Joojeh Kabob – Grilled saffron chicken kebabs

Kebabs are ground meat or pieces of chicken, beef, or lamb that are skewered and typically cooked on hot glowing charcoal. One of the key signatures of kebabs is the lengthy marination process in which ingredients such as yogurt, fresh citrus, onions, and spices build in flavors and tenderize the meat.  

Joojeh Kabob is a traditional Persian chicken kebab that is relatively easy to prepare and offers remarkably colorful, tasty, and tender pieces of chicken. Joojeh, sometimes spelled Jujeh, is the Farsi word for young chicken. While it may be difficult to identify the age of the chicken at the grocery store, it is always best to use organically raised and fed chicken where possible.

Pieces of boneless, skinless chicken breast or thighs are first marinated briefly in a vibrant solution of bloomed saffron to give the chicken the signature color and flavor profile. Then, yogurt, onions, and lime juice are added for a longer marination period to gently tenderize the chicken pieces and layer in additional flavors. The end result is exceptionally tender pieces of brightly-colored, flavor-packed kebabs that are a reflection of the high-quality chosen ingredients of saffron and tart fresh citrus.

The traditional and preferred method of cooking kebab is to use long metal skewers and suspend them directly over hot charcoal without a grill grate, to prevent the meat from sticking to the grate. Smaller metal or previously soaked wooden skewers can also be used to prepare Joojeh Kabob. 

Persian cuisine is highly influenced by saffron, which is represented in many savory and sweet dishes, and particularly in sauces. Saffron is the world’s most expensive spice, and Iran is one of the world’s largest saffron producers and exporters. Its production from crocus flowers is highly labor-intensive: each flower produces 3 stigmas that are handpicked and dried before packaging. The resultant deep red, trumpet-shaped thread offers a somewhat sweet floral note with a slightly bitter flavor profile.  While there are no substitutes for the flavor of saffron, for this recipe it can be replaced with the same amount of turmeric to develop the familiar yellow-orange coloring of the kebabs. 

My fondest memories of Kebabs come from the restaurants along the side of the road on our way from Tehran to vacation by the Caspian Sea. On weekends at home in Tehran, my father would frequently grill kebabs on our small table-top gas grill. My mother would have already prepared a large pot of steamed basmati rice and all the various side dishes, and I would eagerly anticipate the completion of the grilling process to embark on a delicious feast!

Joojeh Kabob is often placed over thin Lavash bread or a sourdough-based flatbread called Sangak, a Persian specialty that is cooked on hot pebbles. After soaking up the freshly grilled kebab juices, these flatbreads are incredibly tasty, and are highly sought after by kids and adults alike. 

Joojeh Kabob is served with various grilled vegetables such as tomatoes, onions, or bell peppers; heaping amounts of steamed basmati rice; an assortment of pickled vegetables; a handful of fresh herbs; and yogurt.  Yogurt, another favorite ingredient in Persian cuisine, is practically a mandatory item on any spread, served plain or mixed with cucumbers and mint, or with minced shallots and garlic. Lastly, a traditional Persian yogurt-based drink called Doogh is the most traditional companion for kebabs. 

A sprinkling of sumac over the chicken pieces delivers that final touch! Sumac spice, a ground dried berry from the sumac shrub, is a true favorite in Persian and most middle eastern cultures and offers an enticingly deep red color along with a lemony-sharp, tart flavor.

Joojeh Kabob is a true demonstration of a very significant characteristic of Persian cuisine: the flavors are developed slowly and patiently and built layer by layer. Perhaps it is no surprise that kebabs are such a popular dish in Iran and other middle eastern cuisines.

This recipe was published at The Spruce Eats.

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Jujeh Kabob

Omid Roustaei, The Caspian Chef
Chicken kebabs
5 from 1 vote
Prep Time 20 mins
Cook Time 10 mins
marinating time 8 hrs
Total Time 8 hrs 30 mins
Course main, Main Course
Cuisine Iranian, Persian
Servings 4

Ingredients
  

  • 1 teaspoon saffron threads
  • 6 tablespoons water
  • 2 1/2 pounds chicken breasts or thighs, cut into 1 1/2 inch pieces
  • 1 cup yogurt
  • 1 large onion, thinly sliced
  • 4 tablespoons fresh lime juice
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Baste

  • 1 tablespoon butter, melted
  • 2 tablespoons saffron water, from above
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice

Instructions
 

  • Using a smooth mortar and pestle, ground the saffron threads to a fine powder. Add the saffron powder to a small bowl and add the water to bloom the saffron. Stir and set aside.
  • Combine the chicken and 4 tablespoons of the saffron water mixture in a large mixing bowl, gently toss, cover, and place in the refrigerator for 1 hour. The chicken will continue to be infused with saffron’s bright yellow-orange color, aroma, and flavor.
  • Combine the yogurt, onion, lime juice, olive oil, salt, and pepper in a separate medium-sized mixing bowl. Transfer them to the large mixing bowl with the chicken and saffron mixture.
  • Mix well using a spatula, cover, and place the chicken in the refrigerator to marinate for a minimum of 2 hours, but preferably overnight.
  • Begin preparing your charcoal or gas grill well in advance to make sure the grill is hot and ready by the time you are ready to grill the chicken.
  • Remove the chicken from the fridge and push the metal or previously soaked wooden skewers one by one through the chicken pieces. The number of pieces on each skewer will depend on the length of your skewer and your choice of charcoal or gas grill. A good rule of thumb is to make sure the chicken pieces are not overcrowded on the skewer while also leaving some space at either end of the skewer.
  • Place the skewers on a large platter or a baking sheet. Gently tap the skewers against the tray to shake off any excess marinade.
  • Be sure to discard the remaining marinade to avoid any risk of food contamination.
  • Prepare the baste by mixing the gently melted butter, the remaining 2 tablespoons of saffron water, and the fresh lime juice.
  • Place the skewers on the grill and cook the kebabs for about 4-5 minutes on each side, basting frequently. The grilling time will vary depending on the temperature and strength of your gas grill.
  • Remove the kebabs from the grill and place them on a clean, unused platter once the internal temperature of the chicken pieces has reached 165°F.
  • Serve the Joojeh Kabob with grilled vegetables, flatbread of your choice, or a pot of steamed basmati rice.

Notes

  • For best results, give yourself plenty of time to marinate the chicken as it continues to deepen its flavor while also tenderizing. If overnight marination is not feasible, marinate for at least 3 hours total time. 
  • If using wooden skewers, be sure to soak them in water for at least 15 minutes before threading the chicken pieces.  
  • If using a gas grill, apply a small amount of neutrally flavored oil to the grill grates, using a paper towel and a pair of tongs, to decrease the likelihood of the chicken sticking to the grates.
  • Alternatively, Joojeh Kabob can be cooked on a stovetop grill pan or in the oven, with or without skewers.
  • For the stovetop grill, cook on medium-high heat for about 4-5 minutes on each side until you see visible grill marks and searing. 
  • For the oven method,  place the skewered kebabs on a baking sheet and transfer them to a 400℉ pre-heated oven. Bake for about 20 minutes, before finishing them off under the broiler for 3-4 minutes, making sure the chicken is cooked to an internal temperature of 165℉. 
Keyword chicken kebab, grilling, jujeh kabob, kabob, kebab, saffron
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