In America, as well as many other places, eggs and sausage for breakfast is classic. In Tunisia, as well as many other places, Shakshuka for breakfast is also classic. Hey, what if you mash these two classics together? What you get is Tunisian Ojja Merguez! I’m going to show you how to make it.
The Great Ojja versus Shakshuka Mystery
I’ve already shared my love affair with Shakshuka (I have a recipe for it here in fact). What is it? It’s baked eggs (or if you stay on the stovetop, poached eggs) in a spicy, garlicky, tomatoey, peppery sauce. It’s often touted as a famous Israeli breakfast, but that’s not quite true because shakshuka is originally from Tunisia. It made its way to Israel via Sephardic Jews migrating from Tunisia to Israel. It’s easy to see why the Israelis adopted it. It’s delicious!
Tunisian Ojja. What is it? It’s baked eggs (or if you stay on the stovetop, poached eggs) in a spicy, garlicky, tomatoey, peppery sauce. But wait? Isn’t that shakshuka? Yes. Yes it is. So then Ojja is Shakshuka then? Um… Yes? Yes. It is. I think…
So then why 1) a different name and 2) a different recipe? Well, because 1) I don’t know! And 2) I’ll get to that in a moment!
In her book The New Mediterranean Jewish Table: Old World Recipes for the Modern Home, author Joyce Goldstein suggests that the difference between ojja and shakshuka is that in ojja the eggs are stirred into the tomato and pepper sauce mixture whereas in shakshuka they’re sort of poached whole on the surface. That would make ojja similar to a Turkish dish called Menemen, by the way. She’s not the only person to clear up the confusion in this way, by the way. Confusion resolved, right? I certainly thought so. But there’s still a problem.
Rim and Munya, two cousins who were born in Tunisia and now live in Seattle, and who are responsible for the excellent food blog Our Tunisian Table, make the ojja/shakshuka distinction differently.
Rim and Munya insist that eggs poached in spicy tomato sauce is actually ojja. Shakshuka, by contrast, usually has potato(!) in it and doesn’t always have eggs. The name shakshuka, they argue, has somehow over time and various cultural mutations come to be used for both dishes. That would make the breakfast dish that’s famous in Israel ojja by the way. And as for the stir the eggs in or let them poach whole question? It can be done either way. Both are still ojja (which is confused for shakshuka).
Are Rim and Munya right about this? I’m really in no position to say. I can tell you that I’ve never had shakshuka with potatoes, or for that matter without eggs. But then again, that may just mean I’ve only ever had ojja mistakenly called shakshuka. And Rim and Munya are from Tunisia and I am not. So I’m inclined to trust them on this.
But wait, it gets even more confusing! It’s common to have ojja with merguez (which is a spicy, garlic and harissa-spiked sausage), or to have ojja with eggs, or to have ojja with merguez and eggs! POW!
But wait, there’s more! There is also a deluxe version of ojja made with…wait for it…seafood! And presumably no merguez and/or eggs! POW! Even more variables to contend with.
Anyway, I’ve given up on seeking clarity the matter for now. I’m comfortable with the mystery. I’m just a guy in Portland who likes to cook. And today I’m making Ojja Merguez! That’s eggs and sausage in a spicy, garlicky, tomato and pepper sauce. You might know it as shakshuka with sausage in it. Hey, that’s cool with me too.
Tunisian Ojja Merguez
Okay, here’s the part where Mediterranean whole foods scratch cooking guy goes a little overboard. Ojja merguez has harissa paste in it. That means you need harissa. Ideally this should be the best harissa in the world, which is YOUR harissa, right? I explained how you might make your favorite harissa here.
Ojja merguez also contains merguez sausage, which is an amazing fresh sausage made from lamb or beef and spiced with caraway, and garlic, and yes, YOUR famous Tunisian harissa! The trouble is that merguez sausage isn’t exactly a common grocery store item where I live (Portland, Oregon). It might not be readily available where you live either. I don’t know. So guess what Mediterranean whole foods scratch cooking guy did? Yep. He made sausage. The recipe is right here.
Now your humble author (that’s me!) realizes and is sympathetic to the fact that you have a full and busy life. Moreover, you may not share the humble author’s mania for making everything from scratch all the time. And if making sausage and eggs for breakfast means you first have to make freakin’ sausage, and also have to rehydrate dried chilies to make harissa paste, and you even have to toast your freakin’ coriander and caraway seeds in a skillet and grind ‘em by hand in a mortar and pestle you may not even own, it’s just not going to happen. I mean come on, you’ll starve! You want breakfast in the morning, not at midnight!
With that in mind, let me just note that you can save time! You can use ground spices instead of toasting and grinding your own. You can use purchased sausages. If you can’t find merguez, use whatever sausage you like. It’s cool! No, really! You’re just making some spicy, saucy, eggs and sausage for breakfast. Don’t freak out. And for that matter, you can buy harissa paste in tubes and jars at the grocery store. It’s not as good as YOUR harissa, but it’s still really good.
The idea of ojja as a breakfast item is that you can throw it together fast. If you have the pantry items on hand (I always keep harissa around because I use it a lot), use it. If not, make due. Get into the spirit of the thing. Cook up some onions and garlic and tomatoes and peppers. Spice it up. Add some sausage and eggs. Brew up some coffee and have at it.
Go for it! I love ojja and I bet you will too!
- ½ Teaspoon Coriander Seeds
- ½ Teaspoon Caraway Seeds
- ½ Teaspoon Cumin Seeds
- 3 Tablespoons Extra Virgin Olive Oil
- 1 Medium Yellow Onion, diced
- 1 Red Bell Pepper, stem and seeds removed and diced
- 5 Cloves Garlic, peeled and minced
- 3 Medium Whole Tomatoes, coarsely chopped
- 2 Tablespoons Tomato Paste
- 2 Tablespoons Harissa
- 1 Teaspoon Ground Cayenne Pepper (more or less to taste)
- 5 Merguez Sausages, precooked, cut into bite size pieces
- Salt and Pepper to taste
- 4 Eggs
- Chopped Parsley for garnish
- Toast the coriander, caraway, and cumin in a dry skillet over medium heat until fragrant. Grind the spices in a spice grinder or a mortar and pestle. Set aside.
- Saute the onion and pepper in olive oil and a pinch of salt in a large skillet over medium heat until the onion is soft and translucent.
- Add the garlic and cook a few minutes more until the garlic is fragrant.
- Add the tomatoes, tomato paste, harissa, cayenne, and sausages. Bring to a simmer and simmer for a few minutes.
- You can either mix the eggs into the sauce or cook them whole on the surface for an attractive presentation. Both methods are used in Tunisia. I prefer leaving them whole with soft yolks. To do so, create four small indentations in the surface of the ojja with a large ladle. Crack an egg into each. Reduce heat to low and cover with a lid. Allow to eggs to cook until whites are set but yolks are still soft. Garnish with parsley.