One insider’s scoop on the addictive Middle Eastern dish.

I fell in love on a trip to Israel in 2010. I was visiting my cousin, Karen, who was living in Tel Aviv and working for Boeing when lightning struck. All it took was that first spicy, sumptuous, sensual bite and I was a goner.

No, this wasn’t some “Eat Pray Love,” Israeli-style meet-cute where I passionately fell into the arms of a caramel-skinned, green-eyed soldier with a topknot. No, not I.

I had fallen madly, deeply for shakshuka — a Middle Eastern dish featuring poached eggs luxuriating in a bath of spicy tomato sauce and often presented in an iron skillet with a piece of challah on the side for dipping. Think huevos rancheros for the Sephardic set.

According to Wikipedia, the dish is a staple of Libyan, Tunisian, Algerian, Moroccan, Saudi and Israeli cuisines. Sometimes, it is referred to as chakchouka, but that’s actually an altogether different thing — more of a vegetable mixture or ragout. In fact, in an informal study of the dozens of cookbooks in my private library, only two (“My Cooking Class: Middle Eastern Basics,” by Marianne Magnier-Moreno and “Let My People Eat!” by Zell Schulman) even offered recipes that came close, and neither was for the contemporary version I now know and love.

To go all in on your relationship with shakshuka, you really need to have a thing for both eggs and tomatoes … and some heat (though as in any healthy relationship, compromises can be made).

After that first time (I’m not sure where I was, though Karen thinks we might have been at Dr. Shakshuka in Jaffa), when I grabbed some bread to mop up every last drop of that intoxicating sauce flavored with chili peppers, onion and cumin, I knew I had joined the cult of shakshuka.

Israelis can keep their hummus and falafel — it’s shakshuka’s turn to shine.

Just ask my imaginary best friend, Charlie Hunnam, aka King Arthur, aka Jax Teller (we seriously bonded after I spent an entire summer binge-watching “Sons of Anarchy”). I had some misgivings about Jax, er, Charlie at first (he’s blond, for one), but all those qualms were put to bed when I read an interview with him by Roxane Gay in InStyle Magazine (March 10, 2017).

In that interview, Gay writes, “Certainly, we cover the expected subjects … what he’s been cooking (shakshuka, which we both declare the new frittata).” And BAM. There it is! Real men eat shakshuka. If my beloved, addictive comfort food is good enough for these two pop culture icons with their fingers on the cultural zeitgeist, it’s good enough for the rest of us.

On Aug. 22, 2016, The Nosher published an article that said, “One of the most outstanding Jewish food trends of the year has to be shakshuka.” Here, here. And, on May 22, 2017, The New York Times published an article titled “Sharing Moroccan shakshuka with Mourad Lahlou,” in which Chef Lahlou says, “In Morocco, this is our fast food, because it only takes an hour or two instead of all day.”

See? This could be the dish that brings us all together — a true melting pot. Are you onboard the tomato sauce train, yet?

Here’s the real beauty of shakshuka: it’s totally adaptable. You can have it for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Or as a sharable appetizer. You can make it three-alarm spicy or bland and strait-laced. You can even put whatever you want into the skillet. The tomato sauce and poached eggs are just there to get things started.

Do I sound obsessed? Well, I am. During the last seven years, I have made it my personal mission to order the dish whenever I spot it on a menu and to try all the best shakshukas in the Mid-Atlantic region (Michael Solomonov of Philly’s Zahav includes a recipe for the dish in his cookbook, “Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking”).

Make this for a party and you will truly win — the day, their stomachs and their hearts.

Top photo by Shannon Sarna.

Also see: How to Make Shakshuka for a Crowd

Who do you think serves the best shakshuka in Baltimore? How do you like your shakshuka? Go to facebook.com/jmoreliving or twitter.com/jmoreliving to tell us all about your personal love affair with shakshuka at #JmoreShakshuka.

Amanda B. Krotki is Jmore’s digital editor.

Read more fun features from our first annual food issue now!

Tasty Times in Charm City, by Randi Rom

Baltimore-Area Chefs Share Their Favorite Recipes, by Randi Rom

From Gefilte Fish to Guacamole, by Jill Yesko

The Deli as a Symbol of the American Jewish Experience, by Richard Gorelick

A Farm-to-Table Thanksgiving Feast, by Joshua Rosenstein

Don’t Forget the Sides!, by Huppit Bartov Miller

The Siren Song of Shakshuka, by Amanda Krotki

Also see:

Food, Glorious Food!, by Alan Feiler

Two Decades of Dinners, by Dana Hemelt

Baltimore Hunger Project Strives for Full Bellies, by Lynne B. Kahn

Choosing Sides, by The Classic Catering People

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