I used to be a shakshuka fanatic — that is, before I visited Istanbul a few months ago.
There, menemen, a scrambled egg breakfast dish with tomatoes, peppers and sometimes, controversially, onions, was everywhere. At tiny restaurants, it is carefully prepared in cast-iron skillets; at hotel buffets, it appears smooth and nearly buttery in copper pots. Home cooks speak almost laughingly about how simple this go-to dish is.
“Menemen evokes excitement among people who eat it,” said Yigal Schleifer, a founder of Culinary Backstreets food tours. “It captures their culinary imagination and their taste buds.”
Its ingredients may recall shakshuka, but menemen has had a very different journey. As a dish born crossing borders, it shows, more than most, how food develops across cultures and regions.
The dish is named for the western town of Menemen, the agricultural heart of Turkey near Izmir on the Aegean Coast. In the early part of the 20th century, the food of the area was shaped by both the Greek farmers who lived there until the creation of the Republic of Turkey in 1923, and the Turks who then returned from the Greek island of Crete, equipped with recipes that used oregano, basil, rosemary and thyme. Those herbs were boiled and eaten alone with olive oil, or eggs were cracked on top. This new vegetarian dish, with tomatoes and eggs, eventually became known as menemen and spread quickly throughout Turkey.
The Turkish historian Oktay Ozengin, who wrote a history of Menemen, said in an email that the eggs need to be cracked directly on top of the onions and peppers in the sizzling pan and slowly whisked there, not beaten in a separate bowl beforehand. Sound familiar? But while the dish may have been influenced along the way by the shakshuka prepared by people from North Africa — an abundance of tomatoes in the summer must be used somehow — menemen is distinctly Turkish.
What I learned from many menemen tastings throughout Istanbul and at home in Washington, D.C., is that a heavy copper or cast-iron frying pan is essential. (I use nonstick, which requires less oil.) You can make menemen at any time of the year, but it’s best in the summer, when really fresh tomatoes are available.
Unlike Mr. Ozengin, I mix some of the puréed tomatoes into the eggs, lending them an almost pink tint, before scrambling them slowly and attentively. And as I learned from the New Orleans and Denver chef Alon Shaya, a little butter goes a long way in achieving creamy eggs. (Leave it out, if you must.) Once the eggs are set, I put the hot skillet on a trivet and serve my brunch guests this delicious and totally satisfying dish.