May 14, 2012
Posted in View from the table
I love food that is rooted to a particular place and time in your mind. One dish that fits that bill for me is Shakshouka; an Israeli dish that I believe originated in Tripoli. Shakshouka is a one pot meal, I do love a one pot meal as you may know, and it’s essentially yellow and red peppers and eggs poached in a thick paprika spiced tomato sauce.
I spent a year in Israel and learnt to cook Shakshouka while I was there. It was an eventful year but a happy experience which gave me an insight into a country of contradictions. I loved the food; the mixture of Eastern European heritage food; schnitzel, ghoulash, rugelach (sweet pastries filled with cream cheese or chocolate) and Arabic food; falafel, baba ganoush, fresh pitta, labenah and za’atar and ful medames (spicy fava beans – why can’t I write ‘fava beans’ without thinking of Hannibal Lecter and a good Chianti..)
I loved the way that food seemed to unite the country. I’m not trying to simplify the situation in Israel in any way, but food is a real unifying force in the country; or it seemed to be to my foreign and possibly naive eyes. I studied at a large university during that year so I had the chance to meet people from all backgrounds and all religions. The food I ate with Jewish and Arabic friends was often exactly the same. That seemed to be a very hopeful thing to me. Shakshouka epitomised that idea to me of food uniting people, or of being some sort of common ground, as it’s a staple in Libya, Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria as well as being generally thought of as the national dish of Israel.
There’s a restaurant in Jaffa, the old port of Tel Aviv, called Doctor Shakshouka and it’s legendary amongst Israelis. Jaffa is a beautiful old medieval port which is part picturesque stone shady squares lined with terracotta pots brimming with tumbling geranuims and lazy cats stretched out in the Mediterranean sun, and part decrepit port with mid-terrace buildings shored up with thick wooden poles jutting out at all angles onto the path and adjacent roads. I saw one such building give up the ghost entirely one day and crash into the ground quite unexpectedly in a cloud of dust, brick and rubble. It’s that kind of place. Doctor Shakshouka is a large affair with a hectic kitchen, mis-matched tables, yellowing newspaper clippings lining the wall and a constant stream of customers, all possibly musing over the fact that absolutely everything sounds better when it’s prefixed with ‘Doctor’.