With the spicy richness of cumin and cinnamon, along with the bright tang of lemon, this crisply golden, full-flavored Turkish roasted chicken is fall-off-the-bone tender. There’s a spark of serrano pepper in the chicken’s marinade, but the fire burns brighter in an absolute classic of Turkish cuisine – acili ezme.
Hot, sweet, and sour, acili ezme (or spicy ezme) is immensely popular throughout Turkey because it’s so deliciously versatile. It can be served as a salsa-like relish, a thick-ish sauce that happily doubles as a dip, or as a gloriously vibrant side salad.
So, how can such a simple mix of chilies, tomato, bell pepper, onion, parsley, vinegar, salt, and olive oil be so astonishingly good? Pomegranate molasses and sumac is the answer.
Now, that duo might not be staples in your store or cupboard, but they are absolutely worth seeking out. Add them to ezme’s pretty unremarkable ingredients, and you’ll be in for an almost magical experience. I say magical because the molasses and sumac are amazingly transformative. They turn what might appear to be very ordinary into something spectacularly special.
In her book, Persiana. Recipes from the Middle East & Beyond (affiliate link), Sabrina Ghayour says that with ezme, “Everyone seems to have their own recipe – some are spicier or less acidic than others.” Ours is generous with the chilies – nicely fiery, fresh, red serrano peppers, but light on the vinegar. That’s so that the magical mix of sumac and pomegranate molasses is encouraged to come center stage in the ezme.
The magic of acili ezme revealed
With a berry-like sweetness and a sharp, cutting, citrusy tang, the flavors of pomegranate molasses are similar to that wonderfully sharp, sour spice, tamarind. The bitter-sweet hit is not as strikingly intense as it is with tamarind, but a little still goes a long, long way.
The ‘molasses’ tag sort of implies that it’s made with sugar, but that’s not the case with the ‘real thing’. This is made from pomegranate juice that has been heated slowly, so it reduces to a flowing, syrupy consistency. Some brands do contain sugar as well as flavor and color ‘enhancers’, but the sort that’s worth finding only contains the juice in all its flavor-concentated glory.
The other partner in this magic trick is sumac. This spice is made from the dried, ground, purplish-red berries of the shrubby sumac tree. It has the rich, earthy flavor of slightly salty and peppery lemon zest that’s had its sharp, up-front tang toned down. Its lemony savoriness is warm and lingering, meaning its taste is more subtle than the immediate tartness of lemon juice or zest.
Together, this pair of unusual, special ingredients are the secret to the fresh, sweet-and-sour appeal of our acili ezme, which comes in the form of a chunky salsa.
Let’s not forget the equally exceptional Turkish roasted chicken
To create its fall-of-the-bone tenderness, the chicken spends a few hours in a marinade built around buttermilk. Tangy and slightly acidic, buttermilk has long been renowned as a flavor-boosting, moisturizing marinade for chicken, particularly in the ‘Southern Fried’ style.
Ours gets a little fiery lift from chopped green serrano peppers, and its mellow spiciness comes from cinnamon, cumin, and paprika. Garlic and lemon have always made delicious partners for chicken, and they both feature here in generous amounts. That’s especially true of the lemon, with all its zest, flesh, and juice working in harmony with the ezme’s range of bright, citrus flavors.
The marinaded chicken is roasted in a hot oven with a rubbing of salt, black pepper, and olive oil. What’s great about this is that the buttermilk acts as moisture protector, keeping the meat’s juicy, succulent flavors as the skin turns wonderfully crisp and golden in that hot oven.
The result? Well, you get two sets of delicious contrasts in terms of tastes and textures. First, the crisped skin is ultra-savory, nicely salty, and warmly spiced. And then, the succulent meat is packed with the sweeter, deeply mellow tastes that you’d expect from a high-class, free-range chicken.
And to serve alongside: potatoes roasted with orange zest and sumac
Just like the ezme, this is another delight inspired by Sabrina Ghayour. I was attracted to it because I’m a big fan of potatoes that are roasted along with the likes of onion, garlic, and a seasoning of, say, paprika, black pepper, and salt.
That type of combo is so appealing because the potatoes become infused with the flavors of their companions as everything steams under a covering of foil in a hot oven. And then, uncovered, the potatoes finish roasting to a wonderful outer crispness.
In this distinctly Middle Eastern variation, the potatoes cook with a sparse coating of olive oil mixed with a little sumac and the zest of an orange. Whole cloves of lightly crushed garlic join the party, along with a few sprigs of fresh rosemary and a sprinkling of salt.
Distinctly Middle Eastern? Oh, yeah. The potatoes are aromatic, earthy, and savory, but they also have a subtly sweet undercurrent of tartness from that mix of orange zest, sumac, and rosemary. And that means their flavors and aromas make perfect partners for the richness of the chicken and the bright intensity of the acili ezme.
Like this recipe? You’ll love these too:
- Harissa Roasted Chicken With Apricot And Date Stuffing: Another delicious take on roasted chicken. This stuffing is so good. As is the chicken.
- Seared Spiced Mangoes With Turkish-Style Cream: Want a dessert that’s a perfect complement to the meal? These spiced mangoes will delight your guests.
- Beef Short Ribs In Chili Mango Sauce: Here we go in a different direction. These short ribs will become a mainstay in your kitchen.
Turkish Roasted Chicken With Acili Ezme And Spiced Potatoes
For the chicken
For the chicken’s buttermilk marinade
For the acili ezme – spicy ezme
- 4 fresh red serrano peppers finely chopped, seeds and all
- 8 ounces red cherry tomatoes half of them cut into quarters, the other half roughly chopped
- 4 scallions or spring onions – all the white parts and all the crisp, green leaves, sliced into 1/8-inch discs
- 1 red bell pepper deseeded and cut into 1/3-inch dice
- 1 yellow bell pepper deseeded and cut into 1/3-inch dice
- ½ ounce flat leaf parsley fresh, finely chopped, stalks and all
- 2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses the sort that’s made only from pomegranate juice
- 1 heaped teaspoon sumac
- 2 teaspoons white wine vinegar
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 heaped teaspoon ground sea salt
For the orange and sumac roasted potatoes
- 1 ½ pounds all-purpose potatoes peeled and cut into chunks about 1 ½ inches square
- 1 heaped teaspoon sumac
- 2 tablespoons orange zest roughly the zest from 1 orange
- 4 sprigs fresh rosemary
- 6 cloves garlic skin-on and lightly crushed
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 heaped teaspoon ground sea salt
For marinading the chicken
- Combine all the marinade’s ingredients in a mixing bowl that’s easily large enough to hold all the chicken.
- Add the chicken legs and use your fingers to give them a thorough coating of the marinade. Cover the bowl and set it aside in a cool spot (but not in the refrigerator) for 4 hours.
- While that’s happening, you’ll have ample time to make your acili ezme and prep the potatoes for roasting.
Making the acili ezme
- This is really easy. Gently stir all the ingredients together in a pretty serving bowl and set it in your refrigerator. I say gently because you want your ezme to keep its nicely chunky texture rather than moving it more towards a dipping sauce.
- With the occasional stir, you’ll find that a few hours’ chilling allows the ezme’s flavors to flow and develop into full bloom. You might want to add a little more salt to your ezme, but it’s best to do that just before you serve it.
Roasting the chicken legs and the potatoes
- This roasting can conveniently happen at the same time – for about 60 minutes – but in separate baking dishes. One dish needs to be large enough to hold all the chicken in a single layer, and the other one big enough to hold the potatoes in a single layer.
- First, heat your oven to 350F / 180C and set your baking dishes in it so they can heat with 2 tablespoons olive oil in each dish. Your plan here is to roast the chicken for in the top dish, and the potatoes in the one beneath it.
- As soon as the oven and your dishes come up to temperature, remove the lower dish and quickly stir in the potatoes, garlic, and rosemary so they get a covering of the hot oil. Sprinkle over the sumac, orange zest, and salt, and give everything a good stir so the potatoes get coated with that spicy, citrussy, salty mix. Good. Cover the dish with a tight-fitting layer of silver foil and return it to your oven. Time now for the chicken.
- Remove the chicken legs from the marinade and set them it in a large colander to drain off most of the marinade – about 1 minute’s draining will do the trick. Take the chicken’s dish from the oven, and then arrange the legs – skin-side up – in a single layer in the dish. Now quickly spoon a little of the hot oil over the upper side of the legs and set the dish back in the oven.
- You’re now aiming to let the chicken and the covered potatoes roast for 35 minutes at 350F / 180C. When that time’s up, remove the chicken’s dish from the oven and give the tops of the legs a quick basting with the juicy oil in the dish. Raise the oven’s temperature to 400F / 200C and return the basted chicken to it.
- Once you’ve done that, take the potatoes’ dish from the oven, remove the foil, and give the dish a careful stir to coat the potatoes in their spicy, zesty oil. Return the dish to the oven, and let the chicken and potatoes roast for another 25 minutes at 400F / 200C.
- At that temperature, you want the chicken’s skin to turn a deep golden color and for the potatoes to crisp nicely on their outsides. That’s it, done and ready to serve.
- You might like to arrange the chicken legs on a big, warmed platter and set the potatoes around them. Serve your acili ezme alongside in its pretty bowl so people can happily help themselves.