Lessons in Palestinian Cooking: Sumac Chicken Dish (M’sakhan)

Joining the Azar family as Mr. Foodie’s wife has opened up a whole new world for me. Mr. Foodie’s family is originally from Aboud, Palestine, and so I am always learning about the rich traditions from “back home” as they call it. One of my great pleasures in getting to know them has been eating their incredible cuisine and, now, slowly learning how to make some of the dishes. My first triumph, as you may remember, was dawali (or Palestinian dolmas).

Because my in-laws know these dishes by heart, much of the instruction I receive is dependent on sight, sound, smell, and taste. I can appreciate this—I have more than a few recipes that I know by heart as well. But until I do know them by heart, I feel more comfortable attempting them if I have an actual recipe with measurements. To help me out, Mr. Foodie bought me Palestine on a Plate for Christmas. I was able to instantly recognize many of the dishes in this book, and so I tried the ones I knew best first. Even with a recipe, I still found myself calling my in-laws often. When my falafels dissipated into a million tiny particles in the hot oil, I called them only to learn that a) this is exactly why you only use dried chickpeas and not canned and b) to just put some flour in the rest of the mixture so they will hold together better. They are always there to help when something goes wrong or to offer a suggestion to make something good even better. Like this sumac chicken dish.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is sumac-chicken-musakhan-middle-eastern-food-1.jpg

One day, Mr. Foodie said he was craving sumac chicken and that this dish with onions, flat bread, and chicken that his parents make is just incredible. So we bought a big pack of chicken breasts (legs or thighs are also fine – bone-in is preferable although it will lengthen cooking time), and then we popped into our local halal store to pick up a fresh “sheet” of Afghani flatbread made in-store daily. We already had a bag of sumac given to us by my in-laws, but you can find it at halal stores or sometimes the spice aisle in a grocery store.

Halal Flat Bread
Note the flat bread under all my other halal goodies 

To make this dish, taste the sumac first. It should have a slight lemony flavor, but some brands are saltier than others. Check how salty it is before salting the chicken. Season the chicken pieces liberally with sumac (and salt if applicable), then sear them in a hot pan with oil to form a crust. Transfer the chicken to an oven-proof dish or, if using a cast-iron pan, just pop the pan into a 350 degree oven to bake until cooked through (times vary depending on what type of chicken pieces you bought and whether they are bone-in). While the chicken is baking, sauté a bunch of diced onions (enough to coat the bottom of a 9×13 baking dish—we used around 3-4 medium onions) in oil and sumac (with a little salt). Low and slow is the key – you want the onions caramelized.

carmelized onions sumac

To assemble the dish, put pieces of the flat bread into the bottom of a 9×13 baking dish to fit. Pour the onions on top of the bread with any remaining oil from the pan. Top that with the cooked chicken pieces and any juices from the pan. Cover and keep warm until ready to serve.

Some people toast the flat bread to keep it from getting too moist from the onions and chicken, but I find the onion/chicken juices make the bread delicious.

My father-in-law just recently told me that, to make this dish even better, I should acquire some dried lemons from the halal store and add some to the chicken. Sounds like a good project for what is definitely going to be a cold, rainy weekend.

M’sakhan: Palestinian Sumac Chicken Dish

Pack of bone-in chicken pieces (breasts, thighs, or legs)



Olive oil

3-4 medium onions, diced

Flat bread

Dried lemons (optional)


Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Season the chicken pieces with sumac and salt (check the sumac for saltiness before salting extra). Sear the chicken pieces in hot oil to form a crust. Transfer seared chicken to an oven-proof dish or, if using a cast iron pan, transfer chicken and pan to 350 degree oven. Cook chicken in the oven all the way through (time will vary depending on the cut of chicken pieces and whether they are bone-in or not). While chicken is cooking, dice onions, season with sumac, and saute in olive oil. Cook onions low and slow to caramelize them. To assemble the dish, put pieces of flat bread on the bottom of a 9×13 baking dish. Cover the bread with the cooked onions and any remaining olive oil. Put fully cooked chicken on top of the onions/bread and pour overall any remaining chicken juice in the pan. Cover and keep warm until ready to serve.

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