What is the best way to prepare shakshuka, the spicy, warming, vegetable and egg dish that is a regular part of the Israeli diet and is usually served as a cooked breakfast or a light lunch?
The answer to this vexing question is a huge bone of contention around many kitchen tables in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
Israelis of course love to argue, particularly about food, and the debate about what constitutes a “genuine” shakshuka is at the centre of many a furious debate.
They may all agree that the dish is the perfect way to start the day, and far superior to the grease laden all-day breakfasts sampled during trips to London or New York.
However, Israelis argue that only the version prepared over the years by their mothers or grandmothers can be described as truly authentic.
Recipe wars rage endlessly over the fine details. Some believe that onions should be added to the mix while others are horrified at the thought. Many insist that the only vegetable used should be peppers while for other cooks okra or courgettes are a popular addition.
Whatever its origins, and however the best way to cook it, shakshuka, which means “all mixed up” in Hebrew, is healthy, nutritious, reputedly a fine cure for a hangover and has become a firm staple of the Israeli diet.
Although it can be said to be an acquired taste, it challenges hummus and falafel as a national favourite — particularly during the winter months.
Despite being part of the culinary folklore of Israel, most food historians believe that the deep, nourishing mix of eggs, tomato, garlic, spices and olive oil, cooked and served up in a cast iron pan with a large hunk of hot bread to mop up the juice, has its origins elsewhere.
Some believe it was first known as Chakchouka, a Berber word meaning a vegetable ragout, and that it originated in Morocco.
Others say the first version appeared in Turkey during the days of the Ottoman Empire, from whence it spread throughout the Middle East and to Spain, where it is still enjoyed, often with spicy sausage.
Another belief is that it hails from the Yemen where it is served with a dollop of zhoug, a fiery, green paste that brings tears to the eyes.
Israelis have also joined the debate. Those of Moroccan descent insist that it is an essential part of their culinary heritage.
Libyan Jews argue that it originated in Tripoli and even Ashkenazi Israelis claim that their bubbas made fantastic shakshuka (although they could be mixing it up with tales of cholents past).
Ironically no single recipe is absolutely authentic. The egg version of the dish probably arrived in Israel with Jewish refugees from all over the Middle East, each with their own cooking “accent”.
Whatever type of shakshuka Israelis favour, they flock to a restaurant amid the bustling flea market in Jaffa where the cooks serve what is thought to be the best in town.
Dr Shakshuka, a restaurant owned by a Libyan Jewish family, makes a famously delicious and faithful rendition of shakshuka in a truly Middle Eastern atmosphere. It has all the spicy, fiery and filling qualities of the dish, says an enthusiast, and Israelis forget their arguments about culinary authenticity as they tuck in amid the bubbling skillets.
There are many recipes for shakshuka. However, this is a good basic starter to which you can add whichever herbs and vegetables you wish.
● 1kg fresh tomatoes unpeeled and cut in quarters
● 6 cloves of garlic, diced
● 2 tsp of salt
● One teaspoon of sweet paprika
● 2 tsp tomato paste
● 60 ml vegetable oil
● 6 large eggs
● 1 tbsp tablespoon chilli paste and 1 tsp ground cumin (optional)
● Put the tomatoes, garlic, salt, paprika, tomato paste and oil in a small saucepan and simmer for about half an hour uncovered on a low light and then stir until it has thickened
● Ladle the sauce into a greased frying pan
● Bring to a simmer and break the eggs over the tomato mixture
● Gently break the yolks with a fork, cover and cook for about three minutes until the eggs are set
● Serve the pan direct to the table