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Eric Akis: Chicken Yassa blends French and Senegalese cuisines

This Senegalese-style chicken is marinated, seared, smothered in a lemony, caramelized onion mixture, and baked until very flavourful and tender.
Tender Senegalese-style Chicken Yassa is flavoured with citrus, caramelized onions and range of seasonings. ERIC AKIS

Earlier this year my wife and I visited Paris and we dined at a number of restaurants, including one near the famed Père Lachaise cemetery. It was called Bistrot Père and they served classic French bistro fare and, because the owner was originally from Senegal, some Senegalese-style dishes, such as chicken yassa, which is what we ordered.

It was heavenly aromatic and absolutely delicious, and when I returned home I wanted to make my own version of it. I finally got around to it last week. Before doing that, I did some research on dishes called yassa and learned they originate from Senegal’s southern Casamance region. And that, over time, they became popular in other parts of West Africa and places where immigrants from that area moved. Beyond chicken, yassa is also made with such things as fish and lamb.

When reviewing a number of recipes for chicken yassa, no two seemed exactly the same. For example, from household to household in places where it’s prepared, cooks can play around a bit with what’s added to the dish, tweaking it more to there liking.

But, in general, in most recipes you start making chicken yassa by marinating pieces of chicken. You then grill or sear that chicken, and then add it to a citrus-flavoured, bountiful, caramelized onion mixture. The chicken is then stewed until tender in that sweet- and sour-tasting mixture and also enhanced with the other ingredients added to the dish, such as spicy peppers and garlic.

The French once occupied Senegal and during the very long time they did, their cuisine influenced how some dishes were prepared in that country. For example, in some recipes for chicken yassa, called yassa poulet in French, Dijon mustard is mixed in, which is what I did.

In many recipes for chicken yassa, the chicken is stewed in a pan on the stovetop. But in my version, after the chicken was marinated and seared, I set in a casserole, topped it with the caramelized onion mixture, and then baked and stewed it in the oven. The end result was a similar-tasting dish that allowed me to do other things while the chicken baked in the oven.

You can serve the chicken with a green vegetable and something to sop up the saucy onion mixture it is stewed with, such as steamed rice, couscous or, if you can find it, fonio, a West African-style grain.

Chicken Yassa

Senegalese-style chicken, marinated, seared, smothered in a lemony, caramelized onion mixture, and baked until very flavourful and tender.

Preparation time: 40 minutes, plus marinating time

Cooking time: 66 to 76 minutes

Makes: four servings

2 medium green onions, halved lengthwise, then thinly sliced widthwise

1 tsp dried thyme, or 1 Tbsp minced fresh thyme

1/2 cup lemon juice (divided)

4 Tbsp vegetable oil (divided)

4 large, skin-on chicken legs (see Eric’s options)

• salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

2 medium yellow onions, halved and thinly sliced

1 medium green bell pepper, halved, seeded and cut into matchstick-sized pieces

1 medium to large jalapeño pepper, halved, seeded and finely chopped (see Eric’s options)

2 to 3 large garlic cloves, finely chopped

1 Tbsp finely chopped fresh ginger

1 3/4 cups chicken stock

1 Tbsp Dijon mustard

• lemon slices and parsley sprigs, for garnish (optional)

Place green onions, thyme, 1/4 cup of the lemon juice and 2 Tbsp of the oil in a bowl large enough to hold the chicken. Add the chicken legs and toss to coat. Cover, refrigerate and marinate chicken two to four hours, turning occasionally.

Set out a 13- x 9-inch or similar-sized casserole dish. Remove chicken from the marinade, pulling off any green onions attached to the legs. Pat chicken dry with paper towel, and then season with salt and pepper. Discard the marinade.

Place the remaining 2 Tbsp oil in large, 10-inch wide or similar sized non-stick skillet set over medium, medium-heat. When oil is hot, set two of the chicken legs in the skillet and sear three minutes on each side, or until richly coloured. Now transfer those chicken legs to the casserole. Sear the other two chicken legs as you did the first two and set them in the casserole with the other legs, ensuring all are sitting in a single layer.

Add the onions to the skillet you seared the chicken in and cook and stir them eight to 10 minutes, until tender and caramelized. While onions cook, preheat oven to 375 F.

When caramelized, mix the bell peppers, jalapeño, garlic and ginger into the onions and cook two minutes more. Now mix in the stock, remaining 1/4 cup lemon juice and mustard and bring to a simmer. When simmering, season the mixture with salt and pepper, and then pour it over the chicken in the casserole.

Cover the casserole with foil, set in the oven and bake chicken 45 minutes. Uncover chicken and bake 10 to 15 minutes more, or until the chicken is cooked and deliciously tender. Arrange chicken on a platter and garnish with lemon slices and parsley sprigs, if using, or simply serve the chicken directly from the casserole.

Eric’s options: Instead of chicken legs, try making the yassa with eight medium, bone-in, skin-on, chicken thighs. If you like things spicier, instead of a jalapeño pepper, add one medium to large scotch bonnet or habanero pepper, seeded and finely chopped, to this dish. Always wear kitchen gloves when chopping and handling hot chili peppers and be careful not to put your fingers near your eyes or skin. Green olives are sometimes added to chicken yassa. If you would like to do so, place 16 to 20 of them in the casserole after topping the chicken with the onion mixture .

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Eric Akis is the author of eight cookbooks. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.