Shakshuka, A Recipe for Nations by Mohammud Ali

Illustration by Divyakshi Kedia

If I had to choose one dish to cook for the rest of my life, I’d choose Shakshuka. It is delicious any time of the day, its ingredients are widely available and inexpensive, it is healthy, easy to make, and flexible. 

Shakshuka (pronounced SHUK – SHOU – KA) is a dish made from eggs poached in tomato sauce. Many cuisines around the world cook eggs in tomato sauce: Huevos Rancheros in Mexico and Eggs in Purgatory in Italy.

However, Shakshuka is tangled in cultural appropriation, prejudice, and two nation-building projects. And to understand its history, we need to go where Shakshuka originated, North Africa.

The true Indigenous people of North Africa

North Africa is usually depicted as part of the “Arab world” and sometimes linked with the Middle East, with the incorrect assumption that Arabs are native to North Africa. However, there’s a vast “non-Arab” population in North Africa who identify themselves as Amazigh, a word which means “free people” in the indigenous Amazigh language.

Amazigh was the first to cook Shakshuka, which in Amazghi means “to mix together”.  Before Hernán Cortés brought tomatoes from Mexico to the rest of the world, Amazigh cooked Shakshuka by cooking peppers and poaching eggs in the stew. Even though today Shakshuka is made with a tomato-based sauce.  If you ask any Amazigh about the main ingredients of Shakshuka they’d say peppers and paprika. So how did Shakshuka and other aspects of Amazigh cultures get labeled as Arab?

The North African region was part of “Scramble for Africa,” where European powers invaded, colonized, and partitioned the African continent. . As a result, a series of decolonization movements formed in North African colonies that later became mandated states i.e Morocco, Libya, Algeria, West Sahara. These North African states started gaining independence in the 50s, forming Arab states.

Amazigh were key players in the liberation movements. Their role helped pave the way for Arab monarchies which subsequently took over these newly formed Arab states like Morocco and Algeria and began establishing “Arabization” policies, attempting to form Arab unity with the rest of Arab nations and to reduce the use of the colonial French language. Unfortunately, the “Arabization” project adversely targeted the indigenous Amazigh language. These anti-lingual policies still extend to this day. For example, up until 2014, the Moroccan government refused parent’s requests to register their children with indigenous names  [link]. Amazigh is still active in this fight against linguistic repression [link].

Truth be told, Arab governments in North Africa are not opposed to certain elements of Amazigh identity, culture, and folklore. Part of the Amazigh image is of colorful outfits, hearty dishes, and traditional dances. Governments in North Africa encourage those images to promote tourism, the fastest growing industry in countries like Morocco.  Morocco also monopolizes folklore music. Ganawa, a type of Amazigh folklore, is gaining international attention, and one of its biggest festivals takes place in Essuara, Morocco. The government allows certain producers to make money from folklore music (who are not Amazigh) [link]. 

Just like Ganawa music was shamelessly used to promote tourism in North African countries without benefiting the owners of that culture.

Shakshuka is one of those cultural aspects that have been taken away from their original cooks, Amazigh. You can find the dish on almost every “top things to do in Tunisia” blog.

But I thought Shakshuka was Israeli?

Palestinians refer to 1948 as “Nakba” meaning catastrophe. More than 200,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled from their homes by zionist militias, who then established settlements over Palestinian lands for Jewish immigrants from Europe. This outrageous act made Arab states call the war on Israel.

Arab governments targeted Jewish populations directly with forced expulsions or stood by as these communities were subject to violence and discrimination.  Arab Jews, better known as Mizrahim or Mizrahi Jews, left for Israel en masse. Some left of their own accord, but most were forced out from Arab countries like Yemen, Iraq, and Morocco. Mizrahi’s arrival to Palestine was not smooth or as easy as European (Ashkenazi) Jews, who constituted the demographic and cultural majority, as well as the political leadership. Upon arrival, Arab Jews were subject to a humiliating program of assimilation. Initially, immigration officers would shave their heads and spray them with pesticide DDT to “clean them”. Mizrahi’s would have to live in squalid tent camps referred to as “Ma’abarot,” children were taken away from their parents and put in boarding schools to “re-educate” them on Israeli values. The socialist Ashkenazi elites enforced “secularization” policies that targeted Mizrahi culture, and Arab jews would feel as if their culture was inferior to the dominant European Jews. Prejudice against Mizrahi Jews in Israel still exists to this day [link].

Mizrahi food was similar to their Arab and Amazigh neighbors in the places they used to live, rich in olive oil and heavily seasoned with paprika, chili flakes, cumin, and all spices that could be found. The Mizrahi food and Palestinian food were equally alien to European Ashkenazi and were perceived by them as unhealthy. Arab food was even the subject of jokes in movies and pop culture. Mizrahi and Arab food were not popular among Ashkenazi Jews unless they wanted to satisfy their European fantasy of “exotic” food without traveling far.

Israel was on some international heat for its war crimes against Palestinians and intra racism in itself.  However, in the 1980s things started to change. When Likud, a right-wing party that is supported by conservative Mizrahi, came to power in Israel. The government started to change its attitude towards Mizrahi culture, as it needed to clean its stained image to the rest of the world.

Mizrahi culture gave Israel the middle eastern “authenticity” it lacked. It is good to have some Arab faces in an all European descent government, and it is more Middle Eastern to have Shakshuka and Hummus in the national cuisine menu than Brisket. Furthermore, by the 1980s  the craze of “Mediterranean diet” took over the US and  Shakshuka found its way to trendy menus all over the world as an “Israeli” dish.

A Tool for Nation Building, Indeed

Shakshuka provided a tool for nation-building projects, giving these governments a flat symbol of a culture that establishes an identity and ties itself to a specific land but only in a way that does not disrupt the political nation project. In Morocco, the government focused on legitimizing itself, it exploited the native culture. Israeli occupiers would not only take the land but also try and rewrite history through food to tie themselves to that land and validate its existence there.

Long ago, Amazigh learned that bringing eggs in a vegetable stew could work and the eggs would belong if you let them simmer together untouched for a while. So next time you’re building a nation and want to mix two different people together, do it like Shakshuka and don’t try and force things.

More on Mohammad work:

Palestinian Farmer’s Salad (Issue 4)

Kufta Bel Tahinia (Issue 4)

Mohammad Ali is a Chicago-based Palestinian writer and filmmaker. When he’s not making or watching TV, Mohammad can be found perfecting his recipes by the kitchen stove or on a campfire outdoors.

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