Cinnamon, allspice and cloves may conjure images of dessert in the U.S., but in Greece they are just as likely to add warm, spicy notes to savory dishes. Most often, that trio is paired with tomatoes, creating a rich, surprisingly balanced sauce with just hints of sweetness.
In the dish kota kapama, that combination becomes a braise for chicken that is enhanced by the deeply sweet-savory flavor of tomato paste. The result is a bold boost of umami that transforms chicken.
“In the eastern Mediterranean, not just Greece, tomato paste is like soy sauce is for Asia,” says Aglaia Kremezi, a Greek cookbook author. “It has umami. It has everything. A good tomato paste is really wonderful.” We’re inclined to agree.
Mixing cinnamon and tomatoes, common across Greece, is a holdover from medieval kitchens, where sweet spices often were used in savory dishes, Kremezi says. She learned it from her mother as a way to balance the tomatoes’ acidity, similar to Italians adding a teaspoon of sugar to tomato sauce.
At Milk Street, we loved the warmly spiced combination, but suspected a few easy adjustments could boost the flavor. We started by browning the tomato paste, which added an intense, caramelized depth to the sauce. We also minimized the liquid used in the braise to concentrate all of the flavors.
For the spices, we seasoned bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs with cinnamon and allspice (cloves overwhelmed the other flavors) and browned them in a Dutch oven. Deglazing the pan with just a half-cup of dry white wine added brightness and kept the flavors concentrated.
Limiting the braising liquid was the right choice. As the chicken cooked with chopped fresh tomatoes in the covered pot, the ingredients released their natural moisture. This allowed the spices and tomatoes to meld into a bold, distinctive sauce. The result: sweet spices that took a savory turn.
Braising meats with minimal liquid in a cover pot allows the meat to cook gently in its own juices, The method concentrates juices that can later make richly flavored sauces.