“You know, a-chiff, a-choff.”
That was my great-grandmother’s response when my mom asked why her signature chicken dish was called chiff choff. The way my mom tells it, my great-grandmother’s answer was accompanied with a hand flipping movement, seemingly implying that “chiff” and “choff” means either to flip or to pan fry. Though that appears to be untrue. Maybe she was being coy with my mother in an effort to protect the shrouded history of this dish. What is more likely, however, is that in addition to speaking rough English she was simply too busy to be seriously interested in the frivolousness that is food anthropology. Chiff choff, in my house, is simply prepared by taking bone-in chicken thighs, dusting them in seasoned flour, searing them, and then cooking them with a jar of hot cherry peppers. The spicy, vinegary peppers merge with the fond from the chicken, creating an addictively toothsome sauce, and what you’re left with is a kind of Italian hot chicken adobo. It reads Filipino in a way, especially the manner in which the prominent brine explodes through the chicken.
I never questioned the origins of chiff choff until last year when I decided to copy a good chunk of my grandmother’s cookbook. My intention was to print out her most familiar recipes to serve as an outline for whenever I endeavor to recreate the flavors of my youth. Flipping through the binder, chiff choff immediately stood out like an old friend who had gone missing. God, whatever happened to you, pal? Soon after, I would often find myself staring at a copy of her handwritten recipe for chiff choff. “Where the hell did this come from?” I earnestly asked my dog.
My great-grandmother’s alleged non-answer only piqued my interest more, and soon “chiff choff” started to roll around my brain late at night like the word “redrum.” Left with burning questions about the dish’s origins, I started to dig around online like a detective scouring a courthouse for old unsolved murders. The first thing I found out was that the chiffchaff is a type of bird, so perhaps chiff choff is simply meant to signify “a dish of chicken.” Still, that’s broad and does nothing to trace back the history of the tangy hot chicken I grew up eating. But I love a good low-stakes obsession, so I kept searching even though the information was uninspiring.
The results of a Google search are scarce, the components varied, and all over the damned map. According to the menu at Barsanti’s, the restaurant in the the Root River Golf Club in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, chiff choff is “an Italian tradition” made from “seasoned chicken giblets, sauteed with chili peppers and slow cooked with tomatoes and mushrooms.” An obituary for the late Gena Bumbacco-Bouchard, also of Sault Ste. Marie, recalls that nothing made her happier than bringing people together with her wonderful cooking, especially her “meatballs, chiff-choff, and crumb cake.” Malamalama School’s Rainbow Cookbook, a Hawaiian text published in 1993, has a recipe titled “Chicken Dirodis (Chiff Choff)” that includes cayenne, vinegar, mushrooms, and soy sauce.
Near as I can tell, the word “chiff choff” is derived from Italian sofrit (meaning “to fry”). I immediately connected it to the old Italian men in my hometown who would speak of a dish with this name, though I myself never had it. Sofrit is essentially the same dish as the aforementioned chiff choff from Barsanti’s: chicken gizzards, chili peppers, and tomatoes stewed together and eaten with crusty bread. This is a very old-world Italian dish in that it utilizes offal, but here I am hitting replay on memories of my childhood that prominently feature bone-in chicken thighs. I’m not seeing anything online that says to use chicken thighs, and truly I don’t even know if anyone outside of my family does it, but I’m guessing it became more popular once Italians got settled in America. I can certainly imagine sofrit morphing into chiff choff through the discovery of readily available cuts of meat at the American supermarket. Chiff choff has the heart and soul of country Italian cuisine, but it’s got the traces of early Rust Belt Italian immigrants, too. It exists on two planes, and so I have created a recipe that celebrates both.
This dish is tangy and toothsome. The peppers are spicy, yes, but the brine shines brightest. The recipe I’ve constructed works on two levels: You get the delicious, crispy, meaty thighs cooked in hot peppers and vinegar like I had growing up, but there is also a refined sauce that forms with the addition of white wine and butter. That sauce pairs excellently with crusty bread. Chiff choff is a dish, I have decided, that is best when we allow it to embrace all stages of its journey.
- 2 bone-in chicken thighs (mine weighed 1¼ lbs.)
- 2 Tbsp. vegetable oil
- ½ cup all-purpose flour
- 1 Tbsp. salt
- 2 tsp. pepper
- 2 tsp. paprika
- 1 tsp. garlic powder
- 1 (16-oz.) container of whole hot cherry peppers (I used Cento)
- 1 Tbsp. olive oil
- 1 tsp. crushed red pepper
- ½ small white onion, diced
- 3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
- ¼ cup white wine
- 2 Tbsp. butter
In a Dutch oven, heat the vegetable oil over low to medium-low heat. Dust the chicken thighs in the seasoned flour, making sure each side is coated well. Place them skin side down in the pan and cook for 30-35 minutes. Move every so often if needed, but the skin should be dark brown and crispy, so cook longer if needed. Flip and cook for another 10 minutes. Remove the chicken from the pan and place on a separate dish. Discard the vegetable oil.
Put the pot back on medium heat and add the olive oil, garlic, onion, and crushed red pepper. Stir until fragrant and golden, about 2 minutes, while scraping up any brown bits of fond from the chicken. Next, add the white wine and reduce by half, about 2 minutes. Now take your jar of hot cherry peppers and remove each pepper. Squish the peppers into the pan with your hands like you’re making a tomato sauce with a jar of plump, whole peeled tomatoes. Crush them further with a wooden spoon if you have to. It’s fine if they’re a little chunky. Add about a quarter cup of the jar’s liquid to the pan. Stir, bring the heat back to low, and put the chicken thighs back in. Spoon the mixture over the chicken for a minute or two. A quick basting will go a long way. Put a cover on the pot and cook for an additional 15-20 minutes over low heat.
Remove the chicken thighs to a separate plate and spoon some of the peppers on top. Serve shortly after. Add the two tablespoons of butter to the remaining peppers and liquid, stirring so that it emulsifies with the sauce. Once it has, transfer it to a bowl and serve with crusty bread alongside your chicken.