Persian-style Grilled Chicken

One of our favorite stand-bys for the grill is this lovely Persian style yogurt-marinated chicken. A friend shared her Iranian mother-in-law’s recipe with us in broad strokes, giving general proportions of each ingredient for the marinade. After 8 years of tossing this marinade together every few months, and borrowing a basting technique from well-known Persian chef Najmieh K. Batmanglij in her book, “A Taste of Persia,” I finally had to develop an actual recipe to share with other friends.

The yogurt serves to tenderize as well as flavor the chicken, leaving it moist and juicy even after high grilling. This marinade gets better the longer it has to marry with the chicken, up to 2 days in the coolest part of your refrigerator. Served with lavosh or other flat bread, grilled zucchini and tomatoes, and a yogurt salad, this is an exotic way to break out of the seeming confines of a low-purine diet (see the Gout Diet Challenge) that my dad faces for the next 9 months or so. Basmati rice is another traditional accompaniment.

As is sumac, a coarse dark burgundy colored powder made from the berries of a bush that grows wild in the Middle East and parts of Italy (related to, but not the same as, the poison sumac found in North America). It is an essential flavoring and souring agent in many Middle Eastern cuisines, including Persian. Here it is used as a condiment for the cooked chicken and rice. To be honest, I think I sometimes make this dish because I’m really craving the combination of yogurt, rice and sumac that are essential components of this meal. On Oahu, I finally located a local source for sumac— India Market on South Beretania, near University Ave. (right where King St. becomes a one-way road), has many Middle Eastern pickles and spices, as well as Indian foods, clothing, music and movies.

1/4 cup (30g) plain full-fat yogurt
1/2 cup olive oil
4-6 cloves garlic, minced
Juice from 1 lemon (about 1/4 cup, 60ml)
2 tsp. cumin powder
1/2 tsp. saffron threads, soaked in 2 TBL. water (optional)
sea salt
ground black pepper

1 whole chicken, backbone removed, quartered, and wing tips removed
1 lime, quartered

Combine marinade ingredients in glass bowl or zipper bag. Add chicken, and combine well, massaging marinade under skin and into joints. Cover or zip up, and let marinate at least 8 hours, and up to 3 days.

To prepare to grill, remove chicken from refrigerator about 30 minutes before it is set to go on the grill (i.e., while the grill is pre-heatting or the charcoal coming up to cooking temperature). Make basting sauce.

Basting Sauce:
Juice of 1 lime (about 2 tsp.)
3 TBL.. unsalted butter, melted
sea salt
ground black pepper

Combine ingredients and blend well to dissolve salt.

Remove chicken from marinade and discard marinade. Place chicken on grill, skin-side down first. Turn over and baste liberally. Grill until each piece runs clear when cut near the joint, basting each time the chicken is turned. Remove fully cooked chicken from grill, and immediately squeeze lime juice over.

Serve with lavosh, basmati rice, grilled vegetables, yogurt salad, and liberally sprinkled with sumac.

Note on cutting chicken for serving: In the U.S., we generally cut a half-breast at the joint between breast and wing, leaving a tasty but tiny wing piece and a rather over-sized breast portion. Here’s a more equitable cut —cut through the lower third of the breast so some white meat goest with the wing, and further divide the remaining part in two. This will allow more diners to get a share of white meat, if they like, and it encourages portion control as well.