Roast Chicken with Onion and Sumac (Musakhan)

Roast Chicken with Onion and Sumac (Musakhan)

This post is part of my Palestinian cooking series (which includes regional cuisines) following my trip to Nazareth.

Musakhan (alternative spellings of msakhan and mussakhan and also known as muhammar) is a traditional Palestinian dish of roasted chicken legs with onion and sumac. As highlighted in previous posts, most dishes Palestinian cuisine are common across the broader region, originating anywhere from Lebanon to Jordan or Syria. Musakhan, however, has roots tracing back specifically to Palestine and is often cited as the ‘national dish’ of Palestine. It’s a popular dish among Palestinians and can be found in neighboring countries and regions of Palestinian diaspora.

Musakhan is served on Arabic taboon bread (khubz tabun), a type of flatbread that’s cooked on a taboon oven. The taboon oven is traditional to the region, dating back to Biblical times, and is historically made from stone and clay. In some taboon ovens, bread is baked on the inside, similar to an Indian tandoor oven or wood fire pizza oven. Others cook bread on the hot, dome-like top of the oven.

A note about the ingredients

The following musakhan recipe includes an “Arabic allspice” or spice mixture–called baharat–that’s common in Palestinian, Middle Eastern, Turkish and Greek cuisines. Each region may have slightly different combinations of ingredients. Common ingredients in baharat include: black pepper, coriander seeds, cinnamon, cloves, cumin, cardamom, nutmeg, and paprika.

Baharat could be difficult to find in some areas but is generally available in Middle Eastern grocery stores. There are also a variety of recipes online to make baharat for each regional variant. But, if you can’t find baharat and don’t have the inclination to mix the ingredients yourself, the following three spices can be used as a substitute for the musakhan recipe: ½ tsp ground cumin, ½ tsp ground allspice, and ¼ tsp ground cinnamon.

Fresh-baked taboon bread may also be difficult to find in your area. I substituted taboon bread with Greek-style pita bread from a Middle Eastern bakery. Any flatbread, pita or naan, however, could be a good substitute for this dish.

A couple helpful Palestinian cookbooks

I didn’t have the chance to sample home-cooked musakhan during our trip to Nazareth, but I did have a version of this dish at Al Reda, a highly recommended restaurant in the Old City. So, to create this dish I relied on a couple popular English-language Palestinian cookbooks. The recipe is adapted from Zaitoun: Recipes from the Palestinian Kitchen, with elements borrowed from The Palestinian Table. These two cookbooks have been very helpful in recreating some of the Palestinian dishes that we enjoyed in Nazareth. They are a great reference for anyone looking to delve deeper into Palestinian cuisine. I will be posting some of my favourite dishes from these cookbooks soon!

Roast Chicken with Onion and Sumac

Adapted from Zaitoun: Recipes from the Palestinian Kitchen

2 lbs chicken legs and thighs
2 large red onions, sliced
3 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil, plus more to serve
2 tsp baharat spice mix *
1½ Tbsp sumac, plus more to serve
1 lemon, juiced
4 cloves garlic, crushed
2 Tbsp pine nuts, toasted
Arabic taboon bread (alternatively, Greek pita or naan)
Parsley leaves, chopped, to garnish
Salt and pepper, to taste

* baharat can be substituted with ½ tsp ground cumin, ½ tsp ground allspice, and ¼ tsp ground cinnamon.

Marinate the chicken for 1-3hrs. Place chicken legs and thighs, skin on, in large bowl or plastic bag to marinate. Add olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, baharat (or substitute, see ingredient list), sumac, salt (about 1½ tsp, or to taste) and black pepper (about ¼ tsp, or to taste). With your hands, mix well with the chicken. Then add red onions and mix well. Cover and marinate for 1-3 hours in the fridge.

Set oven to 375°F. After marinating, transfer chicken-onion mix to a large casserole dish or roasting pan. Roast for 35 minutes. When chicken has reached an internal temperature of 165°F, remove from oven. Cover loosely with aluminum foil and allow to rest for 15 minutes.

In a small skillet, fry the pine nuts on medium-low heat. Toss gently around the pan until evenly browned. Pine nuts burn easily (and are expensive), so keep close watch while they’re toasting.

Preheat the broiler and move the oven rack close to the top. Place the flatbread on baking sheet and toast for 2-3 minutes until slightly crisp. Remove, then assemble the flatbread by brushing with olive oil, covering with the onion mixture, then topping with chicken pieces. Place on a baking sheet and place under broiler for about 5 minutes or when the chicken is starting to brown.

Remove from the broiler and top with toasted pine nuts, parsley, sumac, and olive oil. Serve immediately. Musakhan is typically eaten with your hands– pull apart the chicken and eat with pieces of flatbread!

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