Members' Recipes Archive

February 1999
Chicken with Olives and Preserved Lemons Djaj Mchermel
Anissa Helou

Chicken with Olives and Preserved Lemons Djaj Mchermel

By: Anissa Helou

Serves: 20

This is one of the signature dishes of Morocco and you are offered it everywhere -- on the streets, in private homes and in restaurants. It can be prepared using three of the four basic tagine sauces: mchermel as in the recipe below, mqalli where the sauce is flavoured with saffron, ginger and pepper, or m'hammar where the only seasonings are cumin and paprika and the chicken is browned in the oven after it has stewed. The fourth sauce which is not used in this tagine is kdra and it is made with onion, pepper and saffron.

This recipe is from Street Café Morocco (Conran Octopus 1998)


1 garlic clove finely chopped
½ teaspoon ground ginger
¼ teaspoon each cumin and paprika
Pinch saffron filaments
Crushed sea salt and finely ground black pepper
1 organic or free-range chicken (about 1.5 kg/3 lb)
2 medium onions thinly sliced
55 g/2 oz each flat-leaf parsley and fresh coriander most of the bottom stalks discarded, very finely chopped
1 cinnamon stick
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
30 g/1 oz butter
Juice of ½ lemon, or to taste
1 large preserved lemon peel only, cut lengthways into strips (see recipe opposite)
150 g/5 oz green or purple olives


Put the garlic, ginger, cumin, paprika, saffron, a little sea salt and ¼ teaspoon pepper in a large flameproof casserole. Mix together. Add the chicken and rub it well inside and out with the spice mixture.

Add the onions and herbs. Half cover with water (about 1-1.2 ltr/1¾-2 pints) and drop in the cinnamon stick. Bring to the boil over a medium-high heat, then add the oil and butter. Cover and cook for 45 minutes, or until the chicken is cooked and the broth has become very concentrated.

Remove the chicken onto a serving platter and keep warm. Discard the cinnamon stick. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer gently, covered, for a further 15 minutes, stirring regularly, until the onion has disintegrated and the sauce has thickened.

Add the lemon juice, preserved lemon peel and olives. Return the chicken to the pan and turn it into the sauce carefully. Simmer for a few more minutes. Taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary. Transfer the chicken onto a serving dish, pour the sauce all over and serve very hot with good bread.

To make preserved lemons

Preserved lemons are a conspicuous taste in Moroccan food. You can find them in England but make sure you buy those that are preserved in salt only without any untraditional ingredients such as pickling spices or garlic. Some people soak the lemons for a few days before preserving them but you don't need to bother with that. The most highly prized preserved lemons are the very small ones called doqq which sadly are not available here. I suggest you buy medium-sized unwaxed lemons. Choose them firm and unblemished.

You will need about 5 or 6 lemons (about 700 g/1 lb 8 oz) for a 1 ltr/36 fl oz jar. Quarter them lengthways keeping them attached at the stalk end. Carefully prise them open and spread 2 full teaspoons coarse sea salt inside. Pack them tightly in the jar, place a heavy weight over them such as a clean flat stone and close. Eventually enough juice will seep out to almost cover the lemons. If there isn't enough juice, you can either top up with water or more lemon juice. If you top up with water, the lemons will take longer to 'ripen'. I myself don't top up with any other liquid apart from the juice that seeps out. Place the jars in a cool, dark place and use after 4-6 weeks. Once a week, turn the jars upside down to shake the liquid. Some lemons are left to age for at least a year before they are used in Tangia and other dishes. You can recognize them by their darker colour. Once the lemons are ready, use the peel only. Though the flesh is good, it is considered too tart and messy to use.

© recipe copyright 1999 Anissa Helou


Author: Anissa Helou Email:

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