A Hamburger Today
Boston: Shakshuka at Sofra Bakery and Café
I spent about 10 days in Israel when I was 13, but the only two dishes I remember eating are falafel and turkey schnitzel. (I wasn't the most svelte of teenagers.) At that point, my obsession with food was in relatively nascent stages, so I can't feel too remorseful about all the local delicacies that I missed out on—but the one dish I do regret not trying in the homeland is shakshuka.
As far as I can tell, shakshuka is sort of the eggs Benedict of the Middle East—a hugely popular breakfast dish that consists of sautéed tomatoes and bell peppers with eggs cracked over the top to poach in the vegetables' heat. More enhanced versions might add onions, garlic, fresh chiles, and spices (cumin, paprika) to the pan, and top the finished dish with chopped parsley and a fistful of crumbled feta. The final product, usually served with a swatch of soft pita for dipping, is pretty unbeatable: hearty, complex, vegetarian-friendly, and cheap.
The first—and still the best—version I've ever had is one of the signature breakfast items at Sofra ($7), the Mediterranean bakery/café from chef duo Ana Sortun and Maura Kilpatrick that sits on the Watertown edge of Cambridge. (Egg lovers should also try the stellar Turkish Breakfast—a phyllo-coated soft-boiled egg, cucumber, tomato, olives, batter-fried feta cubes, thick yogurt, and seasonal "spoon sweets"—and the house take on migas.) There, the particularly tangy tomato mixture is seasoned with a savory Yemenite spice mixture called hawaj and puréed into a smooth sauce that's pooled around a pair of runny eggs. The garnishes—crispy pita crumbs and a dollop of verdant zhoug (a fiery yet refreshing chile paste made from Hungarian wax peppers, cilantro, parsley, garlic, extra-virgin olive oil, sherry vinegar, and toasted pumpkin seeds)—and the gorgeous shallow copper dish in which it is served make this particular version stand out.
The brilliant interplay of the silky tomato sauce and piquant zhoug is addictive in its own right, but crack open one of the eggs so that its ruddy yolk spills into the mix and rest assured there's no more divine breakfast (or dinner—I make the Saveur version on a regular basis) between here and Jerusalem.