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Welcome To The Food Wars: Shakshouka Edition

I got in an online fight about whether my family’s comfort food was Israeli or Libyan, and…

Few things are the subject of fiercer fights than food. In our new series “Food Wars,” we’re going to the front lines of the dishes and debates that matter most. This week, GOOD writer Tasbeeh Herwees on how her Libyan family’s classic breakfast became the subject of a serious internet war.

On Sunday mornings, my mom makes shakshouka. Six eggs, one for each of us, cooked in a thick bubbling bath of tomato sauce, peppers, onions, and spices. This is a Herwees family tradition of sorts, one of very few we have maintained over the years. For the longest time, I associated the smell of cooking tomatoes with the singular warmth of familial companionship.

Growing up, the only two places I ever ate shakshouka were family homes and back in Benghazi, Libya, where my parents are from. Lately, Benghazi has enjoyed notoriety for being a political scandal-turned-internet meme-turned-Michael Bay war movie. But back then, before uprising and war and political instability brought Benghazi into the forefront of public consciousness, it was just a homeland, the place we spent our listless summers. When I’d talk to people about Benghazi, I’d have to explain to people where it was, usually using Egypt—Libya’s popular older sister—as a reference point. Libya wasn’t exactly known for many contributions to global popular culture, aside from a cameo on Back to the Future.

[quote position="full" is_quote="false"]These nationalist food claims are often proxy wars for power.[/quote]

But we did have food. We had couscous and bazin, a cooked wheat flour dough. We had usban, a sausage made of sheep’s intestines and stuffed with rice and meat (I once had the misfortune of watching my uncle slaughter the sheep from whence these intestines came one summer on his farm in Benghazi). We had magrood, semolina cookies filled with date paste. And we had shakshouka.

A few years ago, shakshouka began appearing on the menus of fashionable brunch spots. In 2012, Tasting Table declared it a “food trend.” By 2015, Zagat had professed its love for its new “brunch obsession,” calling it “a spicy take on eggs in purgatory.” It was jarring to see my mother’s Sunday morning dish in food magazine spreads and artfully Instagrammed by my favorite food bloggers. It felt like seeing your family photos being used as placeholder images for expensive picture frames.

Soon, I began seeing shakshouka everywhere: In London, where it was marketed as a Turkish dish—mistaking it for Menemen, a similar dish in which the eggs are usually scrambled with the rest of the ingredients. In one Soho Square café, I had the distinct displeasure of eating a dish they called “Turkish eggs” with “hazelnut dukkah” (an nutty Egyptian spice mix usually made with peanuts). In Brooklyn and Los Angeles, my familial shakshouka was suddenly an exotic specialty at upscale dining establishments, and they were attributing the dish, instead, to Israel.

[quote position="right" is_quote="true"]I guess all dishes in the Middle East have now become officially ‘Israeli’.[/quote]

Any regular reader of food blogs will tell you: nothing incites chaos in the comments section like assigning Israeli labels to Middle Eastern dishes. The reason is simple: Contestations over food origins are often rife with political implications. The Lebanese have struggled to wrest ownership of hummus from the hands of the Israelis for little under a decade. The debate over whether pasta was invented by the Chinese or the Italians has been a contentious one. These conflicts were parodied in a classic YouTube video “The True Origins of Pizza”, a mockumentary produced by Gum Shoe Pictures in which Korean historians take credit for the Italian dish.

These nationalist food claims are often proxy wars for power: it’s often people who speak from the margins lodging challenges to popularly held beliefs about who owns what dish. The Palestinian campaign to reclaim falafel from the Israelis, for example, is not about naming rights but about asserting identity. It’s foregrounded by a conflict that has already taken away their land, and their right to self-determination. So the appropriation of cuisine—even a fried chickpea fritter—feels like an extension of that injustice.

I found myself at the vanguard of one such maelstrom back in 2011, when shakshouka was mostly just a funny, unrecognizable word to most people. Deb Perelman of Smitten Kitchen, one of my favorite food bloggers, had featured a recipe for the dish.

“There are a lot of reasons to make shakshouka, an Israeli dish of eggs poached in a spicy tomato sauce,” she wrote. “It sounds like the name of a comic book hero. Or some kind of fierce, long-forgotten martial art.”

Deb probably did not anticipate the deluge of comments that would follow—over 650 of them. I was the first to express my objection to the way she classified the dish. Here is what I wrote, in my best impression of a reasonable person:

A commenter named Hanna was far more hostile about the claim. “This dish is LIBYAN,” she wrote. “Get your facts straight please.”

Only a few minutes later, another commenter named Lily offered up her insight: “Oops! Shakshouka is Libyan, my friend,” she wrote, in an effort towards diplomacy. “I believe, as some have posted before me, that the Jewish Libyans brought the dish with them to Israel.”

Vanessa, another dissenter, was the one who provoked a response from Deb. “I grew up on this dish in Egypt,” she commented. “I thought it was a North African dish. I guess all dishes in the Middle East have now become officially ‘Israeli’. Regardless, absolutely delicious!”

Deb responded the next morning, after the conversational fire had been raging for several hours:

During the course of the comments section war, Deb amended her post, striking through the word “Israeli.” She replaced it with Tunisian, a friendly concession to her angry protesters.

I looked it up later, searching desperately for some kind of evidence I could use to link it, indelibly, to Libya. But I couldn’t find anything. Every source I found attributed it to a vague North African culture. After all, Libya, as the country we know it today, didn’t really exist until 1911. The people who populated the regions we now call “Libya” and “Tunisia” moved fluidly across those lands. It could have been “us” or it could have been “them”—but those distinctions didn’t really exist until very recently.

So I’ve forgiven Deb. In fact, I’ve actually used Deb’s recipe, because my mother’s instructions are usually just a vague listing of ingredients. Deb makes her shakshouka, however, much like my mother makes ours: tomatoes, parsley, garlic, eggs, peppers, cumin. I made it for friends the first time, in my friend’s apartment in Brooklyn, and we gathered over the hot cast iron pan on a cold winter afternoon for brunch. When I was a kid, shakshuka was always an expression of my mother’s love—an attempt at bringing us together around the table at least once that week. Now I use it to bring my friends around the table. It still tastes like home, even with the addition of feta, an extravagance my mother didn’t include.

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