My uncle, with his bare hands, was macerating limes and lemons with sugar in a stainless steel pot, the smell of orange blossom water wafting through the air. He was prepping the lemonade that accompanied every Ramadan iftar. My grandmother was passing out comments to my mother and aunts — more salt, less heat, a different tray — as the heady aroma of caramelizing onions crossed paths with the whiff of roasting chicken in the oven. Msakhan, large taboon bread topped with caramelized onion, roast chicken, sumac, and pine nuts, was on the menu for that first night of Ramadan.
I grew up in Jerusalem, away from the ancestral village my extended family still inhabited, in an interfaith household with a Muslim mother and a Christian father. Yet every Friday, we went to my grandmother’s home as the whole family gathered over food. In Ramadan, however, Fridays alone were not sufficient for me, so I found every excuse to spend the majority of the month sleeping at my grandparents’ and cousins’ homes, soaking up the magical aura that surrounded this holy time.
Ramadan is a time of religious intent and restraint, a time to empathize with those who have less, to be grateful for our blessings, to focus on the spiritual world instead of the material one, to pray, donate to charity, and above all, to spend time with loved ones. If you live in the Arab world, then the arrival of Ramadan is palpable — for Christians and Muslims alike. A cloud of calmness descends, the pace of life becomes more leisurely, work slows down, and food takes center stage. It is no longer one meal on the table every night, but a feast, including soup, pastries, salads, and several mains. Dessert is served every night, often qatayef (stuffed semolina pancakes) or awameh (crispy fried balls of dough soaked in sugar syrup), which suddenly appear everywhere as shops herald Ramadan’s arrival.
But it’s about more than celebratory meals. It’s about family getting together on an almost nightly basis, giving us something to celebrate. Since it is also a time to be generous with others, families are often invited out for dinner or invite others to their homes, making Ramadan one of the most social times of the year. The beauty of social gatherings is that they extend beyond religion. You invite your neighbors and your colleagues, you welcome expats and acquaintances, and you share in the bounty you are privileged to enjoy.
As I’ve spent more years living outside my home country than in it, Ramadan is the time of year I feel the strongest pangs of nostalgia. When I’m restless at night, I remember how at 4 a.m., my aunt used to rouse us, put jackets or robes on us as she ushered us down the stairs and through the garden into my grandmother’s kitchen. There, the smell of frying cheese and sage tea would whet the appetite of even the sleepiest among us. We would sit on a floor mat, warming up against heaters, and eat suhoor — the predawn meal meant to hold us over during a day of fasting.
The simplicity of those times stands in stark contrast the life I chose to pursue here in the U.S., where the pace of life neither slows nor accommodates the arrival of the holy month. So, it falls on us who cherish Ramadan to keep its spirit alive. I remind myself how as a child, I could count on my hands the number of times I actually fasted each year, and still, the magic of the month was alive for me. It was alive in the gatherings, in the good will we harbored for others, in the generosity we showed, and above all, in the food.
So over the last few years, I have found that even if I can’t replicate my childhood — and certainly can’t replicate the exact flavors of lemonade or msakhan from my grandmother’s kitchen — I can revive elements of those times in my home by inviting friends over during the month, by showing my gratitude for those that have become like family in a foreign land, and by introducing those unfamiliar with the month and its food to our traditions. In these welcoming moments and shared meals, I am reminded that I am now creating similar memories for generations to come. Mostly though, I come to realize that community and ritual, no matter where you are in the world, are the colorful threads woven through the tapestry of life, giving it a sense of beauty and purpose.
If there is one dish that is exclusively Palestinian, it’s msakhan. The word “msakhan” simply means “heated” in Arabic and harks back to a time when Palestinian farmers would reheat day-old taboon bread with olive oil to extend its life and improve its taste. With time, it has come to include caramelized onions cooked with copious amounts of sumac and roast chicken atop as well — all ingredients grown or raised by the Palestinian farmers themselves. There are many ways to simplify or streamline this dish, but this traditional version remains the closest to my heart.
For the chicken
4 skin-on, bone-in chicken legs or breasts
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon sumac
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
¼ teaspoon ground cumin
¼ teaspoon ground coriander
½ teaspoon salt
For the flatbreads
½ cup olive oil
4 large onions, coarsely diced
2 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoons sumac
2 teaspoons ground cumin
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
½ teaspoon cinnamon
4 taboon breads, 8 inches in diameter, recipe below (see note for simplification)
4 tablespoons sumac
¼ cup pine nuts, toasted
Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit
Put the chicken in large roasting tray and top with the olive oil, spices, and salt. Give it a good rub with your hands, making sure to get some of the marinade under the skin, then arrange the pieces skin side up and place in the oven while you prepare the onions. The chicken will take about 75 to 90 minutes in the oven to fully cook.
Meanwhile, place the olive oil, onions, salt, and spices in a large sauté pan on low heat. Cook, stirring periodically, until the onions have softened and cooked completely without browning, about 30 to 40 minutes. If the onions seem a little dry or do not release any water during cooking, add in ¼ cup water or chicken stock at a time and continue to cook. When done remove from heat and set aside.
In the meantime, check the chicken for doneness, remove from the oven, and allow to rest while you assemble the breads. Pour any juices in the roasting over the onion mixture and toss to combine.
Increase oven heat to broil. To assemble, dip the edges of each bread in the oil on the surface of the onion mixture then lay flat on an oven tray or baking sheet. Place enough onion mixture on each bread to cover it completely but leave a border around the edge (similar to pizza). Sprinkle with sumac and toasted pine nuts. Continue with remaining breads.
Taking one or two flat breads at time, place on an oven tray and insert into the oven to brown the edge and the onions, about 2 to 3 minutes. Remove, top each flat bread with a piece of chicken, and serve.
Note: The dimpled taboon bread is the most traditional bread for msakhan, but if you do not want to make it at home, you can substitute with any other store-bought flat bread, like naan or pita bread. Just make sure it is sturdy enough to withstand the weight of the onions and chicken.
Yield: About 4 large flatbreads
550 grams all-purpose or bread flour, plus extra for dusting
150 grams whole wheat flour
2 teaspoons fast action yeast
1 ½ teaspoons salt
½ teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon olive oil, plus more for drizzling
300ml to 500ml warm water
If mixing by hand, using a large bowl, add the flours, yeast, salt, and sugar and mix until combined. Make a well in the middle, add the oil and 300ml of water. Mix through with your fingers and gradually add more and more water and knead until the dough comes together in a very soft, somewhat sticky, ball of dough. If the mixture feels too sticky, leave for 5 minutes then come back and knead again. Repeat this once or twice until you have a very soft ball of dough.
Alternatively, combine ingredients, again starting with 300ml of water, in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook and mix on medium speed. Gradually add more water as necessary, until the dough comes together in a very soft ball. The dough should be a bit sticky, but that is what will make it extremely soft and fluffy, so simply use plenty of flour when shaping and spreading out.
Shape the dough into a ball, rub all around oil, cover the bowl with a damp tea towel or cling film, and set aside until it doubles in size. Once the dough has risen, gently punch down to release the air bubbles. Divide into 4 equal portions, shaping into a ball between your floured palms, and place on a well-floured work surface. Set aside to rest for about 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, preheat oven to 500 degrees Fahrenheit (or its highest temperature.) Put a 10- to 12-inch cast-iron pan inverted on a rack in the oven to heat.
Take one piece of dough and flatten and coat in more flour. With your hands on the floured work surface, flatten and stretch it out to about 5-inches in diameter. Sprinkle with some flour, flip over, and continue to flatten out until you have a circle approximately 8 to 10-inches in diameter.
Use your fingers to make indentations all over the bread. This will prevent the dough from rising and creating a pocket.
Bake until the bread develops a very light golden top, about 5 minutes. Flip and return to oven for another minute or so. Remove from oven and place on a towel-lined tray to cool. Repeat with remaining dough.
Store at room temperature for up to one day or freeze for up to several weeks.