There is a dish I love that is simply bread, chicken and spiced onions. I love it for its flavour, but the hopeless food romantic that I am, I love it more for its story.
Musakhan is quite simply a hearty Palestinian chicken pie. Even without knowing the story, the dish makes complete sense. Every bite is a moist bundle of crispy skinned chicken, red-violet wads of translucent onions and tender bread that weeps moist tears of olive oil and chicken renderings. Almost every musakhan that I have had the privilege of devouring is garnished with toasted pine nuts and almonds, their slivered bodies unevenly tanned between hues of honey and wheat. The only colour highlight is one that you splash on the table - bright creamy yogurt. The final effect is undoubtedly rich, rustic, fatty and comforting.
Zahrat Al Quds in Abu Hail serves two versions of musakhan — one that is open-faced over the traditional taboon-style bread and the other wrapped like a parcel in a thinner, more fragile shrak bread. I recently committed the blasphemous act of having my musakhan home-delivered from the restaurant out of sheer laziness. It turned out to be unapologetically delicious, as moist chicken, warming spices and caramelized onions with tart sumac can only be. I ate it over a span of three days, each subsequent day tasting better than the last, and always with no cutlery in sight.
If it is even possible to imagine, the dish does taste better when you know the backstory — and in the Middle East, the backstory is everything. It is ownership, identity, nostalgia, heritage, pride and in the case of communities left homeless during conflict, it is deep, deep longing.
I first read the story of musakhan a few years ago on the blog of a Dubai-based Palestinian food artisan and cookbook author, Dima Sharif. Dima is a masterful storyteller, one who makes you crave the story even more than the food itself. She explained how musakhan was a dish used by the Palestinians to gauge the quality of the olive oil pressed on their farms that season. Good olive oil will not change colour or turn bitter when it is heated to brown the chicken and caramelize the onions. This is also why the name of the dish is derived from the word ‘sakhan,’ to heat.
But you cannot begin to appreciate the story around testing the season’s olive oil, until you’ve heard the other one about Palestinian olive oil itself. I remember being transfixed by Dima’s voice over the radio when she launched her cookbook called The Plated Heirlooms. She explained that “the [Palestinian] cuisine is based on the love for land, olive trees and what we think of as the most prized possession, olives.”
A bottle of unrefined Palestinian olive oil contains the stories of how olive trees date back to Biblical times in Palestine, of how families plant trees and name them after newborn children, of how picking olives is a festive, family affair, and most importantly, of how olives and olive oil symbolize the essence of the land itself. Knowing this backstory, I never have the heart to approach a plate of musakhan with shiny silverware. It makes so much more sense to grab close family and friends, roll up your sleeves and eat the dish communally, with your fingers, as people would have done on their farms in Palestine.
Even moving past the olive oil, the tart red powder infused into the caramelized onions tells its own story of sumac berries and the time consuming process of transforming them to a sour powder. The bread beneath the chicken and onions unravels another tale of an oven that the female relatives of a new bride will help her build, so that she may feed her family for times to come. Musakhan without this context is simply food; but with it, the dish becomes a connection.
Musakhan is only one dish. Dima is only one incredibly passionate and talented author. We are blessed that there are many more authors around the world who don’t just write cookbooks, they document cultural anthropology. Their stories are not about aggrandizing a dish beyond what it is meant to be, but rather about using it as a ticket to travel to a distant land and savour its culture. It boils down to the simple truth that for the most satisfying and relatable form of history lesson, you never need to look further than your plate.