Chicken Yassa Recipe

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Sweeten this Senegalese dish with sorghum molasses to balance the citrus and chiles.
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Sorghum is prized for its distinct umami taste that can enhance and deepen the flavors of both sweet and savory dishes. Sorghum’s Savor showcases the history and endless culinary possibilities of this unique ingredient.


  • Marinade: The chicken needs to marinate, refrigerated, for at least 3 hours, and can do so overnight.
  • 3 lemons (juicy, with thin skins)
  • 1-1/2 tablespoons sorghum syrup
  • 2 tablespoons chopped roasted New Mexico green chile (or other
  • hot pepper you prefer)
  • 1/2 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
  • 4 medium onions
  • 3-1/2 pounds chicken leg quarters
  • 1 tablespoon peanut oil or other oil
  • 1/2 cup water


  • 1. Zest the lemons until you have ½ tablespoon, then juice. Combine in a bowl with sorghum and stir until dissolved. Mix in chile, sesame oil, salt, and pepper.  2. Halve onions and slice in rounds about ¼-inch thick. Place onions, marinade, and chicken pieces in a large plastic freezer bag, press out air, and seal, then shake and move around until chicken and onions are mixed together and coated in the marinade. Place in refrigerator for at least 3 hours, turning the bag at least once to make sure marinade coats everything equally. If you marinate overnight, turn a few more times. 3. When you are ready to cook, turn on broiler. Remove chicken from bag, shaking off any clingy onions, and lay in one layer on broiler rack. Broil on each side until lightly browned. Be careful not to burn. You can also brown on a grill.  4. Heat oil in the bottom of a Dutch oven or wide, heavy pan with lid. Remove onions from marinade, shaking lightly in the bag to drain a bit. (You can use finger or tongs, but I find one of those clawlike pasta scoopers works very well.) 5. Add onions to oil, being careful not to get burned, as the oil will pop when drops of marinade hit it. Sauté onions in the oil until they soften and just begin to turn golden. 6. Add the marinade to the pot along with water and bring to a boil. Add the chicken in one layer, if possible. (If you have to layer a few pieces on top, move then around with a spoon during cooking to make sure all pieces come in contact with the hot marinade.) Cover the pot, turn heat to a low simmer, and cook for 35 minutes, until chicken is tender. 

    More From Sorghum’s Savor:

    Spice and Sorghum Loaf Recipe
    Toast Caribe Recipe
    The Art of Cooking Sorghum Syrup
    Reprinted with permission from Sorghum’s Savor by Ronni Lundy and published by University Press of Florida, 2015.  

An ancient Old World grass that resembles corn, sorghum is cultivated and used as a grain in most of the world. It has been a key ingredient in Southern baked goods, confections, glazes, and dressings since before the Civil War. Though essential to the region, sorghum’s complex flavors and deep heritage have often gone unsung. Throughout Sorghum’s Savor (University Press of Florida, 2015), author Ronni Lundy weaves rich stories and descriptions from her Kentucky childhood and her many years invested in the mountain foodways community.

The remarkable Jessica Harris, African-food scholar, taught me the right way to make the Senegalese favorite, chicken yassa, and her version is delicious. But that was over twenty years ago, and as beloved recipes often do, this one has changed to fit the needs of my diet, the preferences of my taste, and the likely contents of my larder. In that two decade journey, I’ve never made a version I didn’t like. The combination of tangy lemon, pungent onion, and fiery pepper in the marinade is almost perfect—it only needed sorghum syrup to bring it all together in bliss. Senegalese chicken yassa is served on rice to soak up the juices, but you might want to try it with a hot skillet of cornbread to sop.