Karl’s Djaj Bil-Bahar Il-Asfar (Iraqi Yellow Spice-Rubbed Chicken)

Adapted from a Saveur recipe

I am constantly looking for new ideas for recipes. I explore the internet with search strings like “ethnic barbecued chicken” just to see what comes up. This week it was Djaj Bil-Bahar Il-Asfar.

Karl’s Djaj Bil-Bahar Il-Asfar (Iraqi Yellow Spice-Rubbed Chicken)

Karl’s Djaj Bil-Bahar Il-Asfar (Iraqi Yellow Spice-Rubbed Chicken)

When I do this search, I look at what others consider a particular dish and come up with something that is similar, but my own. I was not able to do that with this dish. Like my mother’s recipe cards, I was left with an ingredients list and a short cryptic set of instructions to decipher.

While this Saveur recipe claims to be Iranian, I have not been able to find any recipes that are not simply a repetition of this one. I also suspected the use of rose hips in the spice rub, I wondered if this might be a mistranslation. Rose hips are very sour and with the sumac—also very sour—this strikes me as too much of a good thing. Like Kevin, I substituted rose pedals—a fairly common Middle Eastern ingredient.

I am left to stay close to the original recipe and critique the problems I had with making this dish. The ingredients list makes a lot of spice blend—8 tablespoons—and the recipe clearly intends that you use it all. Keeping the spice attached the bird proved to be a challenge.

The original recipe kept the halves of the chicken as one piece. While this made a good presentation at the table, it was difficult to turn on the grill. There is also the problem of the light and dark meats needing cooking times. I will probably separate the breast and leg portions next time.

I also had trouble with the addition of fresh garlic. If you mix it into the spices—which the instructions implied that you should—they form “sandy,” loose clumps—too thick to sprinkle on, but too loose to paste on the meat. Adding oil to the mix—up to four tablespoons—made a sticky paste, but it was still too thick to spread easily over the chicken.

Note: I made my chicken that way, but when I make this dish again—and I will—I will keep the garlic separate from the spices. The recipe below reflects the changes I would make.

The original recipe calls for making eight tablespoons of spice mix and then using it all on a three pound bird. Much of the excess spice fell off during the grilling process. I think this is just a waste and I cut the spice amounts in half—four tablespoons of spice mix is more than enough.

Note: To go with my Iraqi chicken I found some Iraqi sides, tabbouleh and pickled vegetables. You may also serve  the chicken with a flatbread, like pita, as well.

After Dinner Note: This dish was a big hit, normally the five of us will polish off half a chicken. This time the four of us—Eilene is off on an adventure—polished off more than half of the bird.

Karl’s Djaj Bil-Bahar Il-Asfar (Iraqi Yellow Spice-Rubbed Chicken)


6 cloves garlic, mashed into a paste
2 Tbs. olive oil

1 tsp. coriander seeds
1 tsp. cumin seeds
1 tsp. whole black peppercorns
3 cardamom pods
1 dried chiles de árbol, stemmed and seeded
2 allspice berries
2 whole cloves

½ Tbs. rose petals
½ tsp. fenugreek

½ Tbs. curry powder
½ Tbs. ground cinnamon
½ Tbs. ground sumac
1 tsp. ground ginger
½ tsp. nutmeg freshly grated
½ tsp. Kosher salt
¼ tsp. black pepper

1 chicken (3-5 lb.)


1. Crush the garlic and put it in a small cup.

2. Stir the olive oil into the garlic and let it rest for 10 minutes.

3. Toast the coriander, cumin, peppercorns, cardamom, chilies, allspice, and cloves in a small skillet.

Tip: Toast until fragrant, but not burnt, about 1-2 minutes.

4. Let the spices cool and put them in a spice grinder with the rose petals and fenugreek.

5. Process the spices to a fine powder and place them in a small bowl.

Note: Do not put them in the bowl with the garlic and oil.

6. Stir in curry, cinnamon, sumac, ginger, nutmeg, fenugreek, garlic, salt, and pepper and transfer the blend to a spice shaker bottle.

Tip: I save an old spice bottle with a wide holed top for this purpose.

7. Remove the chicken’s back bone with kitchen shears.

Note: Cut along both sides of the back bone and reserve it for soup stock.

8. Cut down the length of the breastbone, to separate the chicken into two halves.

Tip: If you find it easier, separate the breast and leg portions for easier grilling.

Note: If necessary, pin the skin in place over the meat using wooden toothpicks.

9. Without tearing the skin, separate the skin from the breast and leg meat.

Tip: When I roast or barbecue chicken I always try to get as much of the spice under the skin and up against the meat as possible.

10. Rub the garlic oil over the meat and skin.

11. Sprinkle a good amount of the spice blend over the meat of the breasts and legs.

12. Pull the skin back over the meat and sprinkle the rest of the spices over the chicken.

13. Place the chicken in a gallon plastic bag, seal it, and refrigerate overnight.

Tip: Flip the bag once or twice while you are marinating the bird.

14. An hour before grilling, set the chicken on the counter to warm to room temperature.

Tip: Chicken cooks more evenly if it is not chilled from the refrigerator.

15. Start your coals for a charcoal grill or set all the burner of a gas grill to high.

16. Push your coals to one side of the grill to make a bi-level fire or turn the burners off on one side of the gas grill.

17. Place the chicken skin side down on the hot side of the grill, close the grill, and sear the bird for 8-10 minutes.

18. Flip the chicken halves and sear the second side for 8-10 minutes.

19. Transfer the halves, skin side up, to the cool side of the grill and insert a constant read thermometer and close the grill.

Tip: Set the thermometer to sound at 160º F.

20. When the chicken is done, transfer the chicken to a serving plate and tent with foil.

21. The chicken’s interior temperature will rise to a safe 165º F during this rest.

22. Serve the chicken warm with flatbread.


Filed under Chicken, Main Dishes, Sauces and Spices

2 responses to “Karl’s Djaj Bil-Bahar Il-Asfar (Iraqi Yellow Spice-Rubbed Chicken)

  1. Pingback: Karl’s Iraqi Tabbouleh | Jabberwocky Stew

  2. Pingback: Karl’s Torshi, Iraqi Mixed Pickled Vegetables | Jabberwocky Stew

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