The other day we had guests and I was flipping through Scents and Flavors for a chicken recipe to make for dinner. I’d loved the chicken with caraway and mint I’d made over the summer, but the temperatures are dropping and I was on the lookout for something warmer. That’s when I found it: a medieval Syrian recipe that sounded an awful lot like M’sakhan.
M’sakhan, a classic Palestinian dish, is one of my favorite recipes of all time; I made a version of it with a pomegranate twist several years ago. So I was thrilled to find a 13th century Syrian chicken recipe that included an optional pomegranate ingredient, too.
The Syrian recipe, from the Library of Arabic Literature’s excellent Scents and Flavors cookbook (you can download the Arabic version online for free! though I highly recommend the translation, which has Arabic and English side by side), includes sumac as well––which is the key ingredient to m’sakhan. Unlike m’sakhan’s bed of freshly baked flatbread, the 13th century recipe is served over a bed of breadcrumbs. I figured I’d split the difference by using torn-up pieces of pita bread, and add the other staple ingredient that makes m’sakhan so wonderful: onions. Lots of them.
This recipe is really an amalgamation of a few m’sakhan recipes (this one from Saveur is great) and the Scents & Flavors recipe, which is titled “judhabat tabbalah.” According to Lane’s Lexicon, the former term is from Persian and reflects a method of cooking meat suspended over bread so that its drippings flavor it.
The Scents & Flavors version calls to boil the chicken “till half done”––a kind of parboil––and then roast to finish, which is the technique I’ve used to cook the chicken here. Rather than boiling the chicken in water, however, I made a broth adapted from the list of optional seasonings the Syrian recipe suggests, using pomegranate juice, lemon juice, and dried powdered sumac.
Borrowing from contemporary m’sakhan, I topped off the whole dish with a ton of caramelized onions and toasted pinenuts.
One other modification: I recently picked up a spice mix in Morocco which is also called m’sakhan and decided to add it to the mix. “M’sakhan” simply means something that warms you up, which could refer either to the temperature of the dish or to the terms of Galenic and humoral medicine (the basis for medieval and early modern medicine in the Arab/Islamicate world), which classifies ingredients into combinations of hot, cold, dry, and wet. According to Galenic medicine sumac is a cooling ingredient, not a warming one, however, so the name of the Palestinian, sumac-heavy dish must not take after its Galenic properties.
Moroccan m’sakhan (the spice mix) is a) delicious and b) traditionally used to make rafisa, which is structurally similar to both the Scents and Flavors recipe here and m’sakhan––in that it’s a chicken stew served over torn up flatbread. Instead of sumac, the prominent spicing of rafisa is fenugreek (which, incidentally, is a warm and dry spice in the Galenic system).
I suspect all these dishes, which entail serving meat or fowl over some form of bread, are descendants of tharīd, which was reputedly the Prophet Muhammad’s favorite dish, but that’s a story for another day.
In any case, if you don’t have access to a Moroccan herbalist, I’ve abbreviated the spice blend (which has several dozen ingredients) to a few commonly found essential spices that will add to the complexity of this version of the dish.
As the medieval recipe notes, “it turns out nicely”: tart, savory, and delicious. The combination of boiling and then roasting the chicken yields exceptionally juicy results, and the resulting chicken broth can make even near-stale flatbread sing. Keep reading for the full recipe.
1 chicken, cut into parts
10 pieces of pita bread, torn into small pieces
6 onions, sliced thinly
Half cup of pinenuts
Juice of half a lemon
1 cup pomegranate juice
1 tablespoon pomegranate molasses
4 tablespoons sumac
Pinch of saffron
M’sakhan spice mix, if you’re in Morocco and have access to a good ‘attar; otherwise, make your own blend of equal parts cumin, ginger, allspice, and cinnamon
Salt and pepper
Place the chicken and one onion, sliced, in a pot with the juice of half a lemon, a cup of pomegranate juice, 3 tablespoons of sumac, pinch of saffron, and 1 tablespoon of m’sakhan spice mix (or equivalent). Add enough water to cover half the chicken.
Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cover. Cook for 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, place a tablespoon each of butter and olive oil, a teaspoon of salt, and a tablespoon of sumac in a pan with the remaining sliced onions. Cook on medium high until the onions are translucent. Then add the pomegranate molasses, stir, and reduce heat to low. Stir occasionally as the onions caramelize. Once they are about caramelized, turn up the heat to high for a few minutes so that they brown and just start to crisp, then remove from heat.
Once the chicken has been cooking for 20 minutes, turn each piece of chicken over so that all the chicken parts are submerged in liquid at some point, add liquid if necessary, then add a tablespoon of salt and pepper to taste. Preheat the oven to 475 degrees.
Cook chicken for 25 more minutes. Then transfer chicken pieces to a plate or bowl, but continue cooking the liquid and remaining onions so that it reduces into a thick broth.
Once the chicken and onions are cooked, arrange a baking pan (you can use a cast iron pan, a copper skillet, or any other kind of oven proof receptacle) with the bread, followed by half the broth, the onions, and finally the chicken. Drizzle the remaining chicken broth on top so that everything is soaked in delicious chicken-sumac-pomegranate juice.
Bake in the oven for about 10 minutes, or until the chicken skin starts to brown and crisp. Check to make sure the chicken is fully cooked (if it’s not, needless to say, put it back in the oven till it’s done!).
While the chicken is baking, saute the pinenuts on low heat in a tablespoon of olive oil (you may as well use the same pan that the onions caramelized in, so they get a little sweet and sumac-y).
Sprinkle the toasted pinenuts on the chicken and serve.