SAFFRON, TURMERIC & LEMON-MARINATED CHICKEN KEBAB (JOOJEH KEBAB) with saffron yoghurt,
Jujeh (or Joojeh), meaning chicken or grilled chicken in Persian, is a kebab of Iranian origin and a staple on menu of any self-respecting Persian grill house. I’ve had it countless times in countless different forms; some on the bone, others boneless chunks of breast; some a wonderful luminous orange from the saffron, others more yellow from the turmeric. The one consistent being that it’s always delicious in its simplicity.
Try to give the chicken as much time to marinade as possible, since the turmeric stains it a beautiful yellow and the colouring intensifies with time.
The key to these kebabs is to grill them close to the embers, and to keep them turning so that they don’t burn. If you find they’re colouring too quickly on the outside without cooking through, adjust the set up to indirect and finish them off set from the coals with the barbecue lid. Or else adjust the heat of the fire by shovelling the coals some place else. (Whilst I would always advocate cooking these kebabs over charcoal, if you don't have outdoor space, or a barbecue, you can cook these on a ridged skillet pan heated to smoking hot, just to get some nice char marks, and then transfer to the oven (200c/180c fan) to finish.)
I like to use boneless chicken thigh, which for me is the most tender and juicy cut from the bird, skewered whole to retain more moisture through the cook. A flat 2cm wide metal skewer works best here, woven through each thigh several times to keep them securely affixed. Try to ensure that the meat is well skewered and doesn’t dangle. As with most things in life, a bit of practice goes a long way.
2 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
1 onion, coarsely grated
juice of 2 lemons
1 tbsp ground turmeric
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp salt
½ tsp coarse black pepper
120ml saffron water (a generous pinch of saffron soaked in 120ml boiling water and left to infuse for 15 minutes)
2 tbsp full-fat natural yoghurt
1½ tbsp vegetable oil
8 chicken thighs, deboned, cleaned, skinned and cut in half
1 red onion, sliced to 1cm rounds
1 lemon, sliced into 0.5cm rounds
4 flat metal skewers, approximately 2cm wide and 16-18” long
50ml saffron water (A pinch of saffron infused with boiling water for 10 minutes)
1 garlic clove, grated
160g Greek yoghurt
1½ tbsp lemon juice
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
pita or flatbread for 4
2 tbsp Olive Oil
1 tbsp pomegranate seeds
1 tbsp finely chopped parsley
pinch of za’atar
Chilli sauce (optional)
FOR THE CHICKEN THIGHS: Put the garlic, onion, lemon juice, spices, salt and pepper in a bowl and stir to combine. In a separate bowl, combine the saffron water with the yoghurt and vegetable oil, and stir together until well mixed. Add the garlic and onion mixture to this bowl. Pat the chicken thighs dry and add them to the marinade. Massage the mixture into the chicken to ensure it’s evenly distributed and well coated in the marinade. Cover the bowl and leave in the fridge for 4–6 hours or preferably overnight. The flavours will intensify the more time it is given.
FOR THE SAFFRON YOGHURT: Combine all of the ingredients in a bowl and stir well. Set aside in the fridge until required. The flavours will improve and the colour of the yoghurt will intensify with time, so it’s best prepared at the same time as marinating the chicken. Whisk or stir the yoghurt one last time just before serving.
TO FINISH THE CHICKEN: Set a barbecue up for single-zone, direct grilling ensuring you are cooking on hot embers. Weave the halved, marinated chicken pieces onto the flat metal skewers, making sure the chicken is well affixed and grill directly over the burning coals, turning frequently to ensure both sides are well coloured and the chicken is cooked all the way through when checked with a knife (or to an internal temperature of 70°C or above when probed with a thermometer). Whilst the chicken is cooking, blacken the onion and lemon slices on both sides.
TO GARNISH AND SERVE: Brush the pitas or flatbreads with a little garlic oil mixed with a drop of water, and warm through briefly on the grill. They can be placed directly on top of the skewers if there isn’t sufficient room on the barbecue grill.
Remove the pitas and transfer to a serving platter. Place the skewered chicken thighs atop, brushed with olive oil and drizzle the saffron yoghurt over everything. Top with the red onion and lemon slices, pomegranate seeds, parsley and za’atar. Serve with chilli sauce if using.
USEFUL ADVICE: If the fire is too strong and the chicken is burning on the outside without cooking sufficiently internally, shuffle the coals to one side of the barbecue and transfer the chicken skewers to the opposite side. Put a lid on the barbecue and continue to cook the chicken thighs indirectly until they are cooked all the way through.