Musakhan – Sumac Chicken to You and Me


It’s been too long since I’ve written about something I’ve actually cooked.  Lots of gallivanting around from country to country, restaurant to restaurant, but it’s kept me away from the kitchen and I’m feeling antsy.  My tan is long-faded and it’s time to get my manicured nails dirty again.

I’ve decided to share a dish that was inspired by the kitchens at the Circassian Women’s Association in Amman. It’s a favorite of my husband’s that is really quite simple once you break it down.  While we were packing our bags my mother-in-law handed me a giant Ziplock bag full of sumac to ensure that I brought a little bit of the middle east back to London with us.  So here I go!

Sumac, a dark purpley, redish spice, is the finely ground berries gathered from flowering shrubs that are found throughout the middle east.  It’s a unique flavor sometimes equated with lemons or tamarind, but it’s really unlike anything I’ve come across – a sharp citrusy tang lets you know it’s there.  It’s delicious sprinkled on top of hummous or with a light touch on top of fish after you’ve grilled it or, as you might recall from my post about my trip to Jordan, it was used at Fakhreldine on those delicious tomatoes with garlic labneh.

I’ve talked with my mother-in-law via Skype, debating kinds of bread and how much spice to use, in an effort to make this as authentic as possible.  She retrieved the recipe from the ladies in the Kitchen, but it was quite vague (can anyone guess what “chicken spices” might be?), which allowed me lots of room for experimentation.  In Amman they also have the advantage of being able to buy the Taboon, or Arabic bread, that works like a flavor filled plate in this dish.  I am making my own, but you could use nan bread or any other kind of plate-sized flat bread you can find.

If you try it, I’d love to know what you think!

makes 6

1 ounce dried yeast
1 1/2 cups warm water
1 tablespoon sugar or honey
1 pound bread flour
1/2 tablespoon salt
2 tablespoons olive oil plus more for frying

Mix together the yeast, sugar/honey and warm water and let it start to work – bubble a bit.  Add the flour and salt and start to bring together the dough. Now add the oil.  Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead for about 5 minutes until a smooth, elasticky dough is formed.  Place this in to a greased bowl and make sure the entire surface of the dough is lightly oiled. Cover with a towel and place in a warm spot for an hour – until it’s twice the size.

Once it’s risen divide the dough into six equal sized balls and cover with a moist towel for ten more minutes.  At this point you can also place the balls in individual baggies and store them in the freezer until you’re ready to use.  Fresh taboon at a moment’s notice!

Flatten the balls into discs approximately 8 inches in diameter.  Heat a skillet and lightly oil it.  Add one of the discs and cook until it’s golden brown, then flip and do the same on the other side (just a minute or two on each side).  Set these aside to cool on paper towels.

Sumac Chicken
serves 2-4

1 whole chicken
2 tablespoons white vinegar
1 tablespoon sea salt plus more to taste
1 tablespoon dried thyme

freshly ground pepper to taste

1 pound thinly sliced yellow onions
4 tablespoons sumac
2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for drizzling
2 pieces of taboon or other flat bread
2 tablespoons lightly toasted pine nuts

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Cut the chicken in half and then wash it in a basin of water with the vinegar and salt.  Pat it dry and place the halves in a baking tray that has 1/4 inch of water in the bottom of it. Drizzle the chicken with olive oil, the thyme, half of the sumac, salt and pepper. Cook chicken for 45 minutes to one hour, making sure the chicken skin is nicely crisped up.

In a sautee pan heat the olive oil ad add the onions.  Sweat the onions just a little and add half of the remaning sumac to them.  Do not cook them down all the way.  Drain the onions in a collander and let sit for a few minutes so all the excess oil drains away.

Oil a sheet tray and place two pieces of taboon bread on it.  Take the juices from the chicken pan and spoon them all over the bread allowing it to soak through.  Place the lightly sweated onions on the bread, spread out evenly and now place a chicken half on each piece of bread, sprinkle on a little more sumac, and now back into the oven for 20 minutes.  The bread should dry up and be crispy, absorbing all of the chicken juices, but no longer soggy.  In the last 5 minutes you can sprinkle the dishes with pine nuts.

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