International Recipes and Cooking Around the World

Musakhan

Musakhan (Palestinian sumac-scented roast chicken)

(Palestinian sumac-scented chicken and onions on flatbread)

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Meltingly tender chicken with the lemony flavor of sumac and the sweetness of caramelized onions, musakhan (المسخن) is a favorite dish of Palestinians everywhere and is considered by many to be the Palestinian national dish.

The core elements of musakhan are chicken, onions, bread, sumac and olive oil. Everything else plays a supporting role, so make sure to use good, fresh, quality ingredients. In the final dish, a base of chewy bread soaks up the chicken's redolent juices and abundant olive oil.

Musakhan is traditionally eaten with the fingers from a common platter...with olive oil dripping down your arm! Sometimes spelled moussakhan or musakhkhan.

6 to 8 servings

Ingredients

  • Chicken, cut into serving pieces -- about 3 1/2 pounds
  • Dried sumac (see variations) -- 1/2 cup
  • Paprika -- 1 tablespoon
  • Ground coriander -- 1 tablespoon
  • Ground cumin -- 2 teaspoons
  • Ground cinnamon -- 2 teaspoons
  • Black pepper -- 2 teaspoons
  • Ground cardamom -- 1 teaspoon
  • Ground allspice or cloves -- 1 teaspoon
  • Ground nutmeg -- 1/2 teaspoon
  • Salt -- 2 teaspoons
  • Olive oil -- 2/3 cup
  • Onions, thinly sliced -- 3
  • Stock or water -- 2 cups
  • Salt -- to season
  • Taboon, pita or lavash bread -- enough for 6 to 8 servings
  • Pine nuts or almonds, toasted -- 1/2 cup

Method

  • In a small bowl mix together the sumac, spices and salt. Add half the spice mixture to a large bowl, along with the chicken and 1/3 cup of the olive oil. Toss to coat the chicken well with the spices and oil, then refrigerate for at least a hour or even better overnight.
  • Heat a little oil in a large skillet or saute pan over medium-high flame. Add the marinated chicken, skin side down, and brown for around 4 minutes. Remove the chicken to a plate and add 1/4 of the onions to the pan and saute for 3 or 4 minutes, or until wilted and translucent. Pour in the chicken stock or water and season to taste with salt and pepper. Add the chicken back to the pan, skin side up, and bring to a boil. Cover, reduce heat to medium-low and simmer for 30 to 40 minutes, or until the chicken is cooked through and tender. Adjust seasoning to taste.
  • While the chicken simmers, heat the remaining 2/3 cup of olive oil in another skillet or saute pan over medium-low flame. Add the remaining onions to the skillet, along with a big pinch of salt. Slow simmer the onions in the olive oil, stirring occasionally, until they are throughly cooked and jammy. This may take up to 30 or 40 minutes, and they will get intensely sweet. In the last 10 minutes of cooking, stir in the remaining spice mixture and season to taste with salt.
  • Preheat oven to 400°F. Grease a baking dish or platter large enough to hold the chicken and onions. Line the baking dish to cover with portion-sized pieces of taboon, pita or lavash bread. Spoon broth from the simmered chicken over the bread to moisten it well. Spread the caramelized onions over each piece of bread, then put a piece of chicken on top of each portion of bread and onions.
  • Place the baking dish in the oven and bake for 15 to 20 minute, or until the chicken skin begins to crisp and the bread browns on the edges.
  • Remove the dish from the oven and let it rest about 10 minutes. Moisten with additional chicken broth if you like, sprinkle with the toasted nuts, and serve.

Musakhan Variations

  • Spices and seasonings: Apart from the sumac, all of the spices are optional and variable to your taste. Sumac, the must-have seasoning for musakhan, is a common spice in the Middle East. The ground berries of a Middle Eastern bush, it can be found in most Middle Eastern markets. If you really can't get it, use 3 tablespoons of paprika and a good squeeze of lemon juice. Of course, the taste won't be quite the same, but it will still be quite good! Some cooks add a big pinch of saffron to the sauteing onions.
  • Bread: Palestinians use bread called khubz taboon, shrak or marquq for this dish. More commonly available naan bread or Armenian lavash are similar. Or use pita bread that has been split in two horizontally. You can even cheat and use flour tortillas in a pinch.

Disclaimer

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