Shuk Shuka Delivers Middle Eastern Flavor

A San Francisco caterer created an online marketplace for Middle Eastern cuisine with a "California touch."

The first thing Inon Tzadok does when he flies to his hometown of Jerusalem is head to the marketplace.

“Straight from the airport, [I] meet my friends in the market,” Tzadok says. “And then I go see my parents.”

For Tzadok, a San Francisco-based caterer, the market always held special significance in his life. “It’s just a magical place,” he says. Some of his fondest memories are of carrying his father’s grocery bag as they shopped for produce, got haircuts, and ate falafel from a street stall. That’s why when Tzadok wanted to start his own business, the name came naturally. Shuk Shuka is derived from the Hebrew and Arabic word “shuk,” meaning marketplace, and it encapsulates exactly what the business is: an online marketplace made with the intention of sharing food and bringing people together.

Shuk Shuka officially launched in October of this year, though it got its start in 2019 as a pop-up dinner series, complete with Middle Eastern jazz and a 7-course family style meal. Tzadok and his co-founder Odai Ammar, a Palestinian American who grew up in Florida and Jordan, envisioned Shuk Shuka as a way for communities to gather and enjoy good food. They toyed with the idea of a brick-and-mortar location, but the thought of paying astronomical rents in San Francisco, combined with the added stress of the pandemic, encouraged Tzadok to wonder: How can they still bring the same kind of joy and food to people in a safe way? The answer was (as it has been for many in the restaurant industry) to pivot.

Photo courtesy of Shuk Shuka

At Shuk Shuka’s online marketplace, you can buy jars of tahini, zhug, and labneh ($9.99), as well as fresh loaves of perfectly-golden challah ($11.99) or babka ($13.99), layered through with swirls of nutella or halva and cinnamon. The baked goods are made by Tzadok’s sister, Yael, who adds small touches (like a tiny bit of vanilla extract in the challah dough) to “bring the magic.” Shuk Shuka recommends you bake the babka once again in the oven just for a few minutes, an extra step that takes the yalla chocolate babka from a sweet pastry to a gooey, Nutella dream.

The baked goods on their own are already reason enough to order from Shuk Shuka, but Tzadok’s favorites are the tahini and the zhug. Tzadok loves adding dollops of the thick, sesame topping on some sunny-side up eggs. “Everything just opens up. I literally put tahini on everything,” Tzadok says. That’s why he’s dubbed his own product the “on everything tahini.”

But the zhug holds a special place in Tzadok’s heart because of the history behind the simple sauce. Zhug, a spicy condiment made with cilantro, originates from Yemen, where Tzadok’s grandparents used to live. “Zhug — it’s a Yemeni dish. It’s not common in other Middle Eastern kitchens.” Though now it’s starting to get more popular, Tzadok remembers his father making zhug on a weekly basis, it being a staple part of their own dinner table.

Tzadok’s version of zhug is a little bit different from his family’s recipe. Instead of grinding the cilantro down to a pesto-like consistency, Tzadok chops it up, leaving the leaves relatively intact. “You feel the garden in your mouth,” he says.

That is exactly what Shuk Shuka’s zhug tastes like — like you just picked some herbs from your own backyard. It packs so much freshness (and a little bit of spice) into an eight ounce jar. In Shuk Shuka’s words, it’s more of a “chunky herby salsa” than a sauce.

Zhug, like most of the products Shuk Shuka sells, is so versatile in the ways you can serve it. That’s something that surprised Tzadok after running the online marketplace for a few months. So many people were eager to tell him how they incorporated the challah, or the tahini, or the zhug into their everyday meals in new ways. 

Shuk Shuka has fans! Photo courtesy of Shuk Shuka

“I never thought, for example, that zhug could go on pasta,” Tzadok says. “Someone else — one of my customers — told me this. I got inspired.” Now, Tzadok is a firm believer in adding zhug to his spaghetti aglio e olio. “I think that’s the beauty of sharing food.” 

It’s one of the reasons Tzadok really loves the community he and his coworkers have built through Shuk Shuka, even while in-person gatherings aren’t viable. “Food is like life,” Tzadok says. “I just want it to be fun, playful, and fresh, and I want people to be inspired.”

Order from Shuk Shuka online.

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