I landed in Toronto on Oct. 27, 1987. Everything was new – the snow, the high-rises, the streetcar, the subway – and so distant from Bethlehem, the city I was born and grew up in. I was impossibly homesick. That is, until I spotted a sumac shrub while biking in the Don Valley. With its tart, sour lemon taste, sumac is an essential spice in Middle Eastern cooking and is the main ingredient in one of my favourite dishes: musakhan .
When I saw the sumac, flashes of my mother sautéing onions with the ground sumac berries in olive oil, while my aunt baked the taboon bread, emerged unbidden from my memory. My connection to Toronto as my home was now established. I immediately stopped my bike, reached over and almost hugged the shrub. My girlfriend screamed that it was a variety of poison ivy. But I didn ’t believe her. I even sent a picture of me standing in front of it to my mother to ease her heart and let her know that things were okay in this new country. “I even found a sumac shrub, ” was my inscription .
The term “musakhan ” means “something that is heated, ” but this Middle Eastern take on soul food is much more divine than that. Sheets of flatbread encase a whole or half a chicken atop a confit of sumac and onions sautéed in cold-pressed olive oil and sprinkled with roasted pine nuts. As the chicken roasts, the bread protects it from direct heat and the aromatics and juices of the lemony flavour of sumac, the sweetness of caramelized onions, the buttery-ness of pine nuts along with the bitterness and pungency of cold-pressed olive oil are all soaked up by the chicken .
It ’s a communal dish that is usually cooked at family homecomings. The women of the family are at the centre of such a gathering and they divide into groups: One woman is kneading the dough; another is baking the bread in the taboon, a clay oven shaped like a truncated cone with an opening at the bottom from which to stoke the fire, yet another is cooking the onion and sumac confit and roasting pine nuts. Men are as involved, assembling the dish and presenting it to guests. I have fond memories of my mother, aunt, sisters, brothers, sisters-in-law, nephews and nieces preparing this dish as if in a dance. On my first visit back to Bethlehem in 1991, I was greeted by my whole extended family and treated to musakhan for dinner. On my way back to Canada, I bought a big bag of sumac and cooked the dish for my friends in Toronto .
Cooking musakhan is my way of keeping the memories of my family of blood back in Bethlehem and family of friends here in Toronto alive. But why am I sharing my story of chicken musakhan with you when turkey time is upon us? Though Muslim, my family and I love Christmas and have established a tradition of celebrating it with family and friends. The Christmas tree is must in our house. And consistent with our Canadian traditions we serve turkey. And, like so many you, we wake up on Christmas day wondering about the gifts and what we will do with the leftovers .
I have tried it all: turkey sandwiches, turkey casseroles, turkey soup, turkey quiche … It is only when my daughter Noora excitedly asked if I was cooking musakhan, mistaking the leftover turkey for chicken, that I realized that my recipe can be adapted for leftover turkey. The original recipe calls for chicken cut into 4 serving pieces or 4 skinless and boneless chicken breasts .
And so here I am sharing my Noora-inspired Christmas turkey musakhan recipe with all of you. From my family to yours, as the saying goes. If you end up making this dish and enjoying it as much as we do, I ask you to toast my family here in Toronto and back in Bethlehem and to pray to strengthen us all to work for peace in the city and land we call Holy .
Isam Kaisi is the executive chef and owner of 93 Harbord Restaurant in Toronto.
Special to The Globe and Mail