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Shakshuka's origins, where does it come from?

Shakshuka's origins, where does it come from?

Shakshuka is all the rave these days; from trendy brunch spots, to recipe blogs, to viral TikTok's and Instagram reels. You may have seen it on Pinterest or your favorite food magazine; wide pan, red sauce, poached-in eggs. It’s often nonchalantly mislabeled as ‘Middle Eastern’, ‘Moroccan’, or ‘Israeli’ by internet bloggers and restaurateurs… but where lies its true origins?

What is Shakshuka?

A product of Amazigh and Andalusian influence, shakshuka is a traditional, stew-like vegetable dish very typical of Tunisian cooking. It is often finished off with poached-in eggs, which is one way of recognizing it. If you had to visualize shakshuka’s consistency, think about Italian caponata or perhaps even French ratatouille. It is thick, simple, and ever changing as it was historically made up of whatever seasonal vegetables were available. Although the most popularized, ‘modern’ version of the dish is red and tomato-y, older, more ancestral versions likely took on other colors and textures. In fact, the dish pre-dates the arrival of tomatoes from the New World. Moreover, the dish was prepared throughout the year meaning it would change based on seasonality and ingredient availability. 

Shakshuka’s Origins

Rafram Chaddad, Tunisian food historian, visual artist, and shakshuka aficionado, explained to me that shakshuka originated in what he coins the ‘Amazigh triangle' which consists in the area spanning a small part of eastern Algeria bordering Tunisia, southern Tunisia, and the north western part of Libya bordering Tunisia. Contrary to popular belief that the term ‘shakshuka’ is Arabic, it actually derives from the Amazigh (native North African people) double consonant term ‘shakshak’, which translates to all mixed up. He added that words with double consonants (like ‘couscous’) are typical of the Amazigh tongue; emphasizing the North African origins of both of these foods. He also explained why it is a really common mistake to believe that shakshuka is ‘Israeli’.

Jews from Tripoli and Djerba immigrated to Israel in the late 50s and had restaurants and made shakshuka there. It's also widely made in France, but it doesn't make it French. Jewish Italians who immigrated to Israel are also making their pasta, like Italian immigrants do in NYC.

                                                                      - Rafram Chaddad

Tunisians & Eggs… A Centuries-Old Love Story

Although the base of shakshuka and its nomenclature are originally Amazigh, the shakshuka we know today, easily recognized by the many poached eggs gently snug between all the veggies, is a product of Andalusian influence. The Andalusian Muslims and Jews who were expelled from Christian Spain around the 15th and 16th century brought with them a cultural 'know how' and influence that would transform the Tunisian part of the world. Aside from the usage of chili peppers, which came about after their arrival, these Andalusians also imported an obsession for eggs, a term coined ‘Moorish Ovomania’ by food historian Charles Perry during an interview with Rafram Chaddad and also the title of a food history paper written by Charles and published in The Oxford Symposium's Eggs in Cookery. Charles further explained that this practice of incorporating eggs in dishes survived in Tunisia in a manner that is distinct from other parts of the Maghreb. I actually never thought about it but it does make sense when you think of all the other distinctly Tunisian, egg-loaded dishes we know today such as egg tajin (also known as maakud), lablabi, fricasée, slata tounsia, brik, kafteji, méchouia, and so on…

Mansour Arem

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