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Prison-to-Table Cuisine

Bino Gabso, better known as Dr. Shakshuka, has the prescription for what ails Tel Aviv’s fast food customers: a recipe he perfected behind bars

Dana Kessler
August 01, 2017
Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock

Shakshuka, a North African dish of eggs poached in tomato sauce, means “mixture” in Berber languages, and as the name implies, it is a simple dish that anyone can make at home. Making it well, however, is a different matter. This is where Bino Gabso, a.k.a. Dr. Shakshuka, comes in.

Gabso is a celebrity chef known for his North African home-cooking style. His Jaffa restaurant, called—of course—Dr. Shakshuka, includes dishes like couscous, mafroum (stuffed potatoes), chraimeh (spicy fish), and lamb or chicken shawarma, as well as the signature dish that earned Gabso his nickname. His trademark is the personal frying pan in which he serves each shakshuka: “That’s my invention,” he boasted. His establishment has been feeding Israelis and tourists for decades.

This summer, however, Gabso is busy with his new culinary venture, which he just opened in Tel Aviv. Bino be-Pita (“Bino in a pita”) has more of a fast-food vibe. “It’s a casual place and passersby can just come in,” Gabso said. “People are very happy that we came to the neighborhood.”

Not to worry. The new restaurant still has shakshuka on the menu.

Gabso’s parents immigrated to Israel from Libya in the 1950s. His father opened a restaurant in Jaffa called Tripoli, named for the Libyan capital where he had lived, which was also the center of Jewish life in the country. Gabso, who was born in Jaffa by the name of Yosef Binyamin Gabso, started working in his father’s restaurant at age 12. In 1991, after his father died, Gabso took over the restaurant and redubbed it Dr. Shakshuka. The restaurant, next to the Jaffa Clock Tower and flea market, grew and grew. “I never thought I’d have such a large restaurant,” he told me. “I have the courtyard in the middle, and gradually I took over all the places around it. It’s like a piazza.”

The story of how—and where—Gabso perfected his shakshuka is well-known Israeli folklore: “In addition to the restaurant, my family had a money-changing business, which I also worked in,” he said. “Every time I closed a deal, I would come to my parents’ house, and my dad would make me shakshuka in a pan. That’s where my dream of making people shakshuka in a personal pan came from. This was the 1980s and changing money was illegal in Israel. People would get fines but no one was sentenced to prison. Then I got caught and I got 15 months in prison—it was a precedent.”

While in prison, Gabso started cooking for the other inmates and for the guards. The prison would provide him with the basic ingredients—eggs and tomatoes—and his daughter would bring him filfel chuma, the hot sauce of Libyan Jewish cuisine. The recipe he perfected on a portable burner in prison earned him the nickname Dr. Shakshuka, which one of the inmates made up.

For Tripolitanians, filfel chuma (meaning “pepper garlic”) is like the air that they breathe; Gabso always carries a jar in his pocket. “I take filfel chuma with me and add it to everything,” said Gabso, who also serves as a street-food critic for Ynet. However, when making shakshuka outside prison, he prefers to use fresh pepper and garlic.

At Dr. Shakshuka, you can order your shakshuka hot or mild, and you can have the traditional version, with merguez, or a vegetarian version. Gabso uses only Tripolitanian merguez, as opposed to the Moroccan or Algerian versions of the sausage because it includes anise seed and lots of garlic. He starts by frying strips of green pepper, adds garlic, and then the merguez. After two or three minutes, he puts in the tomatoes and doesn’t stir, just adds a bit of salt. “If someone walks by and accidentally touches my pan, even lightly, I don’t continue the process,” he clarified. “Sometimes friends want to annoy me and touch the handle of the pan. If they do, I scream at them, and don’t make the shakshuka anymore.”

If no one interferes with the doctor’s work, he waits another two to three minutes and stirs. Then he adds sweet paprika, “for the taste and also for the color—people eat with their eyes, too,” he said. Then he adds crushed shatta pepper, stirs, waits a few minutes, and in go the eggs. After about a minute, he stirs around the eggs, mixing only the egg-white with the rest of the dish, leaving the yolks whole. “Timing is very important,” he explained. “But most important is the hand of the cook. Nobody makes shakshuka like me, not even my cooks. I teach them and they use the same ingredients but it isn’t the same. I don’t have a problem telling everyone my recipe or even demonstrating on TV how to make it. Making shakshuka is an art form and I know nobody will make it as I do. I always say, if someone gets my shakshuka 30 percent right, he’s got it made.”

Gabso’s shakshuka is served with bread—never sliced—and small salads on the side, like tershi, a Libyan pumpkin dip, for instance.

Gabso takes great pride in his shakshuka, and even more so since 2013 when he was one of two winners of London’s Royal Chef competition, an Israeli reality-TV production in which esteemed chefs from around the world came to judge Israeli cooks from different home-style restaurants. The main judge was the French chef Albert Roux, and the two winning dishes were added to the menu at Roux’s esteemed Le Gavroche restaurant, the first restaurant in the U.K. to be awarded three Michelin stars. Guess which dish was found fit for the British royal family.

Gabso knows shakshuka is served everywhere in Israel, but he sticks to his own. “I haven’t tried it in other places,” he said. “I suppose someone else can make a good shakshuka in another way, but I don’t really believe it. When I make shakshuka, I get so excited. I’m immersed in it and I don’t think about anything else. Why would I want to try anyone else’s shakshuka?”

“When seeing Dr. Shakshuka on TV, the contrast between his round appearance and how easily he is reduced to tears is very moving,” Ido Kretchmer, a lawyer and shakshuka lover, told me. “When you eat his shakshuka you get a little bit of both; both weight gain and tears in your eyes, from the spiciness as well as the emotion.”

Visual artist and illustrator Zeev Engelmayer is also a fan of the dish and of the man. “Shakshuka is a messy dish that allows total creativity,” he told me. “Its ingredients are cheap and available, and it’s a dish that is suitable to the Israeli personality. You stir everything in a pan and somehow it meshes. You have to make sure that it’s hot but doesn’t burn and at some point, you always start sweating and becoming red yourself. It’s especially fun to eat shakshuka at Bino’s without any caution—you just dip the fresh bread into the pan. The eggs swim in tomatoes and paprika and everything is red hot, spicy and wonderful. Bino himself is big, fun, and generous, like his shakshuka. And he’s the only man in the world who has a Ph.D. in shakshukology.”

Even though Gabso is sure his shakshuka is the best, he still encourages people to make it at home, like he does, for his five children and 12 grandchildren. “At home, I need to know that I always have all the ingredients I need for shakshuka,” he told me. “If I’m out of something I can’t sleep. Shakshuka is a very economical dish for a family. The ingredients are cheap and it tastes better than fillet steak.”

Israelis indeed make it at home, as well as on the road. “Shakshuka is the No. 1 dish of Israeli backpackers around the world,” photographer, artist, and world traveler Dana Lev Levnat told me. “When I meet non-Israeli travelers, they always have stories about Israelis they’ve met in hostels and about this amazing dish they cooked. They never know how to pronounce the name shakshuka, but when I say it, they’re superexcited. Once I was in a hostel in Bosnia, and when the owners heard that I’m from Israel they offered me to stay for free for a week if I make them shakshuka every evening. In the end, I stayed for free for two weeks and made them shakshuka every other night.”

At the beginning of July, Gabso opened his highly awaited restaurant on Rothschild Boulevard in central Tel Aviv. This isn’t his first venture outside Jaffa; he opened a branch of Dr. Shakshuka on Tel Aviv’s then-trendy Sheinkin Street in the late 1990s, but that venture was short-lived.

This time he feels confident of finding success in the big city. Bino be-Pita is self-service and offers mostly dishes in a pita, like shawarma, falafel (there’s also a special version of falafel with cauliflower added to the mix), Jerusalem mixed grill, merguez, and entrecôte slices. Of course, shakshuka is on the menu, too, either in a pita or in Gabso’s trademark personal pan.

Dana Kessler has written for Maariv, Haaretz, Yediot Aharonot, and other Israeli publications. She is based in Tel Aviv.