Musakhan is the hugely popular national dish of Palestine: growing up, Sami ate it once a week, pulling a piece of chicken and sandwiching it between a piece of pita or flatbread. It’s a dish to eat with your hands and with your friends, served from one pot or plate, for everyone to then tear at some of the bread and spoon over the chicken and topping for themselves.
Traditionally, musakhan was made around the olive oil pressing season in October or November to celebrate (and gauge the quality of) the freshly pressed oil. The taboon bread would be cooked in a hot taboon oven (see page 341 of Falastin) lined with smooth round stones, to create small craters in the bread in which the meat juices, onion and olive oil all happily pool. It’s cooked year round, nowadays, layered with shop-bought taboon or pita bread, and is a dish to suit all occasions: easy and comforting enough to be the perfect weeknight supper as it is, but also special enough to stand alongside other dishes at a feast.
Playing around: The chicken can be replaced with thick slices of roasted aubergine or chunky cauliflower florets, if you like (or a mixture of both), for a vegetarian alternative. If you do this, toss the slices or florets in the oil and spices, as you do the chicken, and roast at 200°C fan for about 25 minutes for the cauliflower and about 35 minutes for the aubergine.
|1||chicken (about 1.7kg), divided into 4 pieces (1.4kg) or 1kg chicken supremes (between 4 and 6, depending on size), skin on, if you prefer|
|120ml||olive oil, plus 2–3 tbsp extra, to finish|
|1 tbsp||ground cumin|
|½ tsp||ground cinnamon|
|½ tsp||ground allspice|
|3||large red onions, thinly sliced, 2–3mm thick (500g)|
|4||taboon breads (see headnote), or any flatbread (such as Arabic flatbread or naan bread) (330g)|
|5g||parsley leaves, roughly chopped|
|salt and black pepper|
Preheat the oven to 200°C fan.
Place the chicken in a large mixing bowl with 2 tablespoons of oil, 1 teaspoon of cumin, 1½ teaspoons of sumac, the cinnamon, allspice, 1 teaspoon of salt and a good grind of black pepper. Mix well to combine, then spread out on a parchment-lined baking tray. Roast until the chicken is cooked through. This will take about 30 minutes if starting with supremes and up to 45 minutes if starting with the whole chicken, quartered. Remove from the oven and set aside. Don’t discard any juices which have collected in the tray.
Meanwhile, put 2 tablespoons of oil into a large sauté pan, about 24cm, and place on a medium heat. Add the pine nuts and cook for about 2–3 minutes, stirring constantly, until the nuts are golden brown. Transfer to a bowl lined with kitchen paper (leaving the oil behind in the pan) and set aside. Add the remaining 60ml of oil to the pan, along with the onions and ¾ teaspoon of salt. Return to a medium heat for about 15 minutes, stirring from time to time, until the onions are completely soft and pale golden but not caramelised. Add 2 tablespoons of sumac, the remaining 2 teaspoons of cumin and a grind of black pepper and mix through, until the onions are completely coated. Remove from the heat and set aside.
When ready to assemble the dish, set the oven to a grill setting and slice or tear the bread into quarters or sixths. Place them under the grill for about 2–3 minutes, to crisp up, then arrange them on a large platter. Top the bread with half the onions, followed by all the chicken and any chicken juices left in the tray. Either keep each piece of chicken as it is or else roughly shred it as you plate up, into two or three large chunks. Spoon the remaining onions over the top and sprinkle with the pine nuts, parsley, 1½ teaspoons of sumac and a final drizzle of olive oil. Serve at once, with the yoghurt and a wedge of lemon alongside.