Shakshouka: or, What to Have Instead of Brain Cakes

From Phillis Browne’s The Dictionary of Dainty Breakfasts (London: Cassell, 1899). Warning: this recipe may be a bit cloying.

According to Phillis Browne (the nom-de-plume of 19th-century sports journalist Arthur Gay Payne), breakfast should consist of the following: a) a fundamental dish; b) “trifling accessories… for the benefit of (1) those who are so hungry that the fundamental dish does not suffice, and (2) those who feel so sick that they cannot touch it;” c) fruit; d) drinks (presumably coffee and tea, though juice was coming into fashion); and e) a bread of some sort.

Fundamental dishes include the proteins such as ham, eggs, fish and other meats. Browne also advocates the use of offal as a money-saver, within reason; the heart was off-limits (“the heart is scarcely suitable for breakfast,” clucks the author), but kidneys, liver and brains were all perfectly acceptable. Browne offers one caveat: “brains fried in bread crumbs are not bad, but rather cloying.”

Call me narrow-minded, but I will probably never make brain cakes for breakfast, and not because they cloy.


Chouteau Avenue in St. Louis, Missouri. Photo by Edward Buck, 1979.

I can, however, get behind eggs in any form. One of my favorite discoveries while working on Breakfast was shakshouka. During the summer, when I was writing the egg section, my three hens were consistently giving us an egg each daily, and although I loved nothing more than a new-laid egg scrambled on toast (usually with a thick slab of tomato and a crunch of sea salt), the eggs really piled up fast. I eventually resorted to cooking them for dinner as well, and shakshouka was one such breakfast-cum-dinner. To boot, my garden was in a similar state of reproductive fervor and I had sufficient tomatoes and peppers to make sauce on a fairly regular basis.


Even in the tomato-less, egg-less winter, shakshouka fits the bill. The Tunisian breakfast dish of eggs poached in a rich, spicy tomato sauce is the ideal marriage of traditional and exotic (or if you live in the Levant, it’s just a regular thing). Get the sauce bubbling and crack the eggs right in. Or, go the Turkish route and whisk the eggs first to make menemen, an equally satisfying morning meal that resembles a saucy, stew-y fritatta. Either way, serve with warm flatbread and your favorite trifling accessories. Or crumble in tortilla chips and cotija cheese and have chilaquiles. (The More You Know: Chilaquiles may actually be the origin of shakshouka, since peppers and tomatoes are New World foods that wouldn’t have made it to the Ottoman states until around the middle of the 16th century.)


3 tablespoons olive oil
1 small onion, sliced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 red bell peppers, sliced finely
1 28oz can fire-roasted tomatoes (or 2 pints home-canned tomatoes)
1/4 teaspoon smoked paprika
2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
1/4 teaspoon harissa (more if you like heat) or cayenne
1/4 teaspoon turmeric powder (optional, but I think it adds a nice brightness)
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
6 eggs
 In a large frying pan or saucepan, fry the onions, garlic and peppers in olive oil until they become glossy and soft, about 10 minutes on medium-high heat. Add the spices and stir, cooking for about two minutes to release the oils. Add the tomatoes and simmer for about an hour, or until the onions and peppers are very soft (your patience will be rewarded). Add a splash of water here and there to make sure the sauce doesn’t burn. Crack in the eggs and let them simmer for about five minutes, or until the whites have set. Alternatively (it making menemen), dribble in whisked eggs and cook until set. Serve with warm flatbread and a sprinkle of parsley.