What Is Lebanese Chicken?

Cynde Gregory

Cooks are usually glad when chicken is on the menu. Lebanese chicken’s fabulous flavor suggests that preparation might be a lot more complex than it really is. There are a number ways to prepare Lebanese chicken, but even the recipes that have a couple of additional steps are a cinch. Finely and aromatically spiced, the amazing aromas tumbling from the kitchen will call diners to the table before the cook has a chance to finish the dish.

Paprika, which is often used to make Lebanese chicken.
Paprika, which is often used to make Lebanese chicken.

The most basic Lebanese chicken requires just a handful of ingredients. Chicken pieces such as legs, thighs, or breasts, a few peeled potatoes, and some nice-quality olive oil mixes it up with garlic and lemon juice. Purists may protest that chicken made without the unique spice known as zatar is really just, well, chicken, but lots of Lebanese cooks insist that zatar is optional.

Lebanese chicken calls for just a few essential ingredients, one of which is chicken meat.
Lebanese chicken calls for just a few essential ingredients, one of which is chicken meat.

In general, zatar marries a combination of dried thyme, oregano, or basil with sesame seeds and a kind of vinegary liquid called sumac. Some zatars add the less commonly known herb, savory, or the commoner marjoram. Like curry, zatar features seasonings in whatever combination pleases the cook. Some focus on a single herbal note, while others combine two or more.

Zatar-based Lebanese chicken also features garlic and lemon, as the nonzatar versions do, and might add a few additional ingredients. The zatar is used as a preskillet rub that sears into the flesh as it cooks. Plum tomatoes give the dish a rich color and flavor, and cinnamon adds a mysterious je ne sais pas that, coupled with crushed mint and a few drops of hot sauce, will leave the diner wondering what exactly composes the dish.

On an interesting sidenote, cooks in Lebanon and the Arabic world in general might spend a lifetime developing their own unique versions of zatar. This is not a recipe that is happily given to strangers or even friends who request it. In fact, some home cooks insist that their offspring craft their own versions rather than simply passing along the one they’ve developed that is their pride.

Another version of Lebanese chicken marinates the meat in olive oil and fresh lemon juice in which cumin, paprika, and cayenne have gone for a swim rather than rubbing it in zatar. Deep yellow turmeric might find its way into the marinade, and it’s very likely that several cloves of minced garlic will add their special powers. Regardless of how it is prepared, Lebanese chicken is an easy, delicious main course that, accompanied by a simple tomato and lettuce salad, is a fine meal.

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