It must have been 2005 when I first fell for shakshuka, the Israeli dish of eggs fry-poached in a spicy, oniony tomato sauce. For a few years, I obsessively sought it out at restaurants; eventually, I taught myself to make it at home. There are a few places – like the kitschily named but legit Dr. Shakshuka, in Tel Aviv – that make it consistently well: their whites are always set, their yolks perfectly runny, every time. Back when I lived in Jerusalem, there was a little cafe near my apartment that I loved, but that had a problem with runny whites in their shakshuka. It was either that or a hard yolk, and I wanted neither – so I learned to ask for my eggs “mikushkashot” – scrambled. They happily obliged, and I wound up with soft-scrambled eggs in that same punchy sauce. Don’t tell anyone, but I’ve always liked my invented version better.
At the time, I thought shakshuka was something unique that you could only find in Israel. I should have known better: nearly every wonderful “Israeli” food, from falafel to shawarma to hummus to labneh, was cribbed from another Middle Eastern culture. Shakshuka is no exception; it’s originally from North Africa, or so I understand from Google. And now, of course, it’s on trendy menus all over the country. Shakshuka has hit the big time.
Israel isn’t the only copycat. It seems every culture has its own name and nuanced method for cooking eggs in tomatoes. There’s the classic Eggs in Purgatory (…is it a classic? I did a bit of poking for historical origins of the dish, and aside from finding several mentions of “Catholic” and “uovo in purgatorio,” I came up short), and some folks have added more chile and renamed the dish Eggs in Hell. But the version I’ve come to love more recently is called Menemen, hailing from Turkey, which is basically the hacked-up version of shakshuka I’ve been ordering and making all along. Apparently, I didn’t invent it after all. But all the good cooks steal ideas from each other, so the copycat badge is one I’m proud to wear.
Like shakshuka, menemen is a dish you’ll like more if you make it your own. My brother and the internet have taught me that some like their menemen chunky – with defined pieces of egg, tomato, and pepper – and others like the dish reduced to almost a custard, where everything sort of blends together. I’m not quite at the point where I can control exactly how it comes out, but I tend to make it – and like it – somewhere between the two extremes.
According to my bro, the best menemen has a good mix of tomato and pepper, and plenty of egg – which, in Turkey, doesn’t always happen; eggs are more expensive than vegetables. His favorite menemen also keeps the tomatoes on the slightly liquidy side, which I also enjoy (though it makes cooking the eggs a bit more challenging). And – shock! – he likes his menemen with beyaz peynir, which is like a mild feta, or tulum, a grassy Turkish goat’s milk cheese. And plenty of pul biber, a Turkish condiment of chile and salt.
So that’s the fully-loaded version. But I tend to keep things pretty simple: onion, tomato, pepper, some chile, eggs. A hunk of good bread to sop everything up. That’s a happy morning in my book.
I broke the news to my brother that I’d be posting about menemen, and he said he’d try to get me a menemen set the next time he goes to Turkey. Who knew there were menemen sets? Turns out, because you’re supposed to serve it in the same dish in which you cook it, there are beautiful stove-safe bowls – made of hand-formed metal – specifically for menemen. I’d love to get my hands on one of those eventually, but for now, a good old skillet and bowl do the trick.
What’s your favorite way to eat eggs and tomatoes? You know you have one – now share it.
Menemen – Turkish Eggs in Tomatoes and Peppers
Like all egg dishes, menemen is deeply personal. I like my peppers to retain some crunch; I prefer my tomatoes a little runny, even though it makes cooking the eggs harder; and I like my eggs less custardy, with some defined curds. With both personal preferences and stoves so idiosyncratic, it seemed silly to offer cooking times. I’ve done it anyway, but more important are the signs that my menemen is ready for the next step. Those trump cooking times here. If you want your peppers/tomatoes/eggs firmer or softer, then by all means. Make this dish your own.
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 a small onion, diced
2 long green (non-spicy) peppers, seeded and chopped (or substitute a bell pepper)
2 large tomatoes, chopped
1/2 teaspoon of your best semi-spicy red pepper flakes – ideally Turkish or Aleppo pepper
cheese, olives, more pepper, parsley, or whatever else you’d like to incorporate (optional)
crusty bread (less optional)
Add the olive oil to a large frying pan (stainless steel, cast iron, and non-stick all work) and set over medium heat. Add the onion and peppers with a pinch of salt. Give a few tosses, and cook until onions take on light color and everything smells fragrant but peppers are still somewhat firm, about 3 minutes.
Add tomatoes, another pinch of salt, and the pepper. Give a good stir, and let them cook until much, but not all, of their liquid has evaporated and they look saucy, about 4 minutes more.
Lightly beat eggs with a pinch of salt in a small bowl. When tomato mixture is ready, add eggs all at once, and use a wooden or silicone spatula to gently fold them into the tomato mixture. Because I like curds in my menemen, I take care to fold them only occasionally; if you prefer a more uniform dish, you can stir it slowly but continuously. Either way, you’re looking for the whites to almost cook through. They should be basically opaque when you plate the menemen, as they’ll continue cooking for a few seconds off the heat, but not much. If you prefer very runny eggs (and the uncooked whites don’t bother you), you can add the eggs, stir a few times to incorporate, and transfer the menemen to bowls almost immediately. Your choice.
Serve menemen with any of your preferred fix-ins, and crusty bread on the side.