Jessica B. Harris' Chicken Yassa

Jessica B. Harris' Chicken Yassa
Lindsay Gardner

Chicken yassa (poulet yassa or yassa ganar in French and Wolof, one of the languages of Senegal) was a linchpin dish for me. I first tasted it in 1972 on my first trip to the African continent, and it was indeed love at first bite. 
I learned how to cook it from friends and recipes, substituting the broiler for the feu malgache (wood-fired grill), over which it traditionally gets an infusion of wood smoke. I consider it my good-luck recipe and have included a version of it in almost all my cookbooks.

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  • ÂĽ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice (from 1 or 2 lemons)
  • 4 large onions, cut into very thin slices
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • â…› teaspoon minced fresh habanero or other hot chile pepper, plus 1 whole habanero chile pepper, pricked with the tines of a fork
  • ÂĽ cup plus 1 tablespoon peanut oil‍
  • One whole chicken (about 3 ½ pounds), gizzard discarded, cut into serving pieces
  • ½ cup pimiento-stuffed olives‍
  • 4 carrots, trimmed and cut crosswise into thin slices
  • 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard‍
  • White rice, for serving


  1. Combine the lemon juice, onions, salt, pepper, minced habanero, and ÂĽ cup of the peanut oil in a gallon-size, resealable plastic bag. Add the chicken pieces and seal the bag; massage to coat evenly. Marinate the chicken in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours.
  2. Position the top oven rack 4 to 6 inches from the broiler element; preheat the broiler. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil. Transfer the chicken pieces from the marinade to the baking sheet, skin side up. (Reserve the onions and the marinade.) Broil the chicken for 8 to 10 minutes, then turn the pieces over and broil for another 8 minutes, until the chicken is browned on both sides (it will not be cooked through).
  3. Meanwhile, heat the remaining tablespoon of peanut oil in a large Dutch oven over medium-low heat. Add the reserved onions, shaking off as much of the marinade as possible, and cook for about 20 minutes, until they are translucent and tender. Add the remaining marinade and stir well; increase the heat to medium and cook, stirring occasionally, until the liquid comes to a low boil.
  4. Add the broiled chicken pieces, pricked habanero, olives, carrots, mustard, and ½ cup water, stirring to mix well. Once the liquid returns to a boil, reduce the heat to medium-low, cover, and cook for 20 minutes, or until the chicken has cooked through. Taste occasionally, and remove the whole habanero when the desired spice level has been reached. Serve hot over white rice.

Celebrated culinary historian, author, scholar, journalist, and educator Jessica B. Harris has dedicated her life to researching and chronicling the cuisines and foodways of the African diaspora and is widely recognized for her unparalleled knowledge on the subject.

Watercolor of Jessica B. Harris by Lindsay Gardner

In the 1970s, Harris traveled to West Africa while working on her doctoral dissertation and to the Caribbean as the first Black woman travel editor for Essence magazine. These experiences gave her a taste of the similarities between the regions’  cuisines,  igniting her passion for studying African American food, history, and culture.

Throughout her decades-long career, Harris has received numerous honors for her trailblazing research and writing, and in 2012, she helped conceptualize the award-winning Sweet Home Café at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC. Harris retired in 2018 after fifty years of teaching at Queens College, but she continues to write, consult, and lecture in the United States and abroad. She splits her time between Brooklyn, New Orleans, and Martha’s Vineyard.

Excerpted from Why We Cook: Women on Food, Identity, and Connection by Lindsay Gardner. Copyright © 2021 by Lindsay Gardner. Art by Lindsay Gardner. Recipe © 2021 by Jessica B. Harris. Used by permission of Workman Publishing Co., Inc., New York. All rights reserved.

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