to the same flat, muted formula. Whichever way you like it, our little shift for thinking about shakshuka often leads to better results overall.
A Shakshuka Formula: Vegetarian Goulash at Home
Ingredients, per person
200 g canned crushed tomatoes
50 g Tomatoes, on the vine, small, e.g. plum or cherry, quartered; vines reserved and well-cleaned
1 Medium red bell pepper, in 2 cm dice
½ Medium green bell pepper, in 2 cm dice
1 Medium yellow onion, in 2 cm dice
2 Large cloves garlic, thinly sliced
2 Tbsp Olive oil, or 1 Tbsp olive oil plus 1 Tbsp Extra virgin olive oil
Hawaij spice blend, to taste
Smoked hot paprika and/or harissa, to taste
Salt, to taste
Bread, to serve, for scooping
Ingredients, Hawaij for Braised Dishes
2 tsp Cumin seeds, whole
2 tsp Coriander seeds, whole
1 tsp Green cardamom pods, whole
½ tsp Black peppercorns, whole
½ tsp Cloves, whole
1 Small stick of cinnamon (ca. 4cm), whole
½ tsp Turmeric, ground
Optional garnishes or condiments
Zhug or additional harissa or fermented hot sauce of your choice
Fresh parsley and/or cilantro/coriander, chopped
Pickled cucumbers and/or hot peppers, to serve on the side
Sauté pan or skillet rated for higher heat
Fine mesh strainer, optional
Selecting Your Cooking Vessel
Your selection matters here! Your goal is to have something wide enough to allow for vigorously frying your aromatics, without boiling them until you add your tomatoes, yet small enough and tall enough that, after reducing down your complete vegetables, there remains a good 3 cm of vegetable depth with which to work. At the same time, you only want your vegetables half-submerged as they reduce (that is, braising), balanced with enough surface area to make cooking your eggs a fun exercise, not a chore. We do not recommend a tight saucepan.
The specific texture that you prefer (and so, how long you cook everything down) versus the exact geometry of your pan makes it difficult to recommend one clear option. Roughly, our experience with this formula is that a 20 cm sauté pan or deeper cast iron skillet with relatively straight sides will accommodate enough base for one portion and 2–3 eggs. We often manage two portions and 5 eggs (6 with some squeezing) in a 25 cm carbon steel frying pan with aggressively sloping sides. The photos here feature three portions of vegetables cooked in a 28cm straight-sided, high-walled stainless ply sauteuse that could accommodate up to 9 eggs with ease. (So why only two portions worth of 5 eggs? …because recipe development fills you up fast!) If you are cooking for more than three people and plan for shakshuka to represent the majority of your meal, we strongly recommend spreading out portions across multiple pans, all the more if you intend to transport the whole affair to your dining table.
Do Ahead: Hawaij for Braised Dishes
- Over medium heat, toast the whole cumin and coriander seeds, green cardamom pods, black peppercorns, cloves, and cinnamon stick, swirling your pan gently throughout, until all of the whole spices turn fragrant, approximately 1–2 minutes.
- Transfer your spices to a spice grinder, dedicated blade-style coffee grinder, or mortar and pestle; grind the mixture to a fine powder. Combine with the ground turmeric. Store in an air-tight container until use. Hawaij will last for some time, though it tastes best if used within 48 hours.
- Heat your cooking vessel over a medium high flame or equivalent, adding half of the olive oil to the pan, heating through but not allowing it to smoke. Add your onions and a pinch of salt, giving them a good toss or stir. Let these cook for five minutes, or until soft with golden edges.
- Add your peppers and fresh tomatoes to the pan, and combine well with the oil and onions, and cook for another five minutes. If you like a smokier taste, allow your veg to sit undisturbed until they blister; if you prefer a milder taste, move them about every minute or so.
- Add approximately 1/2 teaspoon hawaij per portion to the pan, as well as the garlic, stirring or tossing quickly to introduce them to the oil. After 30 seconds or so,
- Add your canned tomatoes, stirring well to combine. Once the mixture begins to bubble, add the reserved tomato vines, smoked paprika, and at least another 1/4 teaspoon of hawaij per portion. Taste for seasoning, but remember: this mixture is now going to reduce significantly, and mellow in acidity, so hold off on adding all the salt you want!
- Turn down your heat to medium or medium low, maintaining a rolling braise, without producing any sputtering volcanoes of lava-hot tomatoes. Continue cooking for ten to fifteen minutes, stirring every two minutes or so. Depending on your tomatoes, you may need to add some water. If you prefer a more even texture for your vegetables throughout, be sure to fold the mixture as you stir, bringing up the pieces on the bottom to exchange with what float on top; without folding, you end up with a pleasant mix of more and less cooked pieces.
- Lower your heat source to its lowest setting. Remove the tomato vines. Add the remainder (or more aromatic portion) of your olive oil(s) and warm through. Then, taste once more for seasoning; you will likely need to adjust the salt, but this is also when to adjust the final heat and spice.
- Using a ladle (or a large spoon, if you’ve hands of asbestos), create wells in the mixture for your eggs.
We find that a combination of pushing with the back of a ladle, followed by some narrow stirring within the divot left behind, gives us more consistent wells.
Aim for a depth reaching about 75% of the way down into your mixture, with a bit of the unreduced liquid running back into the well.
After making one well, slide in one whole egg. Making all of your divots at once tends to go poorly. After only a bit of practice, you should get to the point where you are quick enough to shore up the edges of each well up and around the rims of the eggwhites, so that they cook all the more evenly, and all without letting your previous eggs overcook.
Simmer your eggs for five to ten minutes, depending on the doneness you or your guests prefer.
Tips: Handling Eggs for Shakshuka
- If you’re new to cracking eggs directly into a pan, keep a small bowl on hand. You can crack each egg into the bowl, then make your well, and finally transfer the whole egg from the bowl into the well. No more fishing out stray eggshells, or cursing about breaking a yolk prematurely!
- While vegetables of a certain age are welcome here, older eggs have looser whites that tend not to stay put as well. You can mitigate the problem by cracking your older eggs into a fine mesh strainer, draining away the looser portion of your whites before depositing the thicker white and yolk into a bowl for later transfer to the stove.
- Be brave: lowering in your eggs from a closer range is much safer than dropping them in from a height!
Yemeni coffee (tips follow, below)
Louched anise spirit (e.g. araq, ouzo, pastis, or… absinthe!)
If you’ve gotten this far and don’t think we’re ridiculous clickbait artists: great! We really do believe that for the Western imagination, thinking of shakshuka as a goulash, or two-stage braise, gets at the underlying concept of the dish more accurately than the broader category of “sauce.” (It’s on you, though, if you thought we were straight.) After all, the simpler the dish, the more your care and thoughtfulness about each component comes through to influence what lands on the table.
Different milieu weight different qualities to what they believe make a good shakshuka. There are also interesting variants further removed, such as green shakshuka. Still, there is broad consensus that shakshuka is a braised dish, served warm, then eaten using some form of bread and sometimes utensils.
Our own recipe formula above is not meant to represent one “definitive” shakshuka. We drew on the shakshuka with which one of us grew up, because it demonstrates the greatest number of technical qualities that disappointed us elsewhere. This particular version reads as a meld of influences from the broader Sephardic and Mizrahi diasporas, with a characteristically Tunisian or Moroccan textural form factor (bordering on the mezze dish matbucha), foregoing meat or dairy for maximum versatility with respect to kashrut, and rounded out by that distinctive Yemeni spice mix, hawaij. Personally, we prefer a shakshuka that can be eaten with a fork, and all the better when served with crusty bread, one that can take serious soaking without losing the ability to scoop another hefty bite (above: ciabatta).
Our encounters with German marketing suggested a different constellation of ideas for “canonical” shakshuka that didn’t always provide a clear picture of the intended goal for aspiring cooks at home. Here’s our general breakdown:
- “Shakshuka is a dish of eggs in a spiced tomato sauce.”
Shout-out to Middle Eats for expressing our frustration best, and providing wonderful examples of the predominant Tunisian, Egyptian, and Yemeni styles in action! Focusing on the eggs that finish shakshuka does little to prepare expectations for cooking the entire dish… it does go a long way towards reframing spicier vegetables as a viable breakfast for Western brunch-goers, and as more than a front for drinking vodka.
But wait, there’s more! Keeping attention on the spices and sidelining the veg as sauce makes for good bank, if you’re in the business of marketing premixed spice blends or tamping down the overhead when feeding a crowd. (One popular blend available in Germany accomplished both by featuring dried, powdered tomato for bulk, plus a heaping helping of sugar.) Many recipes for home call the vegetable base a “sauce,” only to qualify their description of the mixture! If shakshuka were “only” eggs in a sauce, shouldn’t it be easier to get the details across with the word “sauce”?
- “Shakshuka should be made and served in a cast iron pan.”
While you do want a pan that can take the level of heat you are willing to apply, there’s no need to strip the seasoning off your favorite heirloom cast iron. (Nonstick and high heat are not buddies; in addition, those coatings complicate novice attempts at forming the egg wells as well as eating directly from the pan.) Like fajitas, the visual and olfactory association of serving shakshuka in cast iron at the table has as much to do with driving follow-up orders. Many restaurants dish out shakshuka in cast iron for the simple reason that it’s one of the less expensive tools for turning out the dish quickly. With that said, if their approach makes use of an oven, grill, or salamander to bake the eggs from above, the lower profile unibody handles on most commercial cast iron skillets further simplifies the trip from stove to table. Other restaurants will select carbon steel pans when their local market forces support them (they’re certainly lighter), or even ceramics. While we don’t recommend using reactive pans such as uncoated aluminium (unless you enjoy “tinny” notes to your tomatoes that is), the cooking vessel, and your choice of whether to bring it tableside, have little to do with the success of your final dish.
- “The eggs for shakshuka should be as runny as possible.”
This is a personal (and regionalized) preference, another one that’s completely up to you and your guests! Two problems we encounter often appear to be symptoms of this directive, though: eggs that spread out too far, or hit the bottom of the pan. If you don’t provide a deep enough well for the eggs, you can still end up with runny yolks, sure; you can also get rubbery whites as they spread, and quickly. Worse, if you dig your wells too deep and let the eggs hit the bottom of the pan, they tend to cook unevenly, less a gentle poach and more a mediocre fry-up. The right depth helps to get more of your eggs to the same doneness at serving time. Harder-cooked eggs should be stopped before any bit of the yolk goes sulfurous (i.e. overly hard or green), and that’s far easier to accomplish by maintaining a poach approach!
- “The freshest ingredients are best for shakshuka.”
Shakshuka is a quintessential weekend dish: most of the work takes place upfront, there aren’t too many adjustments, and, crucially, it’s a great way to use up older produce. Riper tomatoes and onions with their higher brix (relative sugar content) break down more readily, and all while contributing more thickening power; no matter how fresh your peppers, you’re going to be cooking off a good amount of their crunch. What does matter is the overall quality of your produce. No amount of cooking will turn sad, watery tomatoes into brilliant ones. (A sprinkle of MSG sprinkled can help save them from the trash, but I still wouldn’t recommend putting that shakshuka in front of a valued guest.) That is precisely why we recommend a mix of good quality tomatoes canned at their ripest, supplemented with smaller fresh tomatoes, which are easier to find with better aromas year-round among the hothouse produce in Western grocery stores. A nice and deeply green vine attached to them makes all the difference, too. That said, this formula is how we tend to use up those last few heirloom tomatoes at the end of their natural growing seasons, the ones we held onto for too long, couldn’t bear to part with, even as they threatened to auto-liquify at the slightest touch. We salute you, Mr. Exceptional Classy Tomato (though you’re hardly ever around).
Shakshuka is one of those recipes that rewards you for messing it up once or twice; nail your veg with the tools you like, then dial in your seasoning and eggs with practice!
Tip: Hawaij for Yemeni Coffee
Another form of hawaij sets Yemeni coffee apart from among its sibling Turkish and Arabic styles. While all of these traditionally involve the method of boiling water directly with extra-fine coffee grounds for service, the Yemeni version opts to add a blend of ground dried ginger, green cardamom, cinnamon, and clove, in roughly descending order of prominence. Because the pungency of commercial ground ginger varies widely, and the aroma degrades at a different rate from the other dried spices in the mix, we recommend storing the four components separately and experimenting until you find the right combination for your local supplies. Ours tends toward a ratio of 3 parts ginger, 2 parts cardamom, 2 parts cinnamon, and 1 part clove. It wakes you up.
We think louched anise spirits make for both a wonderful digestif and pairing right alongside shakshuka. If you’re already a fan, you might consider something more refreshing.
30 ml anise liquor of choice (e.g. araq, pastis)
100 ml sparkling mineral water, well-chilled
Orgeat syrup, to taste, ca. 15 ml (1 Tbsp.)
Add the liquor to an empty glass, then top up with sparkling water. Stir in orgeat, to taste, as different liquors feature different levels of pre-sweetening.
Note: pouring anise directly over ice can lead to an instantaneous oily film precipitating out of solution, rather than a sparkly opalescent louche; we aren’t fans of that mouthfeel!