It only took a few minutes of research into Senegalese cuisine to see one dish mentioned over and over, and since it sounded delicious, that made it an easy choice to begin my culinary trip around the globe. Poulet Yassa, or Yassa au poulet, is a chicken-based entree (although really, it might be more accurate to call it an onion-based entree, but we’ll get to that in a minute).
This seems like a good time to mention how I’ll typically be generating the recipes for this blog. Whenever possible, I like to look at a whole bunch of different recipes and then create my own recipe based on all of them combined – so, for example, if one recipe calls for a cup of lemon juice, another says you should use a half cup, a third calls for three tablespoons, a fourth suggests 2/3 of a cup of lime juice instead, a fifth thinks you should put in a bunch of lemon zest and then just add lemon juice to taste, and a sixth asks for a whole can of frozen concentrated lemonade, my thought process will be something like this: “Clearly, some sort of citrus is a key part of this recipe, and most versions seem to go with lemon. I like lemon a lot, so I’m going to lean towards the upper end of the quantities of lemon juice suggested, but I don’t want to overdo it, so I’ll go with 3/4 cup of lemon juice and see how that works.” The resulting recipe will thus be distinct in significant ways from any one of the recipes I used as references, while still being recognizably the same dish. When and if my sources are more limited in number, or if I end up sticking pretty closely to one particular source, I’ll link and credit the source(s) here.
In the case of this week’s dish, I had a wealth of recipes to choose from, and it was immediately clear that this was the sort of dish that had all sorts of variations – some people put in carrots or cabbage or olives or other vegetables; some people loaded it with hot peppers and some put in no peppers at all; some used chicken breasts, some thighs, some whole chickens. I decided to keep my recipe relatively simple and center it around the basic elements everyone agreed on: chicken, lemon juice, and lots and lots of onion.
First, I gathered all the non-chicken ingredients:
Yes, you will really use that many onions in this dish. It’ll work. Trust me.
Cooking purists may be cringing right now because they have noticed that I’m using bottled lemon juice and canned minced garlic. If you have access to fresh-squeezed lemon juice and freshly minced garlic, I’m sure it would make this recipe even better, but if, like me, you are poor and/or lazy (I’m both!), the cheaper, low-effort version really does work pretty well.
Your first step will be to slice up all of those onions into long strips, and start filling a bowl with them.
Your second step, if you are me, is to realize that six onions cut into strips take up a lot of space, and to dramatically say, “You’re gonna need a bigger bowl” out loud before you realize that no one is there to hear your hilarious Jaws reference. If you’re not me, you might have been clever enough to get your most ginormous mixing bowl to start with. (Also, you might make less obvious jokes.)
Slice all those onions into your ginormous mixing bowl, add the garlic and bay leaves, and then mix together the lemon juice, apple cider vinegar, peanut oil, Dijon mustard, salt, pepper, and cayenne pepper. If you like things moderately spicy, dice your jalapeño now and toss it in there, too. (If you like things very spicy, get a hotter pepper than a jalapeño.) If, like me, you like things spicy but will be sharing this meal with someone who doesn’t like much spice at all, dice and mix in about a quarter of the jalapeño and save the rest. We’ll use it later.
Next, slice your chicken into manageable portions, if necessary (again, I was lazy and bought pre-sliced strips of chicken breast). Mix the raw chicken into the bowl with the onions, pour the liquid mixture over all of it, and stir it all up until all the chicken pieces and onion strips have a nice coating of marinade. Then cover your ginormous mixing bowl with plastic wrap, clear a space big enough for a ginormous bowl in your refrigerator (or divide things up into smaller containers), and let your chicken-onion mixture marinate overnight.
The next day, heat a couple of tablespoonfuls of the peanut oil in a big skillet. Fish the chicken out of the mixture (don’t worry about it if you have a few pieces of onion stuck to them), and sauté the chicken pieces over medium-high heat until they’re fully cooked. Remove the chicken from the skillet, and use a slotted spoon to scoop all of your onions into the skillet. (Take out your bay leaves at this point.) Don’t get rid of the liquid in the bottom of the bowl – you’ll be using it in a bit. Sauté your giant pile of onions until they’re well caramelized. This will take a while, so feel free to stir them around your big skillet with one hand while playing Candy Crush on your phone with the other. You may have a few onions escape onto the stove, but you’ve got plenty to spare, and hey, maybe you’ll finally beat level 437 (and then I’ll kind of hate you, because I’ve been stuck there for weeks).
Once the onions are nice and brown, pour in the reserved liquid. Since it had raw chicken in it, you’ll want to make sure you get it up to a good boil and then reduce the heat and simmer it for a while so as not to have any raw chicken germs in your finished meal. Raw chicken germs are not delicious.
At this point, if you reserved the rest of your jalapeño, dice it up and put it in a smaller skillet with a scoop of your caramelized onions and a little of the liquid. Cook that until the jalapeño pieces are tender, and then set it aside. It’ll make a tasty topping for anyone who likes more bite in their meal.
At some point in this process, cook some rice.
If, while simmering your onions and marinade, the onions soak up all the liquid and you’d like to make things juicier, feel free to splash in some more lemon juice, cider vinegar, and peanut oil. Try to keep them vaguely in the same proportions relative to each other as the original mixture, but this dish is pretty forgiving, so don’t sweat it too much.
Once everything is well-cooked and salmonella-free, mix your chicken back in and stir things around so that it gets warmed back up and slathered in lemony oniony goodness.
Serve it up! Each plate should have a scoop of rice, topped by a generous scoop of onions, topped by some chicken. (If you’re adding your separate batch of jalapeño-and-onions to some people’s plates, add that in now, too.) The finished product will look something like this:
Oh my goodness, this was so delicious. Those giant piles of seemingly-excessive onion are absolutely the star of this dish. Once they’ve been marinated and caramelized, they really don’t overwhelm you with their onion-ness at all – they’re sweet and tart and so tasty that, when I felt too full to finish the rest of what was on my plate, I picked out all the onion pieces and ate them by themselves because I couldn’t stand to throw any of them away. I do recommend using the full jalapeño, if you’re up to it – a little capsaicin heat made the Yassa even better (and more authentic, too – if you can take the heat, many recipes recommended habaneros or Scotch bonnets, and I bet they’d be delicious as well). I paired the meal with a hard ginger ale, which went really well with it; I think any sort of ginger drink would complement this dish very nicely.
The only particularly time-consuming part of this process was first chopping and later caramelizing all the onions, but again: so worth it. Don’t skimp on the onions. They’re amazing.
The only thing I think I’d do differently next time would be to add a little extra lemon juice to the skillet while I’m cooking the chicken, or possibly increase the amount of marinade I made and make sure the chicken was at the bottom of the bowl getting well-soaked in it. The chicken was tasty, but it didn’t take on quite as much of the flavor of the rest of the ingredients as I would have ideally liked.
I will definitely be making this one again!
5-6 onions, chopped into strips
2 pounds chicken breast, sliced into small enough portions to cook evenly in a skillet
1/3 cup peanut oil (plus 2 tbsp or so for sautéing)
1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
3/4 cup lemon juice
2 tbsp Dijon mustard
2 bay leaves
4-6 cloves of garlic, minced
1/2 tsp black pepper
1/2 tsp salt
generous pinch cayenne pepper
1 jalapeño, diced fine