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Bright, bold Arab food: Sumac-spiced chicken wraps and muhammara

"Musakhan is perhaps the most iconic of all Palestinian chicken dishes," says chef Reem Assil.
/ Source: TODAY

Palestinian-Syrian chef Reem Assil is stopping by the TODAY kitchen to share a few of her favorite recipes from her new cookbook, "Arabiyya: Recipes from the Life of an Arab in Diaspora." She shows us how to make muhammara, a savory red pepper and walnut spread, and musakhan, sumac-spiced chicken wraps.

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Musakhan is perhaps the most iconic of all Palestinian chicken dishes. I often joke that while we don't have a nation-state, we most certainly have a national dish. Extravagant and communal, the chicken is traditionally served whole, steeped in olive oil and reddish-purple sumac. It is mounded over caramelized onions atop a hearth-baked flatbread called taboon and soaked with the cooking juices. People sit around a table, using bite-size pieces of the bread to tear off bites of chicken.

I didn't grow up eating it that way. Ever. My mother, like lots of Arab mothers in the United States, adapted the chicken-onion combo into tortilla rolls. Eating this wrap with sumac and onion juices drizzling down your arms is part of the experience and a sign of a good juicy braise. It's equally great at room temperature and can be served as a party appetizer wrap.

This home recipe is adapted from my restaurant's most popular wrap called the Pali-Cali, since it brings together Palestinian musakhan with arugula, producing something deeply satisfying and easier for non-Arabic speakers to pronounce. I like to add avocado for some extra California love. I think my family in Gaza would approve.

I remember the first time I served this spread at an event. Several people reacted the same way: "It's like an Arab romesco sauce!" I wonder if the Catalonians intersected with Arabs during the time when they conquered Spain to inspire this tomato, walnut and pepper sauce, but in the end, it doesn't matter. All great things travel, and muhammara is a great thing.

The Arabic word muhammara translates literally to "something that is red," so the trick to this dish is to choose peppers with the deepest ripe-red hue possible to create the perfect sweet pepper spread. The secret ingredient is a backdrop of sweet and tart pomegranate molasses to brighten all the other flavors. Snack on this with fresh flat- bread or toss it into your pasta. There is no wrong way to eat muhammara.

If you like those Middle Eastern recipes, you should also try these:

Grilled Za'atar Chicken