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The Turkish Delight: Circassian Chicken

August 31, 2011

A friend posted on Facebook that she was making Korean short ribs. “So good!” I commented. “And easy!”

She replied asking what I like to make that isn’t easy. Oops, busted.

I don’t mind expending effort — if I didn’t, I wouldn’t love to cook — but I’m often looking for ways to cut down on it. Like, once you know how good shrimp cooked for a minute with butter and garlic and lime and salt is, and can make some cole slaw and guac and put into a taco, I don’t see a huge reason to make a huge fuss, because that is about as good as it gets.

And for a moment, I could not think of one thing I like to cook that is “hard.”

But then, I remembered Circassian Chicken.

This is a dish that is a bit more effort than usual, but it’s oh-so-worth it. I implore you to try it.

A Work About Turkish Food

I began to love Turkish cuisine the year I was asked to review The Sultan’s Kitchen, a cookbook by the restaurateur and author Ozcan Ozan.

The vibrancy of the color blue in the cookbook initially caught my eye—it’s a stunner, visually—but the recipes within outdo the aesthetics. And oh, the Circassian Chicken. What might be overlooked by most as a chicken paste with tons of paprika and mushed up bread—people never seem excited when I describe it as they do when I make it—is in reality a more delicious dish than you’ve been served in most restaurants.

Circassian Chicken

Serve this dish at room temperature with plenty of warm Turkish pide bread, or any sort of flatbread from the supermarket.


3 pounds chicken breasts with skin and bone (about 4 breasts)

3 cups water

1 carrot, roughly chopped

1 stalk celery, roughly chopped

1/2 medium onion, cut into chunks

2 cloves garlic

1 bayleaf

Several stalks of parsley

1 T peppercorns


Place all ingredients in a covered pot. Bring to a boil then immediately reduce heat and simmer chicken until cooked through, between 15 and 20 minutes. Remove the chicken to a platter to cool. Strain and reserve the cooking liquid.

When chicken is cool, shred it (by hand or with a knife). Mix with tarator sauce and serve on a platter, garnished with pieces of parsley and walnuts or hazelnuts, and a drizzle of oil.

Tarator Sauce

This nut-based sauce hails from Georgia (the country, not the state), and while it provides the bulk of the character for this dish, it’s also wonderful on vegetables, fish, or lamb. It can be made with hazelnuts or walnuts, and with olive oil or walnut oil.


2 T butter

1/2 medium onion, finely chopped

Reserved stock from recipe above

2 slices day-old white (French, Italian, or sandwich) bread, crusts cut off

2 garlic cloves

1 1/2T paprika (sweet, or combination of sweet and hot)

1 cup walnuts



Warm the butter in a pan and over low heat, and add onion, cooking until soft. While onion is cooking, place some chicken stock and the bread in a bowl, and let the broad absorb the liquid. Squeeze the excess liquid out of the bread and crumble. Set the crumbles aside. Add garlic and paprika, stirring through until color is evenly distributed. Remove from heat.

In a blender or food processor, grind the nuts, a cup of chicken broth, the onion and garlic mixture, the crumbles, and 1 t salt. Process into a smooth paste. Continue to add tablespoons of stock if necessary. Taste for salt and adjust.

Sidenote: Turks are Nuts for Hazelnuts

Circassian Chicken is a dish that comes from Georgia, a country formerly associated with the USSR. It’s to the Northwest of Turkey and part of the local cuisine is sauces made from nuts. This recipe is most often published with walnuts but when a friend who is allergic to them was coming to dinner, I tried an alternate preparation, which is created with hazelnuts.

While no one wants to kill their beloved walnut-intolerant friends, do not try to denude your own hazelnuts: the process of removing the clingy dark skin is one of the worst I can imagine. It’s always described as easy in cookbooks—heat up hazelnuts and them rub them with a dishtowel—and yet it is not.

There will be burned hazelnuts, there will be tiny clinging skins all over the floor and your face, you will be forced to dispatch a scared loved one to buy more hazelnuts, and when the dish is done, it will taste burned, it will taste like the hazelnut skins that wouldn’t leave, and it will taste of tears. (In terms of horrible tasks, it’s second only to a wedding shower I once threw where I attempted to scald, give an ice bath to, and then peel hundreds of cherry tomatoes before soaking them in a vodka bath. The vodka bath should have been saved for the host – or the guests who had to put up with her.)

I also prefer the flavor of walnuts. So there. If the walnut impossible one is coming, make a different thing.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. August 31, 2011 2:11 pm

    I despise denuding hazelnuts, but there are some places–Kalyustan’s is one–where you can buy them pre-denuded, which I highly recommend!

  2. Karen permalink
    August 31, 2011 2:43 pm

    I love that Turkish foods are delicious and yet simple in terms of number of ingredients. I dated a Turkish guy for a while- it ended badly but he was an amazing cook, and taught me a few things. This looks delicious!

    Although I am surprised that more recipes for it don’t call for hazelnuts, as hazelnuts are a major export item of Georgia. In fact, the current Secretary of State’s brothers almost caused an international incident over hazelnuts when she was First Lady:

    Hazelnuts are apparently bad news all the way around!

  3. September 1, 2011 11:33 pm

    This alone is reason enough to clean and organize my kitchen so I can cook again!

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