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Recipe Blogging: Joojeh Kebab

Well, as threatened, I’ll be putting up a few recipes over the holiday season, in the spirit of “Never trust an organic chemist who can’t cook”. This one is a classic kebab recipe from my wife’s side of the family – ask any Iranian, and they’ll know about joojeh kebab. I keep thinking it would make a great fast-food choice, but my wife doesn’t seem to be interested in working the drive-through window, so that dream may have to wait. Note that this is often served with grilled or broiled plum tomatoes and chunks of grilled onion, so feel free to add those in on the side if you like.

3.5 lbs (c. 1.5 kg) chicken parts, bone-in (this can be done with boneless chicken as well, but that’s less traditional. In that case, I prefer boneless thighs instead of boneless breast, which I find a bit bland, but it’s your call).

1 large onion, well chopped

Juice of one to two limes (about 1/4 cup, c. 50 mL)

One teaspoon salt (5.5 to 6g)

1/8 teaspoon saffron, which comes out to a “large pinch”. No idea of the weight in grams unfortunately. My wife’s conviction is that Iranian saffron is the best in the world, and that may well be more than mere patriotism. The saffron from northern India is supposed to be pretty good as well. Spanish saffron is the most widely available, but I have no experience with it myself).

Marinate the chicken pieces in the mixture of the chopped onion, lime juice, and salt in a large nonreactive bowl, stirring to make sure that everything gets covered. This needs to go for at least an hour at room temperature, but it can sit for longer in the fridge (several hours), and that’s probably a better way to go. But if you wait too long, or if you chopped the onions into a fine slush or something, the resulting dish will be a bit oniony, but still perfectly edible.

This dish can be made either outdoors on a grill (the preferred method) or indoors under a broiler, if the weather is keeping you from kebabbing. Either way, before you put the chicken onto the heat, you’ll want to put a small amount of boiling water (1/8 cup, 25 mL or so) onto the saffron in a small cup or glass and let it sit for ten minutes or so to extract the flavor.Some folks put some butter in there to melt along with it. (The main flavor compounds in saffron are water-soluble, being glycosides like picrocrocin, but the aglycons of those (like safranal) are more lipid-soluble).

As with any grilled or broiled chicken recipe, you’ll probably want to start the dark-meat pieces first and give them a heat start. Cook everything under high heat, turning frequently, and basting with the saffron solution as you do. The onion juice will tend to make things brown well, and you should make sure that every piece has some saffron splashed across it as well, giving a festive multicolored look to the final product. You’ll have to make the call about when it’s done, since heating sources are going to vary so much, but in general an entire chicken, in pieces, should be done in roughly twenty minutes, depending on the setup.

This is traditionally served with Iranian-style basmati rice, which is a recipe of its own (especially if you want the saffron-flavored rice crust at the bottom, known as tahdeek, and most Iranians certainly do). I’ll post that during this holiday season as well, but fear not, joojeh kebab, in my experience, goes with most anything. I like it in the summer, off the grill, but it’s perfectly welcome in the wintertime as well. Enjoy!

22 comments on “Recipe Blogging: Joojeh Kebab”

  1. Oblarg says:

    Being of Turkish/Armenian descent myself, it’s always nice to see how the differing approaches to kebab all the countries in that part of the world have. Will have to try this when the weather gets nicer.

    A nifty trick: The easiest doneness test for grilled tomatoes is that they’re cooked when they slide off of an inclined skewer. Also, be sure to never put vegetables and meat on the same skewer like you sometimes see pre-prepared at the supermarket – they cook at different rates, it’s just a bad idea.

    1. Anon says:

      “The easiest doneness test for grilled tomatoes is that they’re cooked when they slide off of an inclined skewer.”

      At what angle?

      1. Oblarg says:

        About 45 degrees, maybe a bit steeper. Sometimes it takes a bit of a shake to get them started. But if you can’t get them to slide off the skewer under their own weight, they’re not done.

    2. Derek Lowe says:

      I hadn’t thought about the sliding-tomato idea, but that sounds about right. And you’re absolutely correct about mixing vegetables and meat on the same skewer – it makes no sense whatsoever. I’ve never seen anyone from a kebabocentric culture do anything of the kind, just American supermarkets.

  2. jbosch says:

    I’m getting hungry here – collecting some last minute data.
    Does this work with lamb as well ?

  3. anon says:

    Before and after pics please.

  4. Ann O'Nymous says:

    “The main flavor compounds in saffron are water-soluble, being glycosides like picrocrocin, but the aglycons of those (like safranal) are more lipid-soluble.”

    This right here is why I read Dr. Lowe’s blog, and not, say,

  5. Chris says:

    Cooked this for Christmas Eve supper last night, Colours are brilliant and the aroma is fabulous. The children now want this every year.

  6. Mark Thorson says:

    My kebab suggestions are a) half a Brussels sprout on each end keeps vegetables from sliding off a skewer prematurely, b) chicken or prawns are best when wrapped with half a slice of bacon (bacon should be pan-fried to the soft stage first, to keep them from dripping too much fat into the fire), c) avocado chunk take on a nice caky texture when grilled on a skewer though they get rather soft and may need a little support to stay together like a wrapping of bacon, and d) watch out for hot liquid spurting out when eating grilled whole cherry tomatoes.

  7. universal says:

    Any tips on a saffron source in Boston/Cambridge? It’s about $5/pinch at Star Mart, which is the only place I’ve found.

    1. universal says:

      Star Market I mean… Somehow I always make that mistake.

    2. Mark Thorson says:

      If there’s a Trader Joe’s around there, try their spice section. I haven’t bought any for a few years, but they had a very generous little jar of very good saffron for a very reasonable price. I had a chance to satisfy all my curiousity about the saffron space.

      1. Sigivald says:


        TJ’s has the best prices I’ve seen, and their saffron is certainly aromatic and effective enough that I can’t see a problem with it.

    3. Ann O'Nymous says:

      When buying spices you don’t want the little baggie that has been on the shelf since 2005 because no one ever shops for it at that store. Here in the ‘burbs of Northern VA I get all my spices at the Asian (Korean/Indian) supermarket because whatever they stock gets continually bought and refreshed. along those lines, then, there is a Super Hero’s in Watertown that would have it. Lots of Persian shoppers there, which means the stock gets turned over regularly, hence more likely to be fresh.

  8. Nick K says:

    I find it fascinating that a compound like safranal (a conjugated dienal), which would give most med chemists nightmares (double Michael acceptor!!) is found abundantly in saffron, a food product.

    1. Antiaromatic says:

      In fairness, safranal must be an absolutely horrid Michael acceptor. The gem dimethyl and the vinyl methyl group pretty well guarantee that the aldehyde carbonyl is forced to tilt out of the plane of the ring and therefore have little if any conjugation to the diene.

  9. g l carlson says:

    Spice source: Penzey’s. Some retail locations, but they’ll ship anywhere. It’s like Aldrich for spices.

  10. Derek Lowe says:

    Penzey’s is a good idea if you don’t have any good ethnic markets near you. The advice to go to the groceries that turn the spices over quickly is very sound, too. We keep our own saffron supply around here in either the fridge or freezer, BTW. Another thing to note about some of the Watertown stores (and it may be true for others) is that some of the Armenian stores have something much cheaper that’s occasionally labeled as saffron, but most certainly isn’t. It’s calendula flower, which will give a faint yellow-orange color and (so I’ve heard) no taste whatsoever. Basically, if it’s not expensive, it’s not saffron. That doesn’t mean that you can’t buy expensive stuff that isn’t all saffron, either – my wife and her mother suspect some of the stock is adulterated with dye to make it look like a better grade, for example.

  11. mohsen says:

    You should try “Ghormeh Sabzi” it is also a delicious and popular food in Iran

    1. Derek Lowe says:

      Gormeh sabzi is indeed good stuff – my wife makes it sometimes. But it’s substantially more work than joojeh kebab. Frying down all the green herbs without burning them or making them mushy/slimy is a bit of an art form.

  12. Wow these look soo good. Bet they taste amazing. Thanks for sharing this recipe.


  13. Loma Baiba says:

    Yeah this recipe is quite helpful but when comes to cook by self I always lack to make it tastful & delicious, that’s why I always order kebab delivery in the evening.

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