The first time I ate chicken yassa felt like coming home. The Casamance’s iconic braise, featuring fork-tender meat and a sumptuous sauce sunk into a mound of rice, stirred in me a nostalgia for the pots of stewed chicken, gumbo, and red beans and rice that I grew up eating in the Atlanta suburbs. Many of the dish’s West African culinary traditions, such as simmering chicken in rich cooking liquid until it’s barely clinging to the bone and serving it with soft braised greens, parallel my own. And its principal flavors—caramelized onions, bright lemon and mustard, heady garlic—felt both familiar and special.
“It was tastes that I knew but used in a way that I had never tasted them used before,” said Dr. Jessica B. Harris, acclaimed culinary historian and author of books including High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America (2011), when we spoke about what drew each of us to the dish.
Most of all, yassa just tastes good. It’s flexible and simple to prepare too. Chicken parts (or sometimes fish or lamb) are soaked in a bracing lemon- or lime juice–based marinade and then either grilled or seared on the stove and braised with Dijon mustard, hot chile, garlic, and loads of caramelized onions that thicken and flavor the braising liquid (broth or water). (Yassa is derived, via that Casamance creole, from the Portuguese word “assar,” which means “to roast”; it shares the same root as the word “asada” in carne asada.) Some cooks add vegetables such as bell peppers, cabbage, or olives; it’s about using what you have. Once the meat is thoroughly tender, the bright, onion-smothered chicken and sauce are poured over rice and served family-style.
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Teranga is a Way of Life
Cooking and eating in Senegal is guided by teranga—a Wolof word that roughly translates to “hospitality” but symbolizes much more than that: inclusion, community, and an overall embrace of others that permeates every aspect of the culture.
Senegalese cooks prepare dishes such as ceebu jën (pictured here) and yassa in large quantities with the expectation that guests will knock on the door and gather around the bowl with the family. Diners use their hands (or sometimes a spoon) to scoop up the food, reaching only for what is directly in front of them and using their fingertips to pinch together mounds of the rice, fonio, or other grain with the meat or vegetables on top. “When you’re eating with your hands, you feel the flavor,” Flatley said. “You have a connection with the food.”
A Short, Purposeful Soak
Yassa marinade ingredients, ratios, and soaking times vary, so I merged what I learned from other recipes with the test kitchen’s science-based methods and came up with this: Whisk together ⅓ cup lemon juice, 2 tablespoons Dijon mustard (perhaps an influence from French colonization—sources disagree), 11/2 tablespoons vegetable oil, and 1 teaspoon salt. Toss the mixture with 2 pounds bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs, which are tailor-made for braising thanks to their abundant collagen and fat. Refrigerate for 30 minutes to 1 hour.
Science: Smothered in Onions
Onions don’t just flavor yassa. They’re almost a cooking medium, heaped into the pot and reduced to a richly caramelized mass that thickens the braising liquid and envelops the protein.
“You want to have that consistency where the onion that’s falling down back into the pot will fall slowly,” said Nafy Ba Flatley, the chef and founder of the San Francisco–based food and beverage company Teranga, gesturing with her hands to show how properly full-bodied onions won’t just run off a spoon like liquid.
Achieving that body and intensity means starting with loads of onions—here, 2 full pounds, equal to the weight of the chicken. They shed water as they cook, leaving behind unctuous dissolved pectin (responsible for that full body), sulfur-containing flavor molecules, and a wealth of sugars and proteins that undergo the Maillard reaction and transform into all kinds of savory, sweet, and tangy complexity.
It’s a simple mix, but everything has a job. Lemon juice moistens the chicken. Its flavor, along with the mustard’s, coats the chicken’s surface as it marinates but won’t suffuse the meat until braising, and acid from both tenderizes the thighs’ exterior a bit. Salt does what it always does to meat, seasoning it and helping it cook up juicy by preventing the proteins from tightening up and squeezing out water. Oil adds richness and makes the fat-soluble flavors more accessible to our palates. The marinating time in my recipe is brief (many cooks soak the chicken for hours) because I found that a longer soak didn’t lead to stronger flavor.
In the Casamance, Rice Is King
The Casamance, a lush region of Senegal that hangs just south of the Gambia River, is famed for its rice production and consumption. The grain is integral to preparations such as ceebu jën (in the Wolof language, or thiéboudienne in French), Senegal’s national dish of rice and fish. (“Ceeb” means “rice” in Wolof). It is also the foundation for local braises like yassa.
“Rice has a kind of cardinal importance,” said Dr. Jessica B. Harris, an acclaimed author and expert on the foodways of the African diaspora. She compared its significance in this region to that of corn, corn mashes, or millet in other parts of Western Africa. “It is the thing that is under much of the food.”
Tangy to the Bone
One big perk of searing the chicken indoors as I do, rather than grilling it, is that its rendered fat and Maillard flavor–packed fond is available for caramelizing the onions.
Onions shrink way down as they cook, and I wanted enough of them to really coat the chicken once they’d caramelized. So after searing the thighs and setting them aside, I heaped the pot with 2 full pounds—equal to the weight of the chicken—that I’d sliced thin and seasoned with salt and let them gently caramelize. Scraping and stirring the fond into the jammy, deeply golden mass gave the onions incredible savor.
“I always say when you get them to ocher color, then you are really good and satisfied,” said Nafy Ba Flatley, Senegalese-born, San Francisco–based chef and founder of Teranga, a food and beverage company.
Then came braising. Into the pot went chicken broth, crushed garlic, habanero, and—this is important—the reserved marinade, the flavors of which would penetrate the meat during cooking. I tipped the thighs and their juices back in; covered the pot; and simmered it until the chicken was suffused with lemony, mustardy tang and starting to separate from the bone.
I fished the thighs out of the sauce and nestled them into the rice. Then I brightened the sauce with more lemon juice (and cut wedges to pass at the table) and spooned it over the rice and chicken, finishing with parsley.
“It’s just a very succulent dish,” said Flatley. “It’s a party in your mouth. All these flavors come out and you’re like, ‘gah, this is good!’”