Chicken Yassa (Senegalese Braised Chicken With Caramelized Onions)

A citrus-forward version of your favorite stewed and smothered chicken-and-onion dishes.

Chicken yassa on a bed of white rice.

Jillian Atkinson

Why It Works

  • Marinating the chicken infuses its meat with flavor.
  • Citrus juice and hot pepper balance out the sweetness of the caramelized onions.

Growing up, I attended a Sufi mosque in South Carolina that served a community that was predominantly West African and African American. One of the benefits of this experience is that I was introduced to and fell in love with yassa at an early age. Despite eating it for years, I didn't know it was called yassa until I got into professional cooking; I thought of it as a more citrus-forward version of the stewed and smothered chicken-and-onion dishes I knew from my own home, like Lowcountry stew chicken. The preparation is pretty similar: Yassa starts with a meat, frequently chicken, that's marinated with onions and citrus juice, which is then braised in a rich onion base until the alliums are melted and caramelized.

I eventually did learn its name, and that it's from the Casamance region of Southern Senegal. The dish also reflects the area's history as a former French colony, since it's known both as poulet yassa (in French) and yassa ganaar (in Wolof). Most of its flavor comes from the relatively large amount of caramelized onion, which provides considerable depth of flavor and color. It also gets a nice tang that helps round out and cut through the richness and sweetness of the onions with the addition of lemon and/or lime juice and a little mustard. My recipe is inspired by multiple versions I've cooked over the years, including recipes from Chef Pierre Thiam's The Fonio Cookbook, cookbooks published by the food historian Jessica B. Harris, and others.

Chicken yassa on a bed of white rice.

Jillian Atkinson

Originally, the chicken or other protein would be grilled over a wood fire, then braised. To brown the chicken at home, I find it easiest to sear it deeply in a pan, even if it lacks the smoky notes of a wood-burning fire.

The Scotch bonnet pepper is the real kicker here, adding heat to every bite that (to me) is just right—it’s not burn-your-face-off hot, but just enough to give a little tingle on the lips and make you want to eat more. Ingredients like olives, bell peppers, and carrot are also frequently added, so feel free to include them in the braise if they appeal to you. Yassa is often served with rice to sop up the braising liquid, but it's also great with fonio, a traditional West African grain, or couscous.

Recipe Facts

4.5

(4)

Prep: 15 mins
Cook: 105 mins
Marinating: 8 hrs
Total: 10 hrs
Serves: 4
Makes: 4

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Ingredients

  • For Marinating the Chicken:
  • 2 pounds (900g) bone-in, skin-on chicken legs
  • ½ cup (120ml) fresh lemon juice, from about 2 large lemons
  • ½ small (6-ounce; 170g) yellow onion, diced
  • 1 tablespoon (15ml) fresh lime juice, from about 1 lime
  • 1 tablespoon (15ml) neutral oil, such as vegetable or peanut oil
  • 1 Scotch bonnet or habanero pepper, stemmed and finely chopped 
  • 1 teaspoon (4g) Diamond Crystal kosher salt; for table salt use half as much by volume or the same weight
  • For the Yassa:
  • 1 tablespoon (15ml) neutral oil, such as vegetable or peanut oil
  • 3 medium (8-ounce; 225g) yellow onions, thinly sliced 
  • 3 medium cloves garlic (15g), minced
  • 1 teaspoon (5ml) Dijon mustard (optional)
  • 3 cups (710ml) homemade chicken stock or store-bought low-sodium broth
  • 1 whole Scotch bonnet or habanero pepper, pierced with a fork
  • 1 bay leaf
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • Cooked long- or medium-grain rice, couscous, or fonio, for serving
  • Lime or lemon wedges, for serving

Directions

  1. For the marinated chicken: In a large bowl or zipper-lock bag, toss together chicken, lemon juice, diced onion, lime juice, oil, Scotch bonnet pepper, and salt until well combined. Cover bowl or seal bag, then marinate in the refrigerator for at least 8 and up to 12 hours.

  2. For the Yassa: Remove chicken from the marinade, scraping off any onions and peppers; discard the marinade. Using paper towels, blot chicken dry. In a Dutch oven, heat oil over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add chicken, skin-side down, and cook until well browned, about 6 minutes. Using a thin metal spatula, turn chicken and cook on second side until browned, about 5 minutes longer. Remove from heat and transfer chicken to a platter.

    Chicken drumsticks browning.

    Jillian Atkinson

  3. Lower heat to medium, add onions, and cook, stirring frequently, until onions are softened, about 7 minutes. Continue to cook, stirring and scraping frequently, until onions are dark brown and caramelized, about 15 minutes. Stir in garlic and mustard and cook until fragrant and slightly softened, about 1 minute.

    Stewed onions topped with garlic and mustard.

    Jillian Atkinson

  4. Add chicken stock, Scotch bonnet pepper, bay leaf, and chicken along with any accumulated juices, nestling chicken pieces into the onions; season lightly with salt and pepper. Bring to a boil over high heat.

    Chicken stock, Scotch bonnet pepper, bay leaf, and chicken boiling.

    Jillian Atkinson

  5. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook, gently stirring and scraping the bottom of the pot occasionally, until chicken is cooked through and beginning to fall from the bone, about 1 hour. Season with salt, if needed. Serve with rice, couscous, or fonio, and lemon or lime wedges.

    Falling-off-the-bone chicken simmering in liquid.

    Jillian Atkinson

Make-Ahead and Storage

The Yassa can be refrigerated for up to 5 days in an airtight container. Reheat gently before serving.