January 30, 2018
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How to Win a War
TASTE_annelise2

The commander of an Israel Defense Forces mess hall is not a man to mess with.

He was a tall, sad man with thick, dark eyebrows and a magnificent mane of silver hair. Every morning he would pass through the gate of our army base in his three-wheeled army tuk-tuk, drive uphill to the main kitchen, and park in his reserved spot, near the big garbage cans. I’m sure he could feel us soldiers looking at his vehicle. I’m certain he could sense our grins. In a better world, a man as tall and imposing as himself could have been anything, even a concierge in an intercontinental hotel in a Central-Asian republic-stan. But in Israel of the early ’80s, for a commander of a military kitchen, riding a tuk-tuk was the pinnacle of his career.

His soldiers loved him. Naturally, they were a bit afraid of him, too. They all came from not the best backgrounds, and he took it upon himself to see to it that they keep clean. He would go ballistic if he came across a cook who was not as neat and polished as he expected his subordinates to be. “You are cooking for the Israel Defence Forces’ intelligence!” he would roar. “And that is how you enter my kitchen?!” Then he would grab the terrified victim by his neck and say, “Now, listen to me, buddy. If I hear you were drinking or taking drugs again, I am going to call your grandma, do you hear me? I know her from Baghdad.”

He was both a loving man and a benevolent dictator. Yes, it was the kitchen of the IDF intelligence headquarters, and yes, he had to keep control over a motley crew of soldiers: his team of full-time cooks and we baby spies-in-training on their weekly kitchen duty. But he made sure we all got along and that each of us got the respect we deserved. I think the best gift I ever received from four years of service in the intelligence division of the IDF was the knowledge that army cooks from less-privileged families could be so much better than me.

That, and the ultimate tip for cutting peppers, of course. Each morning, after having his black coffee, the chief would cook breakfast for himself: a killer shakshuka made with seven eggs, hot sausage, and spicy crimson Marmooma sauce, made from crushed tomatoes, tons of peppers, and a whole head of garlic. Sometimes he would let us peel the garlic or cut the peppers, but the actual frying was a ceremony to be conducted by him and him alone.

One day, while on yet another round of kitchen duty, I was ordered to cut peppers for the chief’s customary breakfast. It took me a while because I was trying to julienne three colors of bell peppers as meticulously as I could. Suddenly, I felt the chief’s huge presence in the room. He was looking at me and my peppers with utter disgust. “Corporal,” he said. “You do not win a war by julienning bell peppers!” He grabbed a big red pepper and broke it into chunks with his bare hands. “That’s the way to do it,” he said “Like this. No knife. Think of it as the enemy.”

I have never used a knife to cut a pepper since. Nor have I lost a war. Whenever I travel the world, I always look askance at hotel concierges. What do they know?

Ingredients

  • Marmoona Sauce
  • ⅓ cup olive oil
  • 1 green bell pepper
  • 1 red bell pepper
  • 1 yellow bell pepper
  • 1 fresh hot chile pepper (red or green)
  • 1 head of garlic
  • 2 pounds fresh tomatoes, cored and crushed (about 4 cups)
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 tablespoons ground caraway seeds
  • Shakshuka
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • 7 eggs
  • 7 links spicy Merguez sausages
  • 2 cups marmooma sauce
  • Thick slices of white bread, for serving

A shakshuka fit for an Israeli Defense Force commander, no pepper chopping required. Just use your hands.

    Marmooma Sauce

  1. Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Break the bell peppers apart with your hands (and your hands only) into thick stripes; discard seeds. Peel and roughly chop garlic cloves. Slice hot pepper in half.
  2. Fry all peppers with the garlic until the peppers are softened and begin to char. (Yes, char. Please, don't be gentle. It takes about 10 minutes.)
  3. Carefully add the crushed tomatoes (the sauce may splatter a bit at the beginning,) salt, pepper and ground caraway. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer, stirring from time to time, for 15 minutes, until the sauce thickens slightly. (The sauce can be kept in the refrigerator up for to a week.)

Shakshuka

  1. Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat and fry the sausages until well browned, about 3 minutes.
  2. Stir in 2 cups of Marmooma sauce and warm it through, then add the eggs. Reduce the heat and cook the shakshuka until the egg whites are completely set, about 10 minutes.
  3. Serve with thick slices of rustic white bread.

Gil Hovav

Gil Hovav is an Israeli author and TV presenter. He was born in Jerusalem in 1962 and lives in Tel Aviv with his partner and their daughter. One of his memoirs, Candies from Heaven, was published in English.

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