….He took a chicken, jointed it, crushed walnuts on the flat of the cleaver and prepared Acem Yahnisi, with pomegranate juice…..
The impoverished diplomat sniffed the air…pungent and fruity. He sniffed again, screwing his eyes shut.
Without further hesitation or ceremony he wrenched open the door and bounded into the room: “Yashim! Yashim! You raise our souls from the gates of hell! Acem Yahnisi, if I’m not mistaken – so like the Persian fesinjan. Chicken, walnuts – and the juice of the pomegranate!” he declared.
-Jason Goodwin, The Janissary Tree
Inspired by Jason Goodwin’s eunuch detective, Yashim, who investigates in the Turkey of the 1840s, we flew to Istanbul last month to explore the old streets, palaces and bazaars which feature in the books. Naturally enough we also wanted to try out some of the dishes which Yashim enjoys cooking.
We were staying in a slightly dodgy area of the city, and we braved a dark stairway, our feet crunching over broken glass, our coats brushing past comatose figures and dancing transvestites, to reach a steep terraced pedestrian road where the restaurateurs had made use of the levels to set out padded sofas and be-cushioned chairs, all the diners in the street benefiting from the live music coming from one of the bistros at the top, and the colour added with bunting and woven tablecloths.
We checked all the menus and found the place to try Acem Yahnisi…. and indeed, our souls were raised from the gates of hell.
However, subsequently, we tried the fesinjan. The main difference is that instead of pomegranate juice, pomegranate molasses (to find out what that is follow this link) is used. And turmeric and nutmeg are also included. This was, if possible, even better. It’s darker because of the pomegranate molasses.
After some experimentation this is as near as I can get to that taste. Serve the stew with pilaf rice.
For other Turkish-inspired recipes and posts follow this link.
Recipe for acem yahnisi cum fesenjan – chicken stew with walnuts
- Juice and zest one lemon
- 2 tbsp butter
- 2 onions, finely chopped
- 6 chicken breasts
- 2 cinnamon sticks
- 1 tsp soft brown sugar, or honey
- 150g/1¼ cups roughly chopped walnuts – dry fried
- Small bunch of mint
- 110g/4 oz pomegranate seeds – or dried goji berries, or dried sour cherries, or dried cranberries
- 240ml/1 cup pomegranate juice, or 180ml/¾ cup of pomegranate molasses and some chicken stock to make up the difference.
- Smoked salt and Indonesian long black pepper
- you can also add half a teaspoon of turmeric and some grinds of nutmeg to make it more ‘persian’
- Mix the lemon and the pomegranate juice together
- In a large casserole melt the butter and fry the onion
- Add the chicken breasts and fry until golden
- Pour over the juices and sugar. Add the cinnamon sticks
- Season, taste
- Heat the oven to 200ºC
- Bring to the boil, cover and simmer for 35 minutes, checking after about a quarter of an hour to make sure it doesn’t dry out – if it is add a bit more pomegranate juice
- Brown the chicken breasts in the hot oven
- Sprinkle over the walnuts, the torn mint leaves, and the pomegranate seeds (or dried red fruit)
Some of the most gorgeous Turkish music isn’t technically pure Turkish – it’s jazz produced by The Secret Trio. Listen to a sample of it and savour the warm perfume as you prepare this aromatic stew. And for a delightlfully silly old vintage 1964 film which gives a delicious flavour of Istanbul as a city watch Topkapi – see the trailer below.