First let’s get the formal intros out of the way — Chicken Tapaka is a simple dish from Republic of Georgia, a nice hospitable country in the heart of Caucasus Mountains. It’s called tapaka after a skillet tapa, in which it’s prepared. Tapa is a close relative of our cast iron skillet with an addition of a very heavy flat lid which fits inside it. The purpose of the lid is not to cover the skillet, but rather press down the food that’s cooked in it.
A small chicken, or a cornish hen is being cut along the middle of the breast, wishbone removed. It then is flattened with a mallet as much as possible to ensure even cooking, seasoned with basic spices, and fried in butter, pressed down with the aforementioned heavy lid. Sounds simple enough? Good.
Now, of course none of us have the space, nor the money, to have a single-purpose item such as tapa in their household, on the off chance that one day we may have a hankering for some Tapaka Chicken. At least I know I don’t. So we have to improvise with the press. The best way to press down the chicken (and in the meantime avoid most of the frying spatter on and around the stove) is to use a flat plate that would fit inside the skillet, and put something heavy on top of it — some examples would include a tea pot filled with water, a heavy can, another cast iron skillet, etc. It will all work, as long as the surface that comes in contact with the chicken is completely flat. In my case, a smaller cast iron skillet did the trick quite nicely, and though it left some space around it for the grease to spatter about, the chicken didn’t suffer one bit.
Why, you would ask, am I talking about going to all the lengths to find a good press and a nicely fitting lid, and then end up cleaning up the grease off the stove? Oh, that’s because the chicken is that good. It’s totally worth the minor troubles that come with the cooking, if you dare to call these troubles. Inside all of the simplicity, a great deal of flavor is hidden. And all of it can be available to you in mere 25 minutes, during which your presence will be only required 3-4 times to flip the chicken. You could use the rest of that time to make a nice green salad like I did, or to catch up on your Facebooking, or… whatever you can fit between chicken flipping.
This simple dish packed with wonderful flavor is a mere introduction into the world of Georgian fabulous cookery. If you haven’t tried anything from Georgia, you should definitely give a dish or two a try. Whether it’s a walnut enhanced dish such as Satzivi, or an enticing meat stuffed pouch such as Khinkali, or a hearty and spicy soup Kharcho, fragrant chicken in tomato sauce Chakhokhbili, or any other, you’ll be glad you did, because it will be worth your trouble. And you can always clean the greasy spatter later…
serves 2 reasonably hungry people
- 1 small chicken or rock Cornish game hen (about 1 to 1-1/2 lbs)
- 1-2 garlic cloves
- coarse salt
- about 1/2 tsp cayenne
- 3 tbsp butter
You will need a heavy cast iron skillet and a flat lid or a plate that will fit inside it, to press the chicken down. If using a plate, find a heavy object, such as a brick, another cast iron skillet, a tea kettle filled with water, or a heavy can to weigh the plate down.
Cut the chicken on the front along the middle of the breast with a sharp knife. Carefully remove the wish bone, and the front of the ribcage if desire.
Spread the chicken open, laying it flat on the chopping board. Using a flat side of a tenderizing mallet or a meat pounder, flatten the chicken as much as you can.
Rub the chicken skin all over with crushed garlic cloves dipped in coarse salt. Alternatively, you can mince the garlic, mix it with salt and rub it in.
Sprinkle chicken on both sides with cayenne.
Heat the skillet on medium high and melt the butter in it.
Place chicken skin side up in the skillet, thus dipping it in butter, then immediately turn to coat. Leave it in the skillet skin side down, press down with the plate or a lid, and weigh it down. Fry for 5 minutes or so, until the skin is nicely browned. Turn the chicken to the other side, cover, weigh down and cook for 15 minutes.
Reduce the heat to medium. Turn the chicken yet again (skin side down), press and weigh down, and cook for another 10 minutes.
Serve with Tkemali (sour plum sauce from Georgia) or Ketchup, fresh cilantro, olives, sweet ripe tomatoes, or a nice fresh green salad.