Adapted from Seductions of Rice by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid (Artisan 1998). Copyright 1998 by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid.
Serves 6 to 8
Yassa is a familiar and much-loved dish all across West Africa, found on restaurant menus from Bamako to Dakar, usually featuring chicken, or sometimes lamb, and citrus-flavored with lemon or lime. It is often said that yassa originated in the Casamance region of southern Senegal, though nowadays in the villages of Casamance, chicken and lamb are luxury foods seldom enjoyed. The only versions of yassa I tasted in Casamance homes were made with fish, as were nearly all the home-cooked dishes I ate during my short stay in the region. Families had dried oysters, vegetables, and many kinds of fish to cook with, but never lamb or chicken.
While staying in the village of Marsassoum in Casamance, I was given simple instructions on how to make chicken yassa, and later I did manage to sample a particularly delicious version in a tiny eatery in the town of Ziguinchor. When I got back home and tried to reproduce the flavors from the instructions I'd been given, sure enough, it tasted wonderful. The recipe given here has a distinctive citrus tang of lemon or lime juice, balanced by the sweet taste of plenty of slow-cooked onions and a hint of heat from the chile.
When yassa is made with chicken, traditionally the whole chicken is used, cut up into pieces with the bone still in. You can begin with a whole chicken the standard West African way, or with a mixture of legs and breasts.
Use a cleaver to chop up the chicken (or ask your butcher to do it). The legs should be cut into drumstick and thigh and then each of these chopped in two. Similarly, the whole breast should be chopped in half and then each half into 3 or 4 pieces. If using a whole chicken, chop the back into similar-sized pieces and split the wings. Discard any excess fatty pieces (or set aside for another purpose). The skin is traditionally left on, but you may discard it if you wish.
Place the chicken in a shallow nonreactive bowl. Pour on the lemon juice and turn to coat well. Let marinate, covered, in a cool place for 30 minutes, or refrigerate for up to 8 hours, turning occasionally.
When ready to proceed, remove the chicken from the marinade, strain the marinade, and set the marinade aside.
If using a grill: Preheat the grill. If possible, place a shallow pan below the grill rack to catch the juices. Place the chicken pieces on the lightly oiled rack 4 to 6 inches from the coals. Sprinkle on 1 teaspoon salt and a generous grinding of black pepper. Grill until golden, turning to expose all sides to the heat. Remove from the heat and set aside. Save the pan juices.
If using a broiler: Preheat the broiler. Place the chicken pieces on a lightly oiled broiling pan and sprinkle on 1 teaspoon salt and a generous grinding of black pepper. Place the chicken 4 to 6 inches from the broiler element and cook until golden, 4 to 5 minutes, then turn the pieces over and cook until golden. Remove from the heat and set aside. Save the pan juices.
If frying: Heat 3/4 inch of peanut oil in a deep heavy pot. When the oil is hot, add the chicken pieces, being careful not to splash yourself with hot oil. (Depending on the size of your pot, you may have to fry in batches.) Fry until golden, then turn over and repeat on other side. Remove from the hot oil and let drain on a rack. Drain off all but about 3 tablespoons oil.
While the chicken is cooking, prepare the onions: Cut the onions lengthwise in half, then thinly slice lengthwise. If the onions are large, cut the slices once or twice crosswise.
If you grilled or broiled the chicken, heat the oil in a wide heavy pot. Use your fingers to separate the onion slices as you add them to the oil. Fry over medium heat until soft and translucent, about 10 minutes, stirring frequently to prevent sticking.
Add the chicken pieces, the reserved marinade, and the cooking juices, if any, to the onions, along with the water, chiles, and thyme and bring to a boil. Simmer until the chicken is thoroughly cooked, 15 to 20 minutes. Ten minutes after you begin simmering, add the remaining 1 teaspoon salt and stir and turn to mix well. Just before serving, taste and adjust the seasoning if you wish.
To serve, arrange the chicken pieces in a shallow bowl or on a platter and spoon the onions over. Remove the chiles if you wish. Serve the sauce separately or pour over all. Serve with plenty of white rice.
Alternative: You can use this recipe as a guide for making fish yassa: Marinate whole fish or fish steaks in the lemon juice marinade; if using whole fish, make several slashes on either side before marinating. Grill or broil the fish until barely done (the flesh will have become opaque). Fry the onion as directed above, add the marinade, water, chiles thyme, and seasonings, and simmer until very tender. Add the grilled fish and cook for another several minutes, then serve with plain rice.