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From Palestine’s Kitchen - Musakhkhan 

posted on: Apr 28, 2024

By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer

The first time that I tasted musakhkhan, the epitome of Palestinian cuisine, was in the early 1960s in the Palestinian town of Qalquila. We had travelled there to visit the Shanti family whose son Ahmad was a family friend in Canada.

That evening, as we sat around a low table, intoxicated by the aroma flowing from a large platter, we anxiously awaited our meal.

“This is musakhkhan, our most famous dish.  I am sure you will enjoy it”, Ahmad beamed as he filled our plates.  His were not idle words.  This chicken-sumac dish cloaked with moist onions and a variety of spices was absolutely fantastic.  

Musakhkhan is the epitome of dishes that is served to honoured guests wherever Palestinians live.  Meaning in Arabic “something that is heated”, musakhkhan has been for centuries a favoured dish of the Palestinians.  It is served with an abundant amount of 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.

On the other hand, musakhkhan is only an introduction to the dozens of chicken dishes found throughout the Arab Middle East.  More reasonably priced than the red meats, chicken is a great meat for the toiling masses – a delicious protein-filled food.  Also, it is can be used as a versatile ingredient in soups, casseroles, stews and entrees.

The following recipes are a tiny sample of these dishes in those ancient lands.

Chicken with Sumac – Musakhkhan

Serves about 6

This recipe is my own version of musakhkhan.  It is much less oily but spicier than the traditional version.  Musakhkhan is best served with yogurt and a tomato and cucumber salad as side dishes.  

1 medium size chicken (about 4-pounds), cleaned and 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 (pita)

In a saucepan, place chicken pieces and 1/2 of 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 another saucepan, place 1/2 cup of the oil, the onions, salt, pepper, allspice and the remaining cardamom, then simmer uncovered over low heat for about 30 minutes or until onions turn golden brown. 

While onions are simmering, sauté pine nuts in a frying pan in the remaining 1/4 cup of oil until they begin to brown.  Remove pine nuts with slotted spoon.

Add the pine nuts and sumac to the cooked onions and mix together well.  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. (Use about 1/2 the mixture.)  Top evenly with the chicken pieces, then spread remaining onion-sumac mixture over the chicken.  Cover with thick brown paper and bake in a 350° F preheated oven for 40 minutes.

Serve immediately. The proper way to enjoy this dish is to scoop up the bread around a piece of the chicken.