Palestinian cuisine with Sami Tamimi
and his recipe for chicken musakhan

Jerusalem market

Palestine

The comforting scent of a roast chicken bathed in bright golden olive oil; sweet onions, warming cumin and the thrilling sharpness of sumac; a freshly baked taboon flatbread, still-hot from the oven... Chicken musakhan is Palestine’s aromatic and irresistible national dish. Palestinian chef Sami Tamimi co-owns and cooks at London’s Ottolenghi restaurants, and is author of several bestselling cookbooks, including the outstanding Falastin. He remembers chicken musakhan from his time growing up in Jerusalem; here he shares his memories of a landscape where the fig trees flourish amid a whirlwind of complex political tensions.

Did you grow up between pots and pans?
“In Palestine, the home kitchen is considered to be female territory. It’s where women talk about their husbands, about sex and lots of other things; topics unfit for young boys’ ears. I was always shushed out but it wasn’t the conversation I was interested in. I was interested in what was happening there, in the cooking.”

Your mum died when you were only seven years old. What do you remember about her? 
“I only have food-related memories of my mum. I remember the smells; I remember the flavours. There’s an example in the Jerusalem cookbook: the fenugreek cake. I used to love it when my mum made that cake, but she was the only one in the family who knew how to make it. I made my own recipe based on my memories of that time. It took me many tries to get it right, but it turned out amazing. It gives me flashbacks to when I was a kid, to when I was just seven years old.

“I remember places by the food I’ve had. Ah, that’s where we had that soup! This has really helped me as a professional chef as well. Tell me once how to make a dish and I’ll remember it.”

What are the products and flavours everyone should try when visiting Palestine?
“The figs are really good. Cracked wheat like freekeh… and tahini! The tahini in Palestine is the best; it’s so creamy and smooth. The local sesame seeds used for tahini are great, even though much sesame is now imported from Ethiopia.

“Aubergine is another example. The village of Battir, close to Bethlehem, is famous for its aubergines. They’re kind of sweet and have a softer skin. There’s even an annual festival to celebrate them! They use the aubergines to make a dish called makdous, which is preserved aubergine stuffed with things like walnuts, peppers and garlic.

“Then there’s wild sage. You can use it for cooking, but it’s mainly used to make tea. It’s delicious. It has a pine-like flavour… it’s impossible to replicate this with European sage."

You must’ve missed that when you moved to London.
“We’re talking about the late ‘90s. There weren’t many Palestinian ingredients around, and the ones available weren’t of the best quality. And pricey too; five GBP would get you a kilo za'atar [a blend of dried herbs and spices] in the Middle East, but only 100 grams in London. 

Jerusalem

Jerusalem, the city where Sami grew up


“Apart from the groceries, I missed the dishes more than the ingredients. Some Lebanese restaurants came close, but most of them were really bad. They would, for example, use unripe tomatoes in tabbouleh [a Levantine parsley salad with tomato, onion and bulgur wheat]. Tabbouleh has very few ingredients, so the ingredients have to be of the best quality and the tomatoes need to be really ripe.”

Tamimi’s culinary career began before moving to London, when he got a job in a hotel in West-Jerusalem, ‘the other side of town’ from where he grew up.  
“When I started - as a skinny seventeen-year-old - I was given these little jobs and tasks. The head-chef saw that I was a quick learner, so two months later I was preparing breakfast for 200 people.

“I started working at different restaurants and ended up at a cooking school called Notre Dame. It was in the vein of the culinary traditions in France. It’s all about the little techniques. It takes six hours to prepare a potato, just to make it look prettier. I didn’t want to do that, so I just quit.

“I moved to Tel Aviv to eventually work as a head chef, but didn’t feel comfortable as a Palestinian in Israel any more during the second Intifada [a period of intensified violence between Israel and Palestine] so I decided to move to London, in ’97.

“I met Yotam Ottolenghi there, worked with him for a few years and we became really close friends. At one point he decided he wanted to start a business and asked me to join. I hesitated for a few weeks before I agreed, and the rest is history.”

Olive trees near Ramallah, Palestine

Olive trees near Ramallah, Palestine

The breakthrough came with the book Jerusalem you did together in 2011. That book didn’t get translated into Arabic – why not?
“Politics. People think the Ottolenghi books are Israeli, but Ottolenghi as a company is actually half-Israeli, half-Palestinian and the people who work for us come from all corners of the world. The food we sell in the restaurants or delis is not Palestinian or Israeli either, it’s influenced by the entire region. You can actually buy the books in many Arab bookshops, but ‘under the counter’ so to speak.

Falastin was different, even though the book went through the same ‘Ottolenghi process’ when it comes to design, culinary photography, testing the recipes and so on, but if we would’ve put Ottolenghi’s name on a Palestinian cookbook, we would’ve shot ourselves in the foot.

“I know many Israeli chefs and journalists who raved about the Jerusalem book, but I haven’t heard anything from them about Falastin, even though the book is doing really well. Not very surprising.”

This illustrates the difficult relations between Israel and Palestine: Tamimi’s partnership with Ottolenghi only works because they don’t reside in the region they came from. 
“Many people think: why would you have an Israeli business partner when you could have a Palestinian one? But our partnership doesn’t work because of or in spite of the fact that we’re Israeli and Palestinian, but most of all because we’re good friends. It was comforting to have a friend like Yotam in London. We come from the same place, we speak the same language.”

Fishing boats in Gaza, Palestine

"In Gaza they restrict how far the fishermen can go into the sea - while the Gazan people rely on those waters for their food."

Sami Tamimi

For Palestinian farmers, it can be hard to sell their products. Israel imposes restrictions on export and import. 
“Israel tries to push its own products. They have their own brands of tahini, their own dates and olives. They make it hard for the farmers in Palestine to export these products and to make a living out of it. Palestinian restaurants in Israel are forced to use Israeli products. Farmers have to sell to Israel, where their product gets mixed with the Israeli product. It’s either that or your product is going to go bad. They cannot sell it themselves.

“There’s a similar situation in Gaza, where they restrict how far the fishermen can go into the sea - while the Gazan people rely on those waters for their food. At the same time, they make amazing and delicious food [despite the restrictions]. They invented all these new techniques in harvesting and farming on their small strip of land. There were never tomatoes in Gaza, but now they’ve started to farm them. It’s humbling to see – it’s basically a prison but they’ve become so smart in what they can grow in the limited space that they have.”
 

Chicken musakhan

© Jenny Zarins, originally published in Falastin by Tara Wigley and Sami Tamimi

The Dish

Palestine’s national dish is chicken musakhan (مسخن دجاج). Key ingredients are chicken, pine nuts, sumac and onion but most importantly, good quality olive oil (and lots of it). 
“The women would take all the ingredients to the fields where they were picking olives to celebrate the first press of olive oil. Even the taboon bread - a flatbread baked in a traditional clay oven - is made in the fields. Traditionally this dish is quite oily, but my recipe doesn’t use as much – olive oil is expensive and it doesn’t really need that much.

“I remember eating this dish when I grew up, especially around the olive picking season. Nowadays people eat it everywhere, year-round.” Or as it is described in Falastin: “a dish to suit all occasions: easy and comforting enough to be the perfect week-night supper as it is, but also special enough to stand alongside other dishes at a feast.”

Vegetarian alternative: “It’s not traditional, but it’s great to have a vegetarian alternative as well. You can use aubergine or cauliflower instead of the chicken – those vegetables are quite meaty and will fit well into the dish.”

The Ingredients

1
chicken (about 1.7kg/3.75lbs) divided into 4 pieces (1.4kg/3lb)
120 ml
olive oil (plus 2-3 tbsp extra to finish)
1 tbsp
ground cumin
3 tbsp
sumac
1/2 tsp
ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp
ground allspice
30 g
pine nuts
3
large red onions, thinly sliced (around 500g/1.1lb)
4
taboon breads (or another flatbread like naan)
5 g
parsley leaves, roughly chopped
salt
black pepper
To serve
300 g
Greek-style yoghurt
1
lemon, quartered
1
chicken (about 1.7kg/3.75lbs) divided into 4 pieces (1.4kg/3lb)
1/2 cup
olive oil (plus 2-3 tbsp extra to finish)
1 tbsp
ground cumin
3 tbsp
sumac
1/2 tsp
ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp
ground allspice
1/4 cup
pine nuts
3
large red onions, thinly sliced (around 500g/1.1lb)
4
taboon breads (or another flatbread like naan)
1/4 cup
parsley leaves, roughly chopped
salt
black pepper
To serve
1.25 cup
Greek-style yoghurt
1
lemon, quartered

The Recipe

Total preparation time: 1 hour | Yield: 4 servings | Category: main

  1. Preheat the oven to 200°C/400F fan. 
  2. Place the chicken in a large mixing bowl with 2 tablespoons of oil, 1 teaspoon of cumin, 1½ teaspoons of sumac, the cinnamon, allspice, 1 teaspoon of salt and a good grind of black pepper. Mix well to combine, then spread out on a parchment-lined baking tray. Roast until the chicken is cooked through. This will take about 30 minutes if starting with supremes and up to 45 minutes if starting with the whole chicken, quartered. Remove from the oven and set aside. Don’t discard any juices which have collected in the tray.
  3. Meanwhile, put 2 tablespoons of oil into a large sauté pan, about 24cm, and place on a medium heat. Add the pine nuts and cook for about 2–3 minutes, stirring constantly, until the nuts are golden brown. Transfer to a bowl lined with kitchen paper (leaving the oil behind in the pan) and set aside. Add the remaining 60ml/¼ cup of oil to the pan, along with the onions and ¾ teaspoon of salt. Return to a medium heat for about 15 minutes, stirring from time to time, until the onions are completely soft and pale golden but not caramelised. Add 2 tablespoons of sumac, the remaining 2 teaspoons of cumin and a grind of black pepper and mix through, until the onions are completely coated. Remove from the heat and set aside.
  4. When ready to assemble the dish, set the oven to a grill setting and slice or tear the bread into quarters or sixths. Place them under the grill for about 2–3 minutes, to crisp up, then arrange them on a large platter. Top the bread with half the onions, followed by all the chicken and any chicken juices left in the tray. Either keep each piece of chicken as it is or else roughly shred it as you plate up, into two or three large chunks. Spoon the remaining onions over the top and sprinkle with the pine nuts, parsley, 1½ teaspoons of sumac and a final drizzle of olive oil. Serve at once, with the yoghurt and a wedge of lemon alongside.

Extracted from Falastin: A Cookbook by Sami Tamimi and Tara Wigley (Ebury Press, £27)

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