A classic Middle Eastern dish is gaining popularity on breakfast menus

Shakshouka! It sounds like something a magician yells as he pulls breakfast out of a hat. At least, that's what I imagine when I hear it.

In reality, shakshouka (or shakshuka) is a North African egg dish that's become a Middle Eastern staple. Eggs are poached in a skillet with a rich sauce of sauteed tomatoes, peppers, onions, garlic and seasonings.

When I first read about it, it reminded me of the Tomato Provencal Baked Eggs at Pistacia Vera, which uses a similar technique of cooking eggs in a pan with cheese, vegetables, cream and a bunch of spices.

Here in Columbus you can dig into shakshouka at two spots: The Olive Tree Mediterranean Cafe in Hilliard or Mazah in Grandview.

The dish is often billed as the classic Israeli breakfast, although I discovered it has pretty far-reaching beginnings. David Mor from The Olive Tree described it to me as originating from northern Africa in countries like Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria. Shakshouka eventually made its way up to Israel, Jordan and Lebanon, added Maggie Ailabouni from Mazah, and has become as standard for the morning meal as eggs, bacon and pancakes in the U.S.

My first taste of shakshouka was at Mazah, where we ordered it amidst a spread of fava beans, eggs sauteed with potatoes, and sides of feta, hummus and labineh, a cheese made from strained yogurt. The table was a wonderful array of colors and aromas, and the shakshouka took center stage.

It was served steaming hot in a skillet-our server warned us repeatedly to keep the younger diners' hands away. Before eating, I cracked all three egg yolks to let them mix with the bed of tomatoes, peppers and onions. As expected, the sauce has a strong tomato profile, but it's punctuated by the delicate crunch of the sauteed onions and peppers, while a hot red pepper paste introduces a little heat. The big savory punch of the shakshouka paired nicely with a cup of strong Turkish coffee.

Both local versions of shakshouka are served with a side of warm pita. The intention is that you tear off pieces of the bread to scoop up bites of the eggs and veggies. Olive Tree offers three versions of the classic preparation, embellished with add-ons: Moroccan sausage, fried eggplant or feta cheese.

Even as a die-hard breakfast aficionado, I can get tired of the same old egg preparations, so it's refreshing to find an egg-centric breakfast dish that's so different from the ones I normally make at home.

For a traditionalist, shakshouka might take some getting used to. Olive Tree's Mor says most of his customers were not familiar with the dish prior to visiting his restaurant, but it's become the top seller at Sunday brunch. Many of his regulars, he says, show up every week to "get my shakshouka."

Nicholas Dekker blogs about breakfast at breakfastwithnick.com. His book, "Breakfast With Nick: Columbus" is a complete guidebook to the morning meal.

Photo by Ryan M.L. Young