Why It Works
- Slowly cooking down the onions brings out their sweetness, which blends perfectly with tart sumac.
- Topping the flatbreads with crispy chicken and pine nuts creates a satisfying contrast of textures.
Many will tell you msakhan is the national dish of Palestine, although there are probably three or four more dishes vying for the title. In any case, msakhan is a celebrated and essential Palestinian meal whose history tells the story of adaptation and of a people connected to their land.
The word msakhan simply means heated, a reference that started when Palestinian peasantry would take taboon bread, often a day old, and spread it with olive oil before reheating and enjoying it. Over time, the dish evolved from a simple, reheated piece of bread to one elaborately spread with onions cooked in copious amounts of olive oil, and eventually topped with chicken and pine nuts or almonds.
While it’s hard to point to a specific moment in time or incident from which this dish developed, reference to it in Palestinian folk songs and folklore suggests it has been around for well over a couple of centuries.
Today, Palestinians will tell you msakhan is a dish made in the fall around the time of the olive harvest when oil is plentiful. But it is not just the oil that makes this dish so significant in the Palestinian kitchen. All of its ingredients are meaningful to the Palestinian way of life, starting with the bread whose wheat is harvested in the summer. This is followed by yellow onions that are picked, dried, and stored, and then by almonds which are also picked, prepped, dried, and stored. Towards the fall, sumac is ready for harvest and later in the fall olive oil season starts. Chicken was also historically one of the most widely raised livestock by Palestinians and available throughout the year, albeit reserved for more special meals. All these ingredients come together in a dish that is seen as celebratory and most often reserved for festive occasions.
With the ready availability of these ingredients year-round, msakhan can now be enjoyed at any time. Still, it is a dish usually reserved for larger get-togethers, or weekend family meals, as it involves some time and preparation, especially since the bread is almost always made at home. Restaurants will serve it as well, with some specializing solely in msakhan, although as most Palestinians will tell you, there is nothing like eating msakhan made at home.
If the preparation of multiple from-scratch elements sounds intimidating, don’t let it be. The flavor is so beloved by Palestinians that countless shortcuts and variations of this dish have been developed over the years, from using shredded chicken to store-bought bread. While the hallmark of the traditional dish is the large taboon breads served open-face with the roast chicken on top, a common modern variation is to mix the onion topping with shredded chicken, then roll it up in saj/shrak bread (a super thin tortilla-like bread) so that it looks similar to a spring roll. This can be done in miniature canape sizes or large enough to serve as a meal for a person.
In any case, the important thing to keep in mind is that, at its core, this is a dish of very simple ingredients, which means there’s no place to hide. Use good quality olive oil, the best sumac you can find, and bread which is soft and fluffy and won’t quickly dry up and become brittle. As for chicken, white versus dark meat is a matter of preference, but cooking the dark meat fully so it can be pulled from the bone is key.
It is a full meal on its own, but for a complete spread serve it with yogurt on the side as well Palestinian cracked green olives and a chopped Palestinian salad.
- For the Chicken:
- 4 skin-on, bone-in chicken legs and/or breasts (about 2 1/4 pounds; 1kg)
- 1 1/2 tablespoons (22ml) extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 teaspoon sumac
- 3/4 teaspoon ground allspice
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
- Kosher salt
- For the Onions:
- 6 tablespoons (90ml) extra-virgin olive oil
- 5 medium yellow onions (2 1/2 pounds; 1.1kg), cut into 1/4-inch dice
- 1 3/4 teaspoons (7.5g) Diamond Crystal kosher salt; for table salt, use about half as much by volume or the same weight
- 1 tablespoon (10g) sumac
- 1 1/2 teaspoons (6g) ground cumin
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 1/4 cup (60ml) homemade chicken stock or low-sodium store-bought broth, or water
- To Serve:
- Four 8-inch taboon breads or good-quality pita or naan (see note)
- Sumac, for sprinkling
- 1/2 cup (2 1/2 ounces; 70g) pine nuts and/or slivered almonds, toasted (see note)
For the chicken: Adjust oven rack to middle position and preheat oven to 450°F (230°C). Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment. In a small bowl, stir together the olive oil, sumac, allspice, black pepper, and cumin. Arrange chicken, skin side up, on prepared baking sheet and season all over with salt. Rub all over with spiced oil, pushing some under the skin. Roast chicken until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part registers 150°F (66°C) for the breast, about 25 minutes, or 175°F (80°C) for the legs, about 30 minutes. Let chicken rest 15 minutes, reserving any accumulated juices for the onions.
Meanwhile, for the onions: In a medium Dutch oven or large skillet or sauté pan set over medium-low heat, stir together the olive oil, onions, and salt, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions have softened completely and are turning golden around some edges, about 30 minutes; adjust heat as needed to either speed up or slow down the rate of cooking so that it's gentle but active.
Stir in the sumac, cumin, cinnamon, black pepper, and chicken broth, along with any reserved chicken juices, and cook, stirring often, until onions have cooked down to a jammy and glazed consistency, about 10 minutes longer. Remove from the heat and set aside.
To serve: Turn on broiler and position top rack about 4 to 6 inches from broiler element. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment. Working with one flatbread at a time, moisten the edges of each flatbread by dipping it into the oily glaze on the surface of the onion mixture and rotating it around. Set the flatbread on the prepared baking sheet.
Spoon about a quarter of the onion mixture onto the flatbread and spread it around in an even layer, leaving a thin border around the edge (similar to pizza). Sprinkle all over with sumac and toasted pine nuts. Repeat with remaining flatbreads, onions, sumac, and pine nuts, stacking them one on top of the other (this keeps them moist, especially as you start to broil them).
If chicken has cooled too much, insert it under the broiler just long enough to rewarm and re-crisp the skin. Working with one or two flat breads at a time, arrange in a single layer on a baking sheet and broil until the flatbread's edges have browned in spots, 1 to 4 minutes (keep a close eye on them as broiler strength can vary quite a bit). Transfer each flatbread to a plate, top with a whole piece of chicken, and serve.
Taboon bread is best for this dish, but a sturdy flatbread, like homemade or store-bought pocketless pita or naan will do in a pinch.
To toast pine nuts: Toss nuts with 1 tablespoon olive oil, place on a microwave-safe plate, and microwave at 1 minute intervals, stirring in between, until golden brown and toasty, about 3 minutes total; alternatively, toast by tossing the nuts with 1 tablespoon olive oil and cooking over medium-low heat in a skillet, stirring constantly, until toasted, about 5 minutes total.
Make-Ahead and Storage
The prepared onion mixture can be refrigerated for up to 3 days in an airtight container, then reheated just before assembly.