Before nose-to-tail eating brought it back on the Western culinary landscape, offal was my connection back to a culture that felt entirely unknown to the eighties and nineties America of my childhood. From aggressive lack of queuing and security holes at the beach, down to doily-crocheting grandmas who fed kitchen scraps to alley cats, that Israel was rough around the edges, less sanitized than Americans preferred, with massive tons of heart and do-it-yourself ethic. And those grandmas? When they could afford chicken livers, they'd broil and chop them, and when they couldn't, they made stew out of kurkivanim, cow navels.
Jerusalem mixed grill (meorav yerushalmi), meanwhile, was strictly a street food, something you bought off hole-in-the-wall vendors while changing buses, like its compatriots falafel with chips and salads or shawarma shaved off a spit. My mom never let us get these, claiming they were full of car exhaust. But one fine day in Jerusalem, my dad came upon a street cart selling mixed grill and handed me a pita-full faster than you can say spleen.
True to its street-food form, you can't quite replicate Jerusalem Mix at home. It's usually made of spiced and quick-grilled chicken hearts, livers, and spleens served in a pita with tahini. Chicken offal is hard to come by, although if you live in an area with a diverse Jewish community it might be hanging out at your local kosher butcher, just waiting to be discovered. But if not, or if offal is a dealbreaker for you conceptually, you can still blend up some Jerusalem mix spice and use it to liven up ordinary grilled chicken (and livers, the gateway offal, if you're up for that). For what it's worth, my American-pie, big-sky-steak-loving husband is cool with hearts but not livers.
Jerusalem Mix Spice
After poking around for a bit (okay, it may have been more like hardcore systemic research), I came to the conclusion that Jerusalem mixed grill tends to include hilbeh (fenugreek seeds) and some kind of acid. Some recipes accomplish the acid part by means of vinegar or something citric, while others get the whole thing done in one fell swoop by using amba, a sour mango pickle spiced heavily with fenugreek and hailing from the Iraqi-Jewish community. Although I am admittedly not a fan of fenugreek, it felt like an essential element and I'm glad I went for amba.
However, if you can't get your hands on prepared amba (the kind that comes in a jar), there are lots of good options for substitutions, including some that you likely have in your pantry, which I've included in the recipe. Basically, for the amba flavor you can use plain old turmeric (pair it with paprika for a little more flavor) or, if you have them, ground fenugreek seeds; and for the sour bit, vinegar, lemon juice, or amchoor (dried, powdered sour mango, a common spice in Indian cuisines).
Okay, now that we've nailed the funk that comes with amba, there are some differing opinions about the other flavors. Some insiders swear by coriander seeds, toasted and then freshly ground; there is a minority opinion favoring the inclusion of sumac, and a plurality that advocates for cumin. Out of left field, there's also white pepper instead of the usual black. Because I went with amba, I was laid back about throwing more flavors in there. I went with small amounts of turmeric, cumin, and white pepper, with a pinch of sumac. I think that complicates things just enough to get street-cart flavor that's distinctly Jerusalem Mix, but not so much it's chaos.
How to prepare offal
For those of you ready to go offal, the trickiest bit is finding the goods. My kosher market sells chicken offal frozen, prepackaged in one section of the meat freezer. Liver is sold along with the rest of the chicken in the refrigerated meat section, both raw and broiled. Although I'm pretty big on DIYing obscure areas of halakhah (like tracking down shmura flour, we'll get to that in the Spring), I'm admittedly scared to kasher liver. So I buy it broiled, as do most people, judging from the recipes. Since it's cooked through, you essentially just rewarm it in the spices right towards the end of cooking.
Chicken hearts cook relatively fast. If you're using boneless thighs, those will go in the pan first, followed by the hearts, the boneless breasts, and finally the broiled livers. You'll know that the hearts are cooked through when they lighten up, just like chicken meat.
Jerusalem Mix Grilled (meat)
- 1 lb boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cubed - 500g
- ½ lb chicken hearts - 250g - optional, replace with chicken thighs if not using
- ½ lb chicken livers, kashered - 250g - optional
- 1 large onion, thinly sliced - or 2 medium (don't skimp on the onion!)
- 1 tsp minced garlic - from one clove; use more if you like
- 2-3 Tbsp olive oil - for pan frying
For the spice mix:
- 4 large pitas
- ½ cup prepared tahini
Prepare the spiced base of the dish:
- Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a large skillet or wok. When the oil is hot, add the sliced onions. Allow to soften and brown slightly, 5-7 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for a few seconds while stirring.
- Add the amba to the onion-garlic mixture. Stir to combine. Add the remaining dry spices and cook for a minute or so, stirring.
- Push the onion mixture to the edges of the skillet.
Add the meat:
- Place the chicken thighs (if using; if not, continue to the next step) in the center of the skillet. Cook over medium-high heat until seared and white on the outside, 4-5 minutes. Stir well, then push to the edges of the skillet.
- Add the chicken hearts (if using; if not, continue to the next step) in the center of the skillet. Cook over medium-high heat until seared and white on the outside, 3-4 minutes. Stir well, then push to the edges of the skillet.
- Add the cubed chicken breast to the center of the skillet. Cook over medium-high heat until seared and white on the outside, 3-4 minutes.
- Lastly, add the livers to the skillet and cook for another 3-4 minutes until hot.
- Stir well to combine. The meat should all be cooked through now, but leave it on for a few more minutes if needed.
- Serve the mixed grill in a pita with a drizzle of thin, prepared tahini.