Palestine's Beloved Musakhan
Musakhan is one of the most popular and traditional Palestinian dishes. I have eaten my share of it especially during the olive harvest season. It was made to celebrate the freshly pressed golden olive oil. I remember as a teenager doing volunteer work at the villages nearby during the olive harvest season. As a reward for our help in picking and sorting the olives we were served Musakhan. Loaves of freshly baked taboon bread that the ladies in the village had just made over open fire in the taboon oven*. The taboon bread is then loaded with ruby onions that are slightly tangy from the sumac that had been sautéed in the golden olive oil and the topped with roasted chicken. The smell was so good it was so hard to work. Musakhan consists of humble yet glorious ingredients. Golden Palestinian olive oil, tangy sumac, spices, sweet caramelized onions and chewy charred Taboon bread.
Palestinian olive oil is extra virgin, and has a robust pungent flavor when its first pressed. The slightly peppery bite, is a sign of the oil's high quality and natural antioxidants. So when the fresh peppery olive oil is paired with the taboon bread, its a match made in food heaven.
Musakhan is a dish that is typically eaten with one's hands just like you would a pizza. If you are invited over for Musakhan don’t expect a fork and a knife. It is usually presented with a generous amount of chicken on top of the bread, and could be served with a simple broth based soup, a simple chopped salad and thick yogurt. The word "Musakhan" literally means "something that is heated or warmed". Which refers to the fact that the components of this dish are made separately and then are assembled and heated together.
*Taboon bread gets its name from the oven it’s baked in. The "taboon" oven, which is a stone oven that resembles a small room. It is roofed with huge sticks of olive branches, and clay to prevent rain water, and in the middle of its floor is a taboon mold made of clay, and polished round pebbles. The dough is placed straight on top of the hot pebbles creating charred and delicious dimples in the bread.
Taboon bread is made of simple ingredients; often white or wheat flour, a little salt, sugar and warm water. The dough gets divided into small round balls, and rolled thin with a little flour to avoid sticking. Although you can find taboon bread all over Palestine and now often made in commercial ovens. But it’s the pebbles, mud and olive branches that gives the taboon bread its distinct taste and texture.
Eating taboon bread in the country side in Palestine, where the blue skies meet top of the hills, and the air is crisp and loaded with the intense smell of the olive harvest it’s there where you will find the best taboon and the best muskhan.
Total cook time: 60 minutes
Prep time: 40 minutes
1 chicken fryer cut up into 4- 6 pieces ∗
2 cups extra virgin olive oil
14 onions, thinly sliced ∗∗
2 medium taboon bread ∗∗*
1/3 cup good quality ruby sumac plus 1 tablespoon
Pine nuts to garnish
1 tablespoon allspice
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
A pinch of ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
The chicken: You could boil the chicken first with aromatics to make a broth, then strain it, and then roast the cooked chicken in the oven. I however just drizzle the chicken pieces with olive oil, rub spices all over the chicken, and bake in 375°F/ 190°C oven for 40-50 min until cooked through and the skin is crispy and browned.
The onions: In a heavy large pot, heat the olive oil. Sauté the onions until completely soft not browned. This process takes time, up to 30-45 minutes depending on how deep or shallow your pot is. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Off the heat, add the sumac saving 1 tablespoon for the garnish.
The Bread: Taboon bread is made of simple ingredients; often white or wheat flour, a little salt, sugar and warm water. The dough gets divided into small round balls, and rolled thin with a little flour to avoid sticking. If you cant find Taboon, you can use any flat bread.
To Assemble: Dunk the chicken in the olive oil and onion mixture. Generously scatter the caramelized onions over the taboon bread. Add the chicken pieces on top. Sprinkle with pine nuts and the rest of the sumac. Return to a pre-heated oven at 350°F/180°C for 10 minutes until the bread crisps up and soaks up all the flavors.
To eat: Serve each person either a whole loaf or half based on the size of your bread. With a piece of chicken on top. Cut pieces with your hand making sure every bite has lots of onions and chicken. Serve with lots of napkins and don’t be scared to get messy.
∗ The USDA defines a fryer chicken weighing between 2-1/2 and 4 -1/2 pounds.
∗∗ You want enough onions to generously cover the taboon bread.
∗∗∗ Use your judgment because taboon comes in various sizes