Meet Shakshukia’s Owner Sharon Tahori
At Eat.Drink.TelAviv we are excited when we have a chance to share with you some interesting personalities in the food industry here in Tel Aviv be them cafe owners, importers, exporters, chefs, cooks, photographers, and farmers.
Eat.Drink.TelAviv’s Meet.Talk.TelAviv would like you to welcome Shakshukia’s owner Sharon Tahori.
It all started with a small experiment involving some tomatoes. Mr. Tahori had owned a small cafe that offered standard cafe food, doing just like everyone else with a cafe does – coffee, cookies, cakes, standard cafe sandwiches. Day in, day out, more coffee, more cake, more of the same. Wanting to spice up the menu (literally) he introduced shakshuka – the spicy Tunisian tomato dish topped with poached eggs – to his customers. Sharon slowly realized it had become a favorite among his regulars.
Sharon introduced seven different types of shakshuka all based around a secret family recipe held by his mother. Sharon, impressed by the positive response he was getting decided to conceptualize the idea that would soon be Shakshukia.
Soon he stopped centering his days around the coffee, cakes and cookies that permeated his cafe life but figuring out water content, seasonal varieties, and peak ripeness. Day in, and day out he focused on the tomato – el tomate, la tomate, il pomodoro, העגבניה (ha’agvanya).
Feeling confident he had a hit on an opportunity, he closed up shop and opened up Shakshukia, a concept restaurant based around one simple idea: Offer incredible delicious spicy shakshuka, with a limited variety of toppings, ice cold beer, all centered around an oldschool Israeli atmosphere. Sharon proudly states: “the chairs and tables are all from the 70’s and the music we play is also from the 70’s. And Israeli.”
In fact everything about Shakshukia is Israeli – “the beer, the wine, the ingredients, even me,” Sharon laughs.
Unlike other shakshuka restaurants, like Dr. Shakshuka, where the menus have expanded to include everything under the sun, Shakshukia distinguishes itself by its simplicity. By focusing on doing one thing really well Sharon believes Shakshukia is unique in Tel Aviv.
While Sharon might be biased when he says he has the best shakshuka in Tel Aviv at Shakshukia, tourists from around the world – Finland, Norway, Germany, US, Peru, Mexico, Venezuela, Canada, Australia, Japan – all agree. This little red and yellow concept shop’s shakshuka has mass appeal. And you don’t need a doctorate to know something delicious when you taste it.
Shakshukia stands out as you walk down Ben Yehuda Street. It’s Tunisian style tiling and that bright yellow and red sign that says “simply Israeli” calls out to you from far away down the street. I never had the urge to go for shakshuka, so despite the eye-catching sign it took me a while to finally find myself seated at the small concept shop.
Its specialty, its only dish in fact, is shakshuka. Aside from side salads, the menu is a list of six or seven varieties of shakshuka with various meats as toppings. The dish before me is simple – tomato, spices, egg and some turkey shawarma, but it’s so delicious. Surprisingly so. I had made shakshuka at home, but not like this. This is crafted. This is light, and spicy, subtle, soft, and smooth. This is shakshuka. And thanks to a secret family recipe probably one of the best tasting Tunisian tomato dishes in Tel Aviv.
I sit with Sharon Tahori on this quiet Thursday morning for a lighting round of questions, several of which I realize looking back were “so you going to introduce any new items to your menu?” To which Sharon kept consistently saying no. Like a pizzeria is to pizza, a hummusaria is for hummus, Shakshukia is for shakshuka. And in that laser-like focus Sharon aims to stay true to that concept.
As we chatting along a woman comes in and asks for a shakshuka in a pita or bun so she can have it to go. A look of disdain falls over Sharon’s face. A blank stare is given back by the woman. “We don’t serve shakshuka to go, only on a plate for sitting down,” Sharon tells the woman in a brisk but polite for an Israeli manner. She shoots back “what do you mean you don’t serve it in a pita. Don’t you know anything about business?!” She storms off disappointed, her mouth mumbling and her stomach grumbling.
I asked what was her issue, and Sharon tells me of the brief exchange. I understood most of it but wasn’t sure what the big deal was. “It’s not how it’s meant to be enjoyed. Shakshuka is not to-go food. It’s a slow, meaningful dish. Meant to be eaten and enjoyed slowly.”
And this is when I realized I was talking with Sharon Tahori “The Tomato Whisperer.”
Prof. NomNom: How did you get to this place right here, Shakshukia on Ben Yehuda?
Sharon Tahori: I had this small cafe, and I decided to add shakshuka to the menu. It was easy as one dish but [for me] it was a test to see if there was a demand for it. And it became a real hit – and we developed six or seven kinds of shakshuka back then, and everyone was pretty amazed by the taste. I realized more and more that it became a favorite of my customers. So I said what the hell, and developed a concept. That the big idea was to have a nice spicy shakshuka with nice cold beer on tap, with an old Israeli atmosphere.
Prof. NomNom: What made you decide to close your cafe and open Shakshukia?
Sharon Tahori: Well cafes you have all over the place. They are all the same. People get tired of the cafe. They look the same, same menu, same prices, same taste. I needed to focus and be different, to distinguish myself from other places. This is the only places that has this menu – the only place that has [only has] shakshuka.
Prof. NomNom: And what about Dr. Shakshuka? (Dr. Shakshuka hold a strong reputation as one of the best shakshuka spots in Tel Aviv/Yafo)
Sharon Tahori: Dr. Shakshuka first of all has a wide open menu – from all the home cooked dishes to moroccan dishes, to kebab, he has everything. Me, I keep myself only restricted to shakshuka. Sometimes people ask me “why don’t you do…” or “maybe a little…” “you can put this or that…” But I want to stay focused, so I can distinguish this concept [as different] from the other places.
Prof. NomNom: Do you know Seinfeld?
Sharon Tahori: Yep.
Prof. NomNom: You remember the Soup Nazi?
Sharon Tahori: Yep
Prof. NomNom: Have you ever sent someone out because they want something other than Shakshuka? (For the record, the incident with the woman who wanted shakshuka to go was the reason I asked this.)
Sharon Tahori: (laughs) No, I’ve never sent anyone out, but you are in Israel (and) there is a lot of people who have chutzpah. Chutzpah is number one on the list for an Israeli.
Prof. NomNom: So you stick with what you know, and you are clearly an expert. What makes a good shakshuka, without divulging any secrets of course?
Sharon Tahori: Ingredients. This what is important. We have the recipe, but you have to keep the ingredients at a high level of quality. This is the only thing you can do not to comprise. This allows you to get the same taste through out the year. You pay more money for quality, but it comes back to you.
Prof. NomNom: Ultimately shakshuka is mostly tomatoes, are you able to get a consistent top quality tomato here in Israel?
Sharon Tahori: Ya! Here we have a few kind of tomatoes that change during the seasons. But we manage to control the taste by cooking the tomatoes. If there is too much liquid we take it out. if it’s dry, we keep the liquid inside. It depends on the variety.
Prof. NomNom: So you understand the different types of tomatoes?
Sharon Tahori: Of course, of course!
Prof. NomNom: Are you some kind of Tomato Whisperer?
Sharon Tahori: Before we start we can just look at [the tomato] and know how we are going to cook it.
Prof. NomNom: How old is this secret family recipe?
Sharon Tahori: The recipe is from my mom. I don’t know how long she had it, but at least in my forty years since I’ve been alive. So at least that long.
Prof. NomNom: What does your mom say about you opening up a concept restaurant?
Sharon Tahori: At the beginning I wasn’t sure the recipe would be good enough for all the people. (Taste-wise) So I said let’s try. As time went by I noticed everyone liked it. It doesn’t matter if you are from Finland or from Africa people were leaving their plates clean. So from that I knew that the recipe was good for all people. That’s one main reason why I felt confident to leave my cafe and change the menu to just shakshuka.
Prof. NomNom: In all your time in business what countries have tried Shakshuka for the first time?
Sharon Tahori: Most of the tourists have had it for the first time. French Jews and Jewish Americans know about shakshuka, but most of the other countries didn’t know and aren’t Jewish. Germany, Australia, Norway, Poland, Czech Republic, Finland, Brazil, Peru, Spain, Venezuela. Mexico and Canadian, but I include Canadians as Americans.
Prof. NomNom: Hey hey, I’m Canadian. We are a distinct peoples.
Prof. NomNom: How do you explain shakshuka to someone? A tomato dish?
Sharon Tahori: First of all I explain to them that the tomato is the dish. Some people think that the tomato is the sauce. But I really try to steer away from that term – it’s not a sauce it is the dish.
Prof. NomNom: And the eggs are just a topping?
Sharon Tahori: Ya. some people say “oh this is the egg dish” but I tell them, no it’s the tomato dish. This is the dish you have to cook for three hours.
Prof. NomNom: You hear that we are getting a bit of the secret…
Sharon Tahori: (laughs) Another tip is that it is made a day before, so it can sit all night long to absorb the taste of the tomato. Only the day after, it comes thick with taste do we use it for our shakshuka. Once it gets to the right thickness, and liquidity, taste, flavour and texture only then will it be right for serving.
Prof. NomNom: In interviewing the Food and Beverage manager at the Dan Hotel, he says that a lot of restaurants and cafes, in order to make money, have to expand and offer more than just coffee and cakes but with food. Do you think that a concept store that only serves shakshuka can survive?
Sharon Tahori: This place is called Shakshukia. When you go to a pizzaria you get pizza, when you go to a hummus place you go to a hummusia. When you go to an ice cream place for ice cream. You don’t go to the ice cream place and ask why they don’t serve hummus. You have specific taste or need for shakshuka you come here. This is the best shakshuka. You always focus on what each is the best in.
I’m not going to offer anything else. I have to stay focused, otherwise it’s not a concept. It’s just like general place. If you go to one place to get pizza, falafel and hummus in the same place then you lost the concept. Then people start to see that you are just trying to get from everything.
Prof. NomNom: True. What’s the future hold for Shakshukia?
Sharon Tahori: I want to open more locations in Tel Aviv first and then hopefully it’ll be a franchise.
Prof. NomNom: Would you look to going outside Israel?
Sharon Tahori: Absolutely. You can take tomatoes anywhere. I’m open for everything. At first Tel Aviv, and if someone wants to try it in their country I’m open.