The Iraqi Shabbat Recipe That Disappeared For Years — And Finally Returned
Shared by Janette Shina
Recipe Roots: Baghdad, Iraq > Givatayim, Israel
Janette Shina’s childhood was one of contrasts. In the late 1940’s and very early 1950’s her family was well off, living in a large four-story home in Baghdad with her parents, grandmother and cousin. While she attended private school during the day, her father worked as a butter and cheese wholesaler and her mother stayed home. Along with a servant, Janette’s mother prepared traditional Iraqi recipes like kubbeh, or semolina wrapped meatballs served in soup and rissoles or croquettes. And, there was always Shabbat t’bit, a whole chicken stuffed with rice and spices that’s cooked in a pot of rice that was placed over hot stones and coals, leaving a crispy bottom layer called h’kaka that everyone would jockey for.
In the early 1950s, however, the atmosphere in Iraq shifted. Bombings and attacks against Jewish targets pushed many Iraqi Jews towards aliyah, including Janette’s family. In February of 1952, dressed in their best clothes, but without any of their belongings, her family moved to Israel. The reality of their life there was harsh. They were doused with DDT when they arrived and transported in large trucks to an absorption center in Or Yehuda, a small town near where Ben Gurion Airport now sits. During the winter, the camp flooded and the children, including Janette, were taken to kibbutzim around the country for protection.
Food was rationed and Janette’s mothers recipes that had been signatures of their family home in Iraq nearly disappeared. Her father would barter for rations of powdered eggs that were mixed with water into scrambled eggs for a treat.
Nearly a decade later, the t’bit returned when Janette married at 20. Even on a tight budget, Janette would stretch what she could afford, making use of every part of the chicken and hosting an open house for family to visit. “We made things out of nothing,” she explains. “If I had in mind to buy zucchini and they were expensive, I would buy eggplant. We could make almost the same dish….we managed very well by improvising.”
Eventually, life improved and her mother returned to making the t’bit as well. Up until a few years ago, she made it every Shabbat in her apartment for Janette, her siblings and their families. Today, it’s Janette who makes it, though only a couple of times during the winter; her rendition uses chopped white meat and ground beef for the rice.
Even now, as adults, everyone still fights for the h’kaka, the crispy burned rice on the bottom.
Total time: 1 hour + 2 hours cooking or 12 hours slow cooking overnight
3 tablespoons canola oil
2 large onions, chopped
1 teaspoon turmeric
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon paprika
3 cups basmati rice
½ teaspoon kosher salt
1 whole chicken (4-5 lbs.), breasts removed and reserved*
10 eggs, pre-boiled (optional)
For the filling:
2 breasts of chicken (from the whole chicken), cut into ½” cubes
⅔ pound ground beef with 80/20 fat content
2 teaspoons Baharat
1 teaspoon salt
For the sauce:
1 15 oz. can crushed tomatoes, divided
5 ¼ cups water, divided
2 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
For the rice:
¼ cup tomato paste
2 tablespoon canola oil
1 tablespoon Baharat
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon salt
*Ask you butcher to remove the breasts from the whole chicken while keeping the skin of the chicken intact for stuffing.
1. Preheat the oven to 350°.
2. In a large (9 qt.) heavy bottomed, oven-safe pot with a lid, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the onions, turmeric, salt and paprika. Sauté, stirring occasionally, until soft, about 10 minutes.
3. Meanwhile, place the rice and salt in a large mixing bowl and cover with 1 inch of warm water. Let soak for 20 minutes, then strain and discard the soaking water.
4. Make the filling: In a medium bowl combine the chicken breast, ground beef, baharat, salt, ⅓ of the can of crushed tomatoes, ½ of the sauteed onions, and ¼ of the soaked rice. Mix (best done with your hands), until the mixture is evenly combined.
5. Make the sauce: To the remaining sauteed onions in the pot, add the rest of the crushed tomatoes, 2 ½ cups of water, salt and pepper, and bring to a gentle boil.
6. Fill the chicken: Take the filling and stuff it under the skin of the chicken, filling the gaps where the chicken breasts were, then stuffing the chicken cavity itself, almost to the rim. There may be some filling leftover, depending on the size of your chicken.
7. Using toothpicks, “sew” the chicken skin together to seal in the filling. While Janette’s mom used to sew the chicken skin with string, to keep the filling in, Janette uses toothpicks to do the same thing (remember to take them out before serving or warn the guests).
8. Once the sauce has come to a boil, gently place the stuffed chicken into the pot and cover. Simmer over medium heat while you prepare the rice.
9. Add any leftover filling to the remaining rice, along with the tomato paste, oil, baharat, cinnamon and salt. Mix well.
10. Add the rice mixture to the pot, nestling it all around and on top of the chicken. Add the remaining 2 ¾ cups of water and return to a boil. Using a wooden spoon, lift the chicken a bit on all sides allowing the water and rice to more evenly surround the chicken. Cover and place in the oven.
11. For short cooking time: Bake for 2 hours at 350°. After 1 ½ hours, check the liquid level and if still very wet, bake for the remaining 30 minutes uncovered. For overnight T’bit: Add the eggs to the pot before placing in the oven. Bake at 212° for ~12 hours or until all the liquid has evaporated.
12. For the crispy burned rice, after baking is complete (whichever method you choose), place the pot back on the stove top over high heat. Cook for 15-30 minutes until the bottom layer of rice is browned and crisp. Serve immediately.
Cook’s tip: If there are any leftovers, warm them up in a pot on the stovetop to get a new layer of crispy burned rice.