Thursday, May 21, 2015

Chicken, Sumac and Onion Flatbread, or Musakhan

I have been sitting on this recipe for a little while.  I wanted to get it just right.

After all, musakhan is as important to Palestinians as deep-dish pizza is to Chicagoans.  A girl has to tread lightly here.  I have to hit all the right notes:  the soft, pillowy bread doused in broth, and then broiled crisp, the tangy sumac-spiced sauteed onions, toasted pine nuts and roast chicken, with just a drizzle of peppery olive oil to finish.

Musakhan is one of those traditional recipes that has breathed with the generations of Arabs who have birthed, lived and died in Palestine. It is one of our signature dish - the wild sumac, the pine nuts, the olives from our groves - and born from our ancient clay taboon ovens. These communal ovens served as a gathering spot for villagers, where families brought their trays of rolled out loaves of bread, proofed and puffy and ready for the oven. Taboon ovens are made of clay, and filled with hot stones, and then placed over a fire. Taboon bread, unlike regular pocket Arabic bread, is baked directly on the hot, smooth, rounded rocks, giving the bread its characteristic puff and char.

Palestinian village taboon oven.  Photo taken 1898-1914, by the American Colony, Jerusalem.

The word musakhan (or msakhan)  means heated up. All of the ingredients are precooked, assembled on taboon bread, and then reheated. Similar to other flatbreads, such as our za'atar breads (mana'eesh) or spiced meat pies (sfiha), these dishes were economical and practical since they used the dough from the villager's daily baked bread and turned the dough into a  meal.  In this case, the bread was soaked in broth, topped with sauteed onion, chicken and nuts, and then returned to the oven to finish.

Today, musakhan is made many ways, sometimes with bone-in chicken or shredded chicken, baked lasagna-style with layers of bread, or wrap-style, with chicken rolled up in bread. I wanted to create a simple and guest-friendly version of this dish, one that would be easy to make, serve and eat.  I tested this recipe out on some friends, and they agreed:  yum.

Photo credits:  D. Fabrycky

When I sit in front of food like this, my mind drifts back to the woman sitting in front of the taboon oven, and I see her as my great grandmother.

I think about the land she is sitting on, the joy and the sorrow that has drained into its soil, the babies that have been born and died, the rocks that have been used, over and over, for our clay ovens and for our wars.

I think of the onions:  bitter stinging of the eyes, then sweetness on the tongue.


8-10 loaves of thick flatbread, such as naan or lavash bread, or make your own
5 large white onions, chopped in a large dice
1/3 cup good quality olive oil
1/4 cup ground sumac
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 1/2 cups chicken stock
2 cups cooked chicken, shredded
1/2 cup pine nuts
Chopped parsley, to garnish
More olive oil, for drizzling

The Onion Broth:

1.  Generously coat the bottom of a heavy skillet with good quality olive oil, about 1/3 cup. Heat gently, over low heat.  Add chopped onions and saute gently until softened and translucent. Avoid browning the onions by keeping the heat low, and stirring frequently. This takes about 15 minutes.

3.  Add sumac, salt and pepper to your sauteed onions, and stir. Taste and check seasonings.

4.  Add chicken stock to onions. Bring up to boil, and then turn down to low and simmer uncovered, stirring occasionally, for 20 minutes, until it becomes a lovely sauce, slightly thickened.

Assembling the Flatbread:

1.  Dip one loaf of bread into your onion broth, pressing down into the skillet for a few seconds so that it absorbs the broth. Scrape off any onions that cling to the bread. Place the bread (bottom up, if your bread seems to have a top and a bottom) on a large baking tray. Repeat until your tray is full of loaves. Broil the bread until it crisps up, watching very, very carefully so that it doesn't burn.   Remove quickly from the oven, and flip bread over.

2.  On the top of each loaf, spread a generous spoonful of onions (a few tablespoons), a spoonful of shredded chicken, a sprinkle of pine nuts, and finish with a drizzle of olive oil. Return tray to the oven and broil for a couple of minutes, again, watching very carefully. As soon as the bread is crispy and the pine nuts and chicken looks toasty and heated through, pull from the oven. Finish with a sprinkle of chopped parsley. Serve in slices.


Related Posts:

*Sourdough Pita Bread

*Za'atar Bread, or Mana'eesh

*Middle Eastern Spiced Meat Pies, or Sfiha


  1. Love Love Love your blog! I read a few of your recipes they sound tastey, and I notices the pride you take in the preparation of the ingredients.... You chop things finely the way they should be... Makes the food taste so much better.... Thank you michael

    1. Thank you so very much! Yes, my mother is always reminding me to chop everything finely. And if I post a picture of a dish, I'll hear about it later if it isn't right. :-) But you are right, it really does make a difference in the flavor and texture of the dish. When everything is finely diced, you can get every flavor of every food in every mouthful. It's quite the pleasure, isn't it? But it sure does make the food a labor of love.

  2. Nicely done. However, it seems that the corners are burned a little bit.

  3. honestly I love every dish with chicken and onions but this looks very impressive, just like in Papas Games. thanks for the recipe.


Trying this recipe? A question or a comment? I'd love to hear from you!