To people with a desert heritage, the idea of cooking on or in earth, by the heat of the sun, a twig fire, or hot stones, is the natural way to a meal. From Aqaba to Baghdad, the bread baking in the ashes, tea bubbling on hot rocks, the bird roasting in a jacket of mud, this has been cookery through the millennia.
Not that that Dior-dressed lady over there is going home to fashionable Jabal Amman to poke up a fire among hot rocks. She may not even turn on her electric stove if she's having people in to dinner. She'll probably send out for that legendary Jordan Valley specialty, musakhan —literally "heated"—a succulent concoction of chicken, bread, onions and sumac baked in a tabboun.
The tabboun is the mud igloo once found in the back yard of old Jordanian homes. Its dome, over a mud-and-stone baking surface, over a fire trench, builds up and holds an intense, even heat which demonstrably adds a different flavor to baked bread, roasted meat. This venerable institution is sometimes found today even in cities, where neighborhoods have hung onto their ancient communal tabboun, the local bakery. After the baker has finished his day's allotment of loaves, the oven stays hot for hours, and in it will be found the dinners of his neighbors—a whole lamb at the back, a stuffed chicken, a casserole of eggplant.
Musakhan, the dish the lady on Jabal Amman sends out for, is, basically, a round of Jordanian bread, lavished with onions in oil, crowned with chicken, flavored with sumac, and garnished with toasted pine nuts. Put together, it's a dish to gladden Jordanian hearts. The bread, baked in a tabboun, is pure Arab, made of Madaba wheat, which positively shouts WHOLE GRAIN, with its color like old wood, its fluffy texture, its nut-brown flavor. And it must be mill ground, then kneaded by hand, never touched by-machine. It must then be coaxed and punched into eight and ten inch rounds, with fat, raised rims to hold what's coming. This bread is so good that Jordanians doggy-bag the remains of musakhan home for the children, order it specially to take abroad.
So much for the bread. The profligate use of onions—half as much in weight as chicken—betrays richer origins than the desert. There, the onion—one at a time—is prized and carried about as flavoring. To use kilos of them bespeaks the lushness of the Jordan Valley hothouse, rows of their spears in serried ranks.
Then there's the sumac . . . "genus Rhus, esp. R. Coriaria, indigenous in Southern Europe" (Oxford English Dictionary). The word is of Arab origin, but the edible Jordanian sumac—which grows in desert wadis, the backyards of Amman, and the hillsides of Lebanon—is not to be confused with the poison sumac of America.
This dish is company dinner to half the aristocracy of Amman. And it all comes from a hole in the wall, about 6 x 10 feet small, upon Jabal Luweibdah, into which have been squeezed three stoves, a refrigerator and two tables. Here reigns Adel Yanis, a man too big for the place, moving sideways and gingerly between the stoves, bubbling pots of onions and chickens, and mountains of fresh Arab bread. Adel is going all the time, chopping onions, splitting chickens, stirring pots, turning over birds, slapping them onto loaves, spreading with onions, drizzling on more oil, powdering with sumac. And answering the phone. "Aywah, aywah, pasha, twelve musakhans . . . not until 12 o'clock. No I'm sorry, not until 12." ("Picnics!" Adel snorts.) "Yes, yes, Ahlan, Excellency. Aywah, four musakhan. At 12." Stir the onions, turn the chickens . . .
The idea for send-out musakhan came from Ghazi, Adel's friend at the Hotel Intercontinental, who knew how often the call for proper musakhan stumped the kitchen there. Too much work—too time-taking—and no tabboun. So, when Adel was building his establishment seven years ago, he ordered, not a flamboyant infra-red oven, not a glamorous electric range, not even a wood-burning iron stove. But a mud tabboun—four walls of clay and chipped flint, just like grandmother used. Mud must be so thick, flint chips in such proportion to clay. But no specifications, no measurements, explain the tabboun. As Adel's grandmothers) "You need it in the house like a son." It is the nest, security—generations of warmth.
As business boomed, Adel add another top-of-stove fire for bigger and bigger pots. And then another, in case of crisis. So cheek by jowl with the tabboun now stand two little iron old timers, nested into the heat of the mud walls between them.
Now the gospel of musakhan according to Adel is: 24 chickens, young and fat! 17 kilos of red onions; four litres of oil-purest of the pure, from the hills around Jerusalem, "holy oil." Sumac powder, fresh. Salt and pepper if you like; more acidity with lemon if you like, but "not necessary with my musakhan."
The recipe is a time table, or rather two: the baker's and Adel's coordinate to come out together at high noon:
5 a.m. Baker and Adel start fires in their separate tabbouns; fire starter, chaff from Madaba wheat; firewood, olive or oak.
6 a.m. Baker is mixing his "soft" Madaba flour into dough. Adel starts chopping onions, after putting huge pot of olive oil on slow fire.
7 a.m. Baker is hand kneading dough Adel starts onions simmering in olive oil, just enough heat to turn over the flakes. Four hours to go, until oil takes on a deep purple, aided by color from a few added skins.
8 a.m. Baker is punching out loaves. Adel attacks 24 young chickens, cleaning and splitting. Puts pot of broth from yesterday's chickens on slow fire to bring to boil.
9 a.m. Baker has 50 loaves lined up outside tabboun. Adel starts simmering chicken halves in burbling broth, eight at a time. Each half gets half an hour, at end of which, out, into tabboun oven, where clay fire does its work crisping a crust, leaving insides juicy and tender.
10 a.m. More chicken halves to simmer—more to cover those in tabboun.
10.30 a.m. Kilo of pine nuts in a litre of olive oil goes into oven with chickens to slow roast.
11 a.m. Baker delivers bread, warm, redolent, still pulsating. Working like lightning, Adel lays out table full of puffy loaves, ladles liberal doses of purple onion and oil, once, twice over each Chickens out of oven, squashed, ribs up onto onion beds. Now more oil and onion, then judging customers' tastes sumac. The Prime Minister likes it sharp and sour—half a fistful. The judge's wife prefers it milder, so fat pinches. (Customers at the window are watching anxiously.)
11 a.m. Snatch pine nuts from tabboun—the nuts an even shiny copper, hissing and crackling. Sprinkle over all and fling musakhan back into tabboun to meld, toast a bit. The crowds now queuing outside begin to beat on the door. "Ten minutes," Adel pleads with his bunched fingers. "You have to wait. Call my son. He must start delivering . . . Five minutes more, please." Now he is wrapping packages, heavy cardboard, wax paper . . . "Hold them straight, PLEASE!"
After all that, if you want to give it go—even without a tabboun—a perfectly reasonable facsimile can be arrived at. Start your oil boiling first, then the pot of broth (which may even be bouillion cubes), have your pine nuts ready to go and above all, use a little clock timer which goes off with a ping: Ready?
4 chickens split in two . . . about 6 lbs.
8 cups of chopped onions.
1 pint of best olive oil
½ cup of pine nuts
8—12 tablespoons of sumac
salt, pepper, lemon if desired
4 large Arab loaves, or semi-baked roll dough, if there's no Arab community nearby.
Follow Adel's method. Be profligate with the oil and onion, bedding and covering with thick layers, the more the better if your bread isn't superb. Sprinkle with sumac, cap with pinenuts, toasted in oil in the oven, roast it all again for five minutes in your own oven.
Serve piping hot. Sahtain!
Isobel Fistere has written cooking articles for McCall's, contributed recipes for Arab dishes to Craig Claiborne's column in the New York Times.