Fried chicken is the stuff of legends. The centerpiece of Southern cuisine, it’s been lamented in songs, pop culture, and has even been known to cause a few riffs in our day. When made properly with a crunchy, golden brown coating, it is one of the most ridiculously delicious things you will ever consume. A variation, Nashville hot chicken, has since taken the entire country by storm. From casual fast-food eateries, to upscale Los Angeles establishments, hot chicken has quickly made a name for itself as the superior vessel for poultry.
Chef Cyndi Sterne of Yes, Chef! Culinary Events who collaborated with Mashed on this recipe, is all too familiar with the famous dish after living in the South for over three decades. As head of her own culinary space, she’s hosted everything from private events, to chef-driven pop ups. Her encounters with many different people, from all walks of life, has been the inspiration for her unique spin on the classic dish, Harissa Fried Chicken with Tahini Sauce.
Sterne explains: "For the past ten years, I have been fortunate to host visiting chefs from the Middle East to teach classes at my cooking school. That’s when I was first introduced to the magic of tahini and the kick of Harissa. I’ve also been fortunate enough to travel to the Middle East and dine at their restaurants and shops in local markets. Living in the South for 30 years, this is my take on our claim to fame."
Begin by prepping the chicken
First thing’s first, we have to prep the most important element of this dish, the bird. Chef Sterne suggests using skin on chicken, such as thighs, legs, and breasts, If you’re looking to make this more accessible to the picky eater or a child, she suggests using chicken tenders. Tenders would also work well if preparing this dish for a crowd or party. Boneless chicken thighs could also be used if turning this dish into a sandwich. You’ll begin by pouring the harissa on top of the chicken and marinating for up to an hour.
Harissa may not be in your normal kitchen arsenal, but it is a wonderful ingredient to keep on hand. This hot chili pepper paste is native to North Africa and consists mainly of a variant of pepper, such as roasted red peppers, with added spices and herbs. Sterne prefers to use the brand Mina, which comes in either spicy or mild. For some variation, she also suggests some helpful alternatives. "You can add the harissa to buttermilk or yogurt to brine your chicken for a few hours. If you can’t find harissa, but want a kick, add your favorite hot sauce to the buttermilk or yogurt. Brining is especially useful if you decide to use boneless thighs or tenders."
Prepare the tahini sauce for your fried chicken
You’ve likely had this Mediterranean delight along with some hummus at your favorite Greek spot. This wonderful sauce is made from toasted sesame seeds and adds a bright earthy-ness to any dish. While the tahini used in this recipe is store brought (you could attempt making it on your own), the sauce is created by adding fresh lemon juice, water, and kosher salt. It’s surprisingly simple to make and with the added bonus of it keeping for up to two weeks in the fridge. It’s also delicious served on other types of meat and roasted vegetables. Chef Sterne’s tahini of choice is Soom, but anything you could get your hands on in the grocery store will do. When preparing the tahini sauce, you’ll likely deal with some clumping, but whisking and water will do the trick. Once it’s reaches the consistency of syrup, you’re good to go.
Prepare for your fry for this tahini fried chicken
Once the tahini sauce is prepared and as the chicken is marinating, it’s time to prep your egg and flour mixture. Sterne uses a bit of paprika in the flour mixture to round out the overall peppery profile of the dish. Paired with the harissa brine, this will give it that smoky, yet sweet flavor. This is also the time to decide how hot you’d like to go. Sterne explains: "Some harissa will indicate the heat level on the jar. If you want to kick it up a notch, add one or two chopped hot peppers… anything from a jalapeno to a Habanero."
Next, you’re going to prep your oil in a large, heavy pot. Sterne prefers a cast iron, but a Dutch oven or something similar would also work. This will help the crust adhere and lock in the flavor. You’re also going to set out a rack so it’s readily available once the chicken is fried. Now is a crucial point in the recipe: making sure the oil is hot enough. We repeat: the oil MUST be hot enough.
Time to fry the chicken
Once you’ve determined that the oil is hot enough, it’s time to throw those birds in! Be careful not to add more than four pieces of chicken at a time so that they cook thoroughly and evenly. A crowded pan will produce oily and undercooked chicken. Thanks to Sterne’s depth of experience, she’s gotten it down to an art.
She explains: "The key to crispy fried chicken that doesn’t taste greasy, is making sure your oil remains at a consistent temperature. You should have about two to three inches of oil in your pot, and it should be at 350 degrees. Make sure that you turn your chicken pieces every 10 to 15 minutes to ensure they cook evenly. Bone-in pieces create a juicier piece of chicken. You can even finish bone-in chicken in the oven at 350 to ensure that it is cooked all the way through."
Once the juices run clear, the chicken should be done and your internal temperature should reach 165 degrees. The finished product should be deep golden brown in appearance.
When your harissa fried chicken is done, it’s dinner time
Your golden-brown harissa fried chicken is best when served immediately. A light drizzle of tahini sauce will go a long way and black sesame seeds make for the perfect garnish while offering a subtle nutty taste to the dish. If you’re looking to keep your meal authentic, Sterne suggests pairing this with a vinegar-based cabbage or carrot salad and falafel. Both options would even out the spice levels from the harissa. This could also be served with a simple salad of diced tomatoes and cucumbers with finely chopped parsley and a squeeze of lemon.