Musakhan is a classic Palestinian chicken dish, with a wonderful combination of tart sumac and gently sweet onions. This sumac chicken is easy to prepare, comforting and delicious!
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The Levant and Middle East region is well known as a melting pot in so many ways, both good and bad. That's also true of many foods which have only slight, if any, variations from country to country. Take falafel, hummus and pita, for example.
Some, however, are at least firmly rooted in one country in particular and musakhan is one of them.
I first came across this dish a while ago through a Facebook video. I know, they can be annoying, but some at least can be informative. And for me, seeing a huge batch of musakhan being made in the traditional way was fascinating.
What is sumac?
If you're not already familiar with it, sumac is a very common spice in Levantine cooking. It's made from the berries of a plant that grows in the region. It's a pink color with a tart lemon-like flavor.
Even if you are not familiar with the name, if you have ever tried fattoush you probably had it. At least if made properly, it's a key ingredient in the salad's dressing.
How to make musakhan
There are a few ways to make musakhan, mainly depending on whether you cook the onions with the chicken or separately, and at what point you add them in. Some also marinade the chicken, while others don't.
I chose to keep the onions out from the marinade but soften them before adding the sumac marinated chicken. This way, the chicken tenderizes and gets plenty flavor, and the onions gently caramelize and soften in the fat and juices released from the chicken. But, you only need one pan and a bit less oil. Win-win, in my book.
- Mix together the marinade ingredients and add the chicken. Toss to coat then refrigerate, ideally overnight.
- Warm the oil in a wide skillet or similar dish. Brown the chicken on both sides then set aside.
- Add the onions and soften a few minutes.
- Add back the chicken, nestled in with the onions, then transfer the dish to the oven.
- Bake in the oven until the chicken is cooked through.
Using this method, as I say, you get all the delicious flavor from the marinade in the chicken, which then mingles with the softened onions. It's both easy to make and wonderfully comforting.
Serving this dish - traditions and tips
Just as there can be different ways to make this, there are different ways to serve it, though most involve bread. The most common is taboon bread, a kind of flatbread from the region, and sprinkled with toasted pine nuts.
Some recipes place the bread in the pot under everything else as it cooks, either all or part of the time, but for me, it feels easier, and just as good, to mop up flavors as you eat.
Many recipes serve both the onions and chicken on top of the bread whole, as I did here. It looks pretty, but I did find it a little weird cutting into bread with my knife and fork, or else I had to take the chicken off to cut it up then mop up with the bread.
An alternative is to take the chicken off the bone and serve the pieces and onion on top. This way, you can just pick it up and eat with your hands. This might lead you to think it would be better to use boneless chicken, but on the bone is better flavor-wise.
Musakhan is a deliciously comforting mix of gently tart lemon and sumac chicken and soft, slightly sweet onions. Serve it with other Middle Eastern dishes or simply as it is over bread. Either way, it's a wonderful meal.
Try these other Middle Eastern favorites:
- Roasted eggplant with tahini
- Kisir - Turkish bulgar salad
- Muhamarra (walnut red pepper dip/spread)
- Plus get more Middle Eastern recipes in the archives. You might also like za'atar chicken using other flavors from the region.
I made this in my cast iron braiser which worked well.
See some of my favorite cooking tools and ingredients in the Caroline's Cooking Amazon store.
Musakhan (Palestinian sumac chicken)
For chicken and marinade
- 2 lb chicken thighs on bone 900g (leave skin on)
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 2 tbsp lemon juice
- 1 tbsp ground sumac
- ½ tsp allspice
- ½ tsp cumin
- ¼ tsp cinnamon
For rest of dish
- 2 red onions medium, or 1 large, diced
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 1 clove garlic (large), finely diced
- 4 pita bread suggest small or flatbread, approx, to serve
- 1 tbsp pine nuts toasted
- ½ tbsp chopped parsley (finely chopped)
Marinading chicken (ahead of time)
- Put the chicken in a bowl, box or freezer bag big enough to hold it all. Mix together the marinade ingredients (oil, lemon, sumac, allspice, cumin and cinnamon) and pour them over the chicken. Toss to coat then cover and refrigerate at least a couple hours, but ideally overnight (not longer than 24 hours).
- When ready to cook, preheat the oven to 400F/200C.
- Warm the remaining oil in a wide skillet/frying pan or similar dish (big enough that the chicken will be in a single layer) over a medium-high heat. Brown the chicken on both sides then remove from the pan and set aside.
- Add the onions and cook over a medium heat for a few minutes so they soften but without browning. Add the garlic and cook a minute. Add back the chicken, nestling the pieces evenly in the onions, then cover and transfer the dish to the oven (you can uncover for the last few minutes if you want to try to crisp the skin).
- Bake in the oven for approximately 35 minutes until the chicken is cooked through. Serve over flatbread/pita, with parsley and toasted pine nuts sprinkled on top.