Region: Arab Levant, Palestine
Difficulty: Easy but long cooking time
In Palestine, a favorite dish made by the peasants is musakhkhan (often mis-transliterated as musakhan), a dish that one typically eats with one's hands and which literally means "something that is heated."
I have speculated elsewhere that the Greek moussaka may be derived from this Arabic word musakhkan. In any case, the dish is seasoned with sumac, a spice made from the ground dried berries of a bush that grows wild throughout the Middle East and is sold in Middle Eastern markets in this country. Sumac has a sour and vaguely lemony taste. Musakhkhan is made by cooking chicken until tender and succulent with an abundant amount of onions. Some Palestinian cooks use more spices, such as allspice or saffron, and garnish the top with fried pine nuts. Once the chicken is cooked, it is wrapped in thin leaves of shrak or marquq bread, sold in many American markets today by its Armenian name, lavash bread. Shrak bread is a thin whole-wheat bread baked on a domed griddle over an open fire, while marquq is a very thin yeasted flat bread. This bread can also be called saj, a bread cooked on a convex metal plate called a surj or saj, hence the name. All of these breads are stretched until very thin before being cooked.
This simple preparation is one of my favorites and the recipe comes from my former mother-in-law Leila al-Qattan, whose husband Abdul-Muhsin, normally a penetrating dinner conversationalist, loved musakhkhan so much that he never spoke at the table until he was finished.
[photo: Clifford A. Wright]
Yield: Makes 6 servings
Preparation Time: 2:25 hours
1. Cut the chicken into up into two breasts, two thighs, two legs, and two wings. Salt and pepper the chicken.
2. In a large, deep casserole, heat 1/ 4 cup of the olive oil, then lightly brown the chicken on all sides over a medium heat, about 20 minutes. Remove and set aside. Add the remaining 1/ 4 cup olive oil to the casserole and cook the onions until translucent, about 35 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the sumac and cook for 2 minutes to mix.
3. Preheat the oven to 350F.
4. Cover a 9 x 12-inch baking dish with two overlapping halves of the Arabic bread or 2 sheets of marquq bread. Spoon half the onions over each, then arrange the chicken on top of the onions and cover with the remaining onions and the juices from the casserole. Cover with the two remaining half leaves of bread or sheets of marquq bread, tucking in the sides crusty side up. Cover the casserole with aluminum foil. Bake until the chicken is very tender and almost falling off the bone, 1 1/ 2 to 2 hours. Check by sticking a skewer into the chicken and it should glide in easily. If the top bread is getting too crispy, spray with water. Serve hot.
Note: The size of marquq bread made and sold in the U.S. or Canada varies, so use common sense. It is sometimes found with its Armenian name, lavash bread.