Egyptian-British cookbook author Claudia Roden’s recipe for classic Çerkez Tavuğu, aka Circassian Chicken, is a Genius Recipe in every way. It’s one of the creamiest, most comforting chicken dishes you’ll ever taste, and its construction is quite simple too. Most importantly, it relies on a very unassuming trick to thicken the sauce—nuts.
Nuts are rich in fat and, once ground and subjected to a bit of heat, start to create a rich and creamy texture. Walnuts, cashews, and almonds are the best to use here because of their neutral flavor profile. I cook the sauce until it’s thick enough to coat the back of a wooden spoon. If you don’t have enough starch to bind the water, then it will separate from the nuts, so I prefer to cook it a little more to get rid of that. Bread crumbs are an extra bit of insurance as a binder, just in case the water starts to separate from the chicken and nut mixture.
If I’m strapped for time, I’ll sometimes skip preparing the chicken altogether and go for a store-bought rotisserie chicken, which I debone, shred, and fold into the ground nut mixture. Served either cold or warm, this comforting chicken dish is great as a main course or as a starter to a meal.
This recipe was my foray into a whole new cuisine. Much of what I knew of Middle Eastern cooking came from the food I’d eaten at our Muslim neighbors’ houses or at the restaurants I’d frequented in India. The most exciting bits were the succulent pieces of juicy mutton cooked in saffron-scented basmati rice; the large, toasted flatbreads to go with; and the exquisite use of rose water in sweets like seviyan (a type of rice pudding made with vermicelli), served at weddings or religious celebrations like Eid. I knew that most of these dishes had originated with the Mogul Empire, which ruled India for more than 300 years. But beyond this, I’ll admit that I didn’t know much about the roots of biryani and naan and Circassian chicken.
Several years later, when I moved to Washington D.C., I was still working as a medical researcher and had not yet taken the leap into the world of food writing. But I’d eaten at the many Persian and Turkish restaurants in the city as often as I could. Many of the dishes reminded me of the food in India: Persian tahdig, with its gorgeous saffron-colored crust of toasted rice, was similar to the biryanis I’d had; the flatbreads were similar in texture to naan, and Turkish cacik, a semblance of cucumber raita, I grew to love.
Armed with a desire to cook these dishes, but also to understand their history, I hunted the cookbook shelves of my local bookstores to grab any that might put me on the right path.
I didn’t have much luck.
Then, one cold and rainy Saturday in the fall, I stopped by a used bookstore in Capitol Hill. The walls and floors were so stacked with books, you had to pay careful attention to how you maneuvered yourself, lest you knock something over. But that’s what made this place quirky and charming—that, and the smell of old paper.
The cookbook collection wasn’t extensive, but I browsed through the titles until I came across A Book of Middle Eastern Food by Claudia Roden. It had a worn-out jacket that was lightly tattered at the ends. Other than the jacket, the book itself was in pristine condition. But what drew me to it the most were the bits of information at the top of each recipe explaining the history behind the dish. I’d finally found the book I’d been searching for so long—and the chicken recipe I make on repeat to this day.
When it comes to the world of Middle Eastern food, Roden is perhaps one of the most well-known writers who devoted her life to studying and writing about food from this large and vast region. She grew up in Cairo, Egypt and eventually moved to London and has since written several books on the Middle East, including the tattered one I found at a used bookstore on a cold, rainy day.
This book has been a constant companion to me for more than 10 years. I’ve cooked from it often, and even as my collection of Middle Eastern cookbooks continues to grow, this is still the book I turn to the most.
• 1 large roasting chicken (about 4 pounds)
• 2 large onions, quartered
• 2 stalks celery
• Salt and black pepper
• 1 cup shelled nuts (walnuts, almonds, or hazelnuts, or a mixture)
• 1 cup fine dry white bread crumbs (optional)
• 2 tablespoons oil
• 1 teaspoon paprika
• 3 cups long-grain rice
• 2 1/2 tablespoons butter
See the full recipe on Food52.
More from Food52:
Shaheen Peerbhai & Jennie Levitt’s Cold-Oven Roast Chicken
Judy Hesser’s Oven-Fried Chicken
Jollof-Spiced Chicken with Baked Plantains
Chrissy Teigen’s Crispy-Skinned Chicken with Lemon-Rosemary Pan Sauce
Quick Chicken Souvlakis with Roasted Pepper Hummus
Buttermilk Roast Chicken with Potatoes and Cornichon Butter
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