Musakhkhan: The Jerusalem of Palestinian Cuisine
By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer
The first time that I tasted musakhkhan, the king of Palestinian cuisine, was in the early 1960s in Jerusalem that part of Palestine that was a part of Jordan. We had traveled to the most magnificent city to visit Ahmad, a family friend in Toronto, Canada.
The morning after we arrived, Ahmad’s father, the patriarch of the family, took us for a tour of the city and the surrounding orchards. When we reached his orange grove, he appeared sad as he told us how he had worked hard for years to clear the stone-filled land to create his orchard.
When we complimented him on the work he must have done to produce such fine orange-laden trees, his eyes watered. “This is nothing! Look down there!” He pointed to rich looking orchards perhaps a hundred meters away. “These used to be my fields before they were stolen by foreigners from other lands. Even though I was up in years, I had to start all over again. What my father had tended, and my ancestors long before him were all taken away.”
His statement brought back memories of May 1948 when I walked into my mom and dad’s café in Neville, Saskatchewan. There I found my father sitting at the counter with his head bent down between his shoulders. When he raised his head, the look on his face told me everything, for, on that day, the Palestine of the Arabs had been given away regardless of its indigenous Palestinian inhabitants.
As we walked back to his home, Ahmad’s father lost somewhat his melancholy mood, “They have not stolen our food nor can they. Tonight, my wife is preparing for you musakhkhan, the noblest of Palestinian dishes”, he said as we entered his home. “Tonight, you will taste the flavors of Palestine, Jenin and Nazareth, Ramallah and Nablus, and the sacred capital of our country, Jerusalem.”
Soon we were sitting around a low table, intoxicated by the aroma flowing from a large platter. This is musakhkhan, our most famous dish. I am sure you will enjoy it”, Ahmad’s father beamed as he filled our plates. His were not idle words. The dish of chicken and sumac sitting comfortably on a throne of Arab bread imbued with spices and the juices of the chicken was fantastic and we were content.
Subsequently, I came to know that musakhkhan is the epitome of dishes and that is served to honored guests wherever Palestinians live. No greater honor can be bestowed than to be served this dish.
Meaning in Arabic, something that is heated, musakhkhan, has been in Palestine for centuries a favored dish of the peasants from whom it is said it originated. For farmers, all the ingredients to make it was there – from the home-baked bread to the onions they cultivated, the olive oil, the sumac and the pine nuts which abundantly grow in the Palestinian regions. The dish was mostly reserved for weddings and celebrations and from the rural areas spread to the larger cities and eventually became considered the national dish of Palestine.
Musakhkhan is served with an abundant amount of lightly-fried onions and heavily spiced with sumac, a spice made from the fruit of a bush that grows wild throughout the Middle East. The spice gives musakhkhan its distinctively somewhat tart yet exquisite taste.
Despite the decades of illegal occupation by Israel and despite Israel’s attempts to destroy the Palestinian people, and to wipe out Palestinian nation and its history, the Palestinian people have remained strong and resilient. The clandestine attempt to rename Palestinian hummus and falafel as Israeli to the rest of the world is also an attempt to wipe out even the culinary culture of the original inhabitants of this holy land. Yet, as long as the Palestinians stay strong and resilient dishes like musakhkhan will never fall prey to being robbed of its original people. It is the dish that represents Palestine – just as Jerusalem will remain the capital of the Palestinian nation.
Musakhkhan is the national dish of Palestine, part of its traditional cuisine for all Palestinian people, from Nablus to Ramallah, from Haifa to Jaffa, to the Palestinian capital city, Jerusalem.
This recipe is my own version of musakhkhan. It is much less oily but spicier than the traditional version.
My only hope is that musakhkhan will not be taken away from the Palestinians just as Jerusalem has been stolen from them today.
Chicken with Sumac – Musakhkhan
Serves about 6
Musakhkhan should be always served with yogurt and a tomato and cucumber salad.
3- to 4-pound chicken cut into serving pieces
6 cardamom seeds, crushed
3/4 cup olive oil
4 large onions, thinly sliced
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon allspice
1/4 cup pine nuts
1/2 cup sumac
4 small loaves Arab bread
In a saucepan, place chicken pieces and 1/2 of the crushed cardamom seeds then cover with water. Cook over medium heat until chicken is tender, then remove chicken pieces and set aside.
In the meantime, in a saucepan, place 1/2 cup of the oil, onions, salt, pepper, allspice and the remaining cardamom, then simmer uncovered over low heat for about 30 minutes or until onions are translucent.
While onions are simmering, sauté pine nuts in remaining 1/4 cup of oil until golden then add sumac to the cooked onions, stir and allow to cool.
Split open bread loaves then arrange them in a greased, round or oval deep casserole, spreading a portion of the onion-sumac mixture on each piece of bread, using about half of the mixture. Top evenly with the chicken pieces, then spread remaining 1/2 of the onion-sumac mixture over the chicken. Cover with thick brown paper and bake in a 350° F preheated the oven for 40 minutes.
Serve immediately while hot, serving a portion of the bread with each chicken piece. Or, even better, allow each person to take a piece of bread by hand and scoop up the chicken.
Tomato and Cucumber Salad
Serves 6 to 8
5 medium tomatoes, diced into 1/2-inch cubes
1 medium cucumber (about 8-inches long) peeled and diced
into 1/2-inch cubes
1 cup finely chopped green onions
4 teaspoons finely chopped fresh mint
2 clove garlic, crushed
4 teaspoons olive oil
3 tablespoons vinegar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 cup black olives, pitted and halved
Place tomatoes, cucumber, onions, and mint in a salad bowl, then set aside.
In a small bowl, combine garlic, olive oil, vinegar, salt, and pepper then pour over the vegetables and toss. Decorate with olives then serve immediately.
4 cups plain yogurt
2 teaspoons sumac
2 teaspoons dried crushed mint
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
Combine all ingredients then chill and serve.