By Dara O’Brien
Creative Director, Lake Isle Press

I’ve traveled quite a bit over the past six months. Senegal… Mexico… the Middle East… India… Peru. A heady array of encounters with other cultures — and I never left my kitchen.

My experience of these places has been through their cuisines. My guides were cookbooks published by the company I work for, Lake Isle Press.

I’ve been cooking a new recipe from one of our books at least once a week. Most of these books are written by immigrants or descendants of immigrants and are rooted in distinctive regional cuisines. The writers share their recipes along with the visceral connection to home these dishes hold for them. It’s about understanding heritage through food, not place.

Since I began this culinary journey I’ve explored recipes from West Africa with Chef and Activist Pierre Thiam; from Latin America with Iron Chef Jose Garces; and from India with MasterChef Vikas Khanna. For the past month, I’ve been focused on food from the Middle East, and my guide has been Mayada Anjari, a Syrian refugee who arrived in America just three years ago.

The title of Mayada’s heartfelt book written with Jennifer Sit is “The Bread and Salt Between Us.” The phrase represents different things in different cultures, including a welcome gift for a new home or a way to honor guests. In Mayada’s native Syria, it speaks to a celebration of shared experience (“There is bread and salt between us”).

That power of connection through the shared experience of food has become increasingly clear to me through my cooking over the last six months. Since I began my exploration at the onset of the Covid pandemic, for the most part, I’ve cooked and dined alone, with no one to share each meal. Nevertheless, I felt a connection through the food to the writer and the culture that crafted the recipe.

Mayada’s recipe for chicken kabsa is a Friday night favorite for her family, so last Friday night I made it for me. When I took the spiced chicken out of the oven and inhaled its aroma, then lifted the lid of the tomato-flavored rice to fluff it, I thought of Mayada serving it to her family, and her mother teaching her to make it.

To honor that sense of tradition and continuity, I was tempted to try smoking the meat and rice with charcoal as Mayada does, but fear and practicality overruled my impulse. As lovely as the smoky taste may be, and as interesting as it was to contemplate how Mayada compensates for the lack of an in-ground tandoor oven in her Jersey City kitchen through the use of smoldering charcoal briquettes, I gave it a pass.

I followed the rest of the recipe to the letter, and the result was a new taste for me and really delightful. I had always equated spice with fire, but this dish isn’t “spicy” — it’s spiced. The flavors are complex, they play on your tongue, but there’s no burn, just a lingering sensation. And, another key benefit, the aroma is gorgeous; I made the chicken in the late morning and its fragrance filled my home all day.

I loved how this recipe offered a twist of something so familiar — chicken and rice. I loved how easy it was to follow while combining ingredients in ways I have never tried. And I loved that because of all the cooking and experimenting I’ve been doing of late, I had all the ingredients I needed for this recipe on hand, even the cardamom pods. The only things I had to buy to make this dish were chicken and yogurt.

This culinary journey I’ve been on could not have come at a better time. The opportunity to explore other food cultures has helped me to experience a larger world in a time of profound restriction. As Jennifer Sit wrote in her introduction to “The Bread and Salt Between Us,” “When you eat someone’s food, cooked by their hand, you understand and experience part of them.” During this time of isolation, I am grateful that I can connect to something bigger even when I can’t travel beyond the walls of my kitchen.

October 28th is National Immigrants Day. Celebrate the American melting pot with a recipe from another culture.

Chicken Kabsa
Spiced Chicken with Rice

Click here for printable recipe.


Kabsa Spice
1 tablespoon ground coriander
1 tablespoon black pepper
2 teaspoons ground cardamom
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground cloves
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon sumac

1 tablespoon ground turmeric
1 tablespoon salt
2 tablespoons plain whole-milk yogurt (not Greek)
2 tablespoons tomato paste
5 dried bay leaves
5 cardamom pods, crushed
⅓ cup olive oil
1 small onion, thinly sliced
10 small chicken drumsticks (about 3 pounds)

3 cups white basmati rice, soaked in water for 1 hour and drained
1 cup vegetable oil
1 small onion, coarsely grated
½ green bell pepper, coarsely grated
1 clove garlic, coarsely chopped
1 tablespoon ground turmeric
2 teaspoons salt
2 medium-large tomatoes (about 1¼ pounds), halved and coarsely grated, skin discarded
5 cups hot water


1. Make the kabsa spice: Place all the ingredients in a small jar. Cap tightly and shake to combine.

2. Make the chicken: Preheat the oven to 400°F. In a large bowl, stir together 2 tablespoons of the kabsa spice, the turmeric, salt, yogurt, tomato paste, bay leaves, cardamom, and olive oil. Add the onion and chicken and toss until the chicken is thoroughly coated. Transfer the chicken, onion, and marinade to a 9-by-13-inch baking dish and spread in a single layer. Cover with foil. Bake for 30 minutes. Remove from the oven and flip the chicken pieces. Return to the oven, uncovered. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes more, until deeply browned and cooked through. Remove and discard the bay leaves and cardamom pods. Transfer the chicken and sauce to a large pot or Dutch oven and keep warm.

3. While the chicken bakes uncovered, make the rice: Rinse the rice four or five times, until the water runs clear. Drain thoroughly. Heat 1 cup vegetable oil in a large pot on medium-high. Add the onion, green pepper, and garlic and cook for 3 to 4 minutes, until softened. Stir in the remaining kabsa spice, the turmeric, 1 teaspoon of the salt, and the tomatoes. Cover and cook for about 5 minutes, until the tomatoes break down. Add the hot water and the remaining 1 teaspoon salt. Bring to a boil on medium-high, then gently stir in the rice. Return to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low. Cover and cook for 20 minutes, stirring after 10 minutes, until the rice is tender and the liquid has been absorbed.

4. Transfer the rice to a serving platter. Top with the chicken and serve.

Recipe from “The Bread and Salt Between Us” by Mayada Anjari with Jennifer Sit, Lake Isle Press, 2018

Originally published at https://www.lakeislepress.com on October 27, 2020.

Written by

Dara O’Brien is the Creative Director of Lake Isle Press. When she isn’t cooking or writing about cookbooks, she writes plays and sometimes acts in them.

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