An old-as-the-hills recipe for Iraqi chicken and rice gets an update

T’beet, Iraqi-Jewish chicken and rice.Sheryl Julian

Every one of the hundreds of chicken and rice dishes that I find and make fascinates me. They’re mostly simple, nourishing, family meals intended to be generous with the grain, with enough poultry to flavor the rice, rather than make it the central feature. There are all kinds of ways to play it. My friend’s grandmother in Puerto Rico made use of every bit of the bird by adding the heart, neck, liver, and gizzard to the pot, and enriched her arroz con pollo — essentially the same dish — with ham and olives.

Recently I’ve been making the Iraqi-Jewish chicken and rice known as T’beet (sometimes spelled T’bit), a dish dating from the Middle Ages in which the chicken is first stuffed with uncooked rice, then practically buried with even more rice in a big pot, and sent into a low oven for a nice, slow bake. The name T’beet, from the Arabic word “tabayit,” means to stay overnight. Traditionally the dish was made before the Sabbath, and by the time it came out of the oven the following day, the rice had become a savory pudding and the chicken was falling apart. As the rice cooks, the bottom forms a crust, called hkaka (in Persian rice dishes this is tahdig), and if you remove the lid at the end of cooking, the top also forms a crust, with the porridge-like rice in between .

Tomatoes also go into the pot, along with the characteristic seasoning, baharat, one of my favorite spice blends, usually a mixture of paprika, cumin, coriander, cinnamon, allspice, and nutmeg.

To speed the process up, some cooks raise the oven temperature so the chicken doesn’t need to cook overnight. There are recipes for four-hour T’beet. After making many over the years, I thought the dish could cook even faster, though it may not produce the pudding-like rice of the traditional preparation. This approach allows modern cooks to get a taste of a dish they might otherwise never consider making.

Instead of using uncooked rice, if you blanch the rice for a few minutes before adding it to the pot, and turn up the oven temperature a little, you can bake T’beet in a little over an hour. The beans cook into their familiar shape and texture. Use jasmine or an aromatic basmati rice. You need a big heavy pot with a lid, a saucepan that is both flameproof and ovenproof; enameled cast-iron is best. Season the bird inside and out with salt and pepper, tie the legs together with kitchen twine, and brown the bird all over in the pot. Take your time. It needs a full 10 minutes. Don’t move the bird until the skin releases itself with a little nudge or you may tear it off.

While it browns, blanch the rice in boiling water for a few minutes, then drain it. Once the chicken skin is golden, remove the bird from the pan. Then saute an onion, add some tomatoes, the spices, chicken stock, and rice. Move the mixture to the edges of the pan so you can nest the bird in the center.

If it looks like the top of the bird is going to hit the lid when you set it on, cut out a round or oval of parchment paper and cover the chicken with it before you add the lid.

Then send it into the oven for an hour or a little more. Remove the lid and run it under the broiler for a minute or two to brown or char the top.

There are many versions of the dish all over the Middle East. When we were still traveling, my husband and I ate dinner at the home of a Palestinian family and were served something very similar to T’beet, but made with chicken and wheat berries. The wife, who never sat down at the table with her sons and husband, set down a platter for a dozen guests with two birds, both stuffed with wheat, and surrounded by a sea of ​​grain. The platter was at least a yard wide. One of the sons stood up and used his hands to break the chickens in half and pull them apart. The stuffing wheat spilled onto the wheat around the edges and I might have gasped with delight. It was an amazing moment.

This updated T’beet doesn’t call for stuffing the chicken, which allows for the shortened cooking time. The rice around the bird absorbs the poultry juices and is very tender with flavors of the aromatic spices. Use your best carving skills to cut up the chicken right in the pot. It’s too difficult to pry out of its blanket of rice and transfer to a board. But this is family fare—heaps of delicious rice with tender poultry. A dish just as welcome in a contemporary kitchen as it was in the Middle Ages.


Sheryl Julian can be reached at sheryl.julian@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @sheryljulian.

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