A debate broke out in my office break-room one afternoon; it was heated, I remember voices were raised. It was not about politics or religion, it was about food. Get seven Syrians together talking about the origins of different Arab dishes, and you’re sure to have some lively reparte. The cuisine throughout Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Egypt is very similar, relying on many shared dishes, but also with regional varieties and local specialties. There was tension over whose za’atar is better, hairs bristled over baba ganoush. However, we generally agreed Palestinians could claim sayadieh, a fish dish, while Jordanians laid claim to mansaf, Lebanon had moghrabbieh, and Aleppo had its own repertory of spicy dishes.
“So what is particular to al-Sham (the Damascus area)?” Afraa asked. The labaniyya dishes, someone ventured, referring to dishes cooked in a warm yogurt sauce. These dishes, which can actually be found throughout the region, include the classic kibbe labaniyya, meatballs in a warm yogurt sauce, but they can also be made with chicken, lamb, even with pumpkin-bulgur dumplings.
I love these dishes, they have an unusual tangy warmth to them, and I always look for them on the menu in an Arab or Turkish restaurant. Unfortunately, I rarely find them and they are unknown to many Western audiences. The key is knowing how to cook the yogurt (aka laban) so that it is stabilized.
Later that week, I asked my friend Mahmoud about making cooked laban. Mahmoud not only loves to cook, but is also good at explaining things clearly. “Aha,” he exclaimed, jumping up from the couch, “there is a secret!” He proceeded to explain the method in precise detail, and then, so excited at the thought of it, dashed out the door to buy some ingredients so he could show me. The door had already closed behind him before I could even process what was going on.
It turns out, stabilizing the yogurt isn’t too difficult, and for once I was happy to have a crazy Syrian taking over my kitchen. A little egg white and cornstarch are beaten into the yogurt and then gradually heated until very warm, stirring all the while. You can actually cook the sauce all the way to boiling this way, if you stir all the while. This is the most traditional way to make yogurt sauce, bringing it to a boil, but I will admit I find it very stressful. Instead, I like to heat the yogurt until just steaming but not boiling - you don't have to worry about stirring constantly and this way it's one of the easiest and fastest soup bases you can make.
This version is a classic Lebanese one with chicken and little pearl onions that gets lots of flavor from a homemade stock. I really urge people to try this, even the shortcut version, especially if they haven’t had this kind of dish before. Once you’ve mastered the yogurt sauce, you can experiment with all kinds of fillings and additions, I often make just the stabilized yogurt sauce and stir in some cooked chickpeas and broth and serve it as a soup. Sahtain!
Chicken in Yogurt Sauce
This comforting dish is warm with tangy yogurt and homemade chicken broth. Please note the two different versions of making the yogurt sauce. To make the traditional stabilized the yogurt, it must be stirred constantly throughout the heating process, however, once the yogurt has boiled without curdling, you can consider it stabilized and relax the stirring.
1 chicken (about 3 lb), cut into 8 pieces
1 tbl sea salt
16 baby onions. peeled
1/2 bunch coriander or parsley, chopped
6 garlic cloves, smashed
for yogurt sauce:
4 cups (1 quart) plain yogurt*
1 fresh egg white
1 tbl cornstarch (or flour)
1. Put the chicken in a large pot and add water to cover. Bring to a boil, skim the surface, then add the salt and lower the heat. Simmer 45 minutes, skimming the surface occasionally. Add the onions and simmer another 15-20 minutes. Remove the chicken and onions, separate the meat, dice it and set aside with the onions. At this point, I like to to return the bones to the pot, toss in a bay leaf, and let the stock continue to simmer while I prepare the rest of the dish, though you don’t have to do this.
2. Saute the garlic cloves in a bit of olive oil until just softened, add the coriander and saute until soft and vibrant green (do not let it brown). Set garlic and coriander aside.
3. Combine the yogurt, egg white, and cornstarch in a pan off the heat and beat with a wooden spoon until very smooth and creamy, it should look glossy, almost like whipped cream. Have all your ingredients nearby (i.e. the chicken and onions, warm broth, and garlic/coriander).
4. Option One: Place the pan over medium heat and stir the yogurt mixture constantly in the same direction so it does not curdle. Let the yogurt mixture come to a boil (stirring), reduce the heat and simmer (still stirring!), about 3 minutes.
Option Two: Place the pan on the heat and heat until just steaming, stirring occiaisionally, do not let the mixture come to a boil.
5. Add the coriander, garlic, the chicken meat and the onions to the thickened yogurt sauce. Stir in about 2 cups of the warm stock and simmer the mixture, stirring occasionally, another three minutes. The sauce should be thick and combined. Serve immediately, with rice.
Shortcut version: Use leftover chicken meat (or meatballs, kibbe, or lamb) and purchased low-sodium stock. Prepare the yogurt sauce and the coriander, then stir in the meat and stock.
*A note on the yogurt: This calls for plain yogurt, not the thickened strained yogurt known as labneh or Greek yogurt. Low-fat yogurt is fine, but whole-milk yogurt will be richer. I do recommend using the freshest yogurt you can find, you want one with lots of flavor.