You say you want a striking way to serve barbecued chicken? Here’s one that will stick in your guests’ minds. It looks like a miniature rack of ribs, perhaps crossed with a bizarre pre-Cambrian life form.
But it has the classical flavor of browned chicken infused with the sweetness and poetic perfume of onion and a subtle hint of cinnamon. “Winner, winner, chicken barbecue” (or however Guy Fieri’s saying goes).
Its proper name is kırma tavuk kebabı, which means “split” or perhaps “pleated” chicken in Turkish. It’s one of the subtle and inventive dishes that graced the tables of Istanbul big shots back in the days when the Ottoman Empire was still a vast and wealthy affair. It was recorded in 1839 in a cookbook called Malja’ al-Tabbakhin (“The Refuge of Cooks”) that was later plagiarized with great enthusiasm by Turkish and Arab cookbook writers down to the early 20th century.
The recipe was first translated into English after “some of England’s fairest ladies and grandest gentlemen” were impressed by the Turkish dishes served aboard the yacht of the visiting viceroy of Egypt in 1862. Two years later, a certain Turabi Effendi published a collection of recipes swiped from Malja’ al-Tabbakhin and given the on-the-nose title “Turkish Cookery Book.”
The distinctive technique of this dish is to cut the chicken into strips, leaving the pieces attached at one end. This structure helps the marinade flavors penetrate the meat while keeping it in a relatively compact shape for convenience on the grill. It also makes the meat cook a little quicker and more evenly.
Turabi Effendi’s recipe calls for deboning entire chickens, but I suggest taking the easy way out by using boneless chicken breast, which lends itself very well to this technique. Turabi says to baste the meat with butter when it starts to brown, but I don’t recommend this because of the risk of flare-ups. If you want more butter flavor, basting the meat after you take it from the grill works perfectly and will certainly win the approval of your local fire marshal.
- 4 boneless chicken half-breasts, about 1¾ pounds total
- 1 teaspoon salt, plus more for serving
- ½ teaspoon pepper
- ¼ teaspoon cinnamon or a pinch more
- 1 large onion
- 2 ounces (¼ stick) butter, melted
- Using a sharp knife, cut the meat crosswise into 9 or 10 strips ¼ to 1/3 inch wide. But make sure your cuts reach no farther than ¼ inch from the far edge of the meat so that the “fingers” remain attached. Mix the salt, pepper and cinnamon and rub into the meat all over.
- Purée the onion in a food processor and strain the onion juice from the solids in a fine sieve (leave the windows open for this operation because of the onion fumes). Mix the meat with the onion juice, cover with plastic wrap or place in a sealable plastic bag and let marinate at room temperature for 1 hour.
- Pat the meat dry with paper towels and thread it onto skewers down the uncut edge (if your skewer is too broad for the uncut section, you can thread it through the bases of the “fingers” as well). Baste the surface of the meat and between the “fingers” with melted butter. This will keep the meat from sticking to the grill and to itself; you don’t want so much butter that there are flare-ups.
- Grill over a moderate fire, turning often, until the meat stiffens and turns golden brown, about 20 minutes.
- Remove from skewers and brush with more melted butter if you want. Sprinkle with salt to taste.
Fine accompaniments for this would be a scoop of tart yogurt and a simple green salad.
Main photo: Cut into strips, kırma tavuk kebabı — “split” or perhaps “pleated” chicken in Turkish — enables marinades to penetrate the meat. Credit: Charles Perry