If you’ve never had biryani before, you’re really missing something. Years ago, I’d seen biryani on a menu and when told what it was, I said something along the lines of “oh, it’s just rice and pieces of meat?” That was a misunderstanding. I have apologized to the biryani gods.
This isn’t just rice. It’s rice enhanced with fried onions and whole spices – cumin, bay leaves, smokey black cardamom and warm cinnamon. It’s coloured by saffron (or turmeric) and decorated with roasted cashews and golden raisins. However, Biryani is more than just the sum of its parts; the cumulative flavours of the spices, ghee, and the spiced yogurt are something very special. There’s a reason why the dish has spread from it’s Persian roots to the Arabic world, and eastward through India all the way the Philippines. It’s damned good. Rich. Fragrant. Full of complex layers of flavours, textures and temperatures.
Again, I won’t lie – this dish takes time to prepare. The chicken should be marinated for a full day in advance of the actual baking of the rice, and the rice-bake takes a full hour. The good news is the actual skill involved in preparing the dish is very minimal. Properly frying an onion is the most difficult task in this recipe. The time is worth it, though. For one, it will supply you with delicious leftovers for days, so I figure the time investment pays itself off within a day or two. The more immediate reason is that the dish is just really enjoyable.
- 6 chicken thighs, cut into 1-2 inch pieces
- 1 cup plain yogurt
- 1/4 cup chopped mint
- 1/4 chopped cilantro
- 2 tbsp finely chopped ginger
- 1 tbsp finely chopped garlic (maybe 3 cloves?)
- 2 tsp Kashmiri chili powder
- 1 1/2 tsp kosher salt
- 1 tsp Punjabi garam masala
- 1/2 tsp turmeric
- In a medium-sized bowl, add the yogurt, then add the herbs and spices, but not the chicken pieces (yet). Stir these ingredients together until they’re a smooth, even mixture. Then add the chicken pieces. It’s easier to stir yogurt and spices together without giant pieces of meat getting in the way.
- Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and leave it in the fridge for at least 2-4 hours, but a full day/overnight preferably. Not more than 2 days.
Then, on the day you actually want to to eat biryani, we begin here:
- 2 cups basmati rice
- 2 tbsp ghee
- 2 tsp cumin seeds
- 4 black cardamon pods
- 4 fresh bay leaves
- 4 cinnamon sticks
- 1 medium-large onion, cut in half lengthwise and sliced 1/4 inch thick
- 1 tsp saffron threads (or about 1/2 tsp ground turmeric)
- 2 tsp kosher salt
- 1/4 cup golden raisins (optional)
- 1/4 cup roasted, unsalted cashews (optional)
- 2 tbsp melted ghee
- mint and cilantro leaves to garnish, about 2 tbsp
Serve with: Raita (see below)
What you will need: a baking dish approximately 8×8″ square, tin foil, knife and cutting board, measuring cups and spoons, a few small bowls to organize ingredients, deep frying pan or saute pan, non-stick cooking spray
- An hour before you begin cooking, pour the rice into a large bowl and rinse it under cold water. You do this by filling the bowl with cold water until it covers the rice. Then, using your fingers, stir the rice around. This will release a cloud of starch into the water – this is what we’re washing off (in addition to any traces of dusts and additives, etc). Less starch means rice that doesn’t stick together as much, once it’s cooked. So you swirl around the rice, then pour out the cloudy water and repeat the process with fresh water. Do this rinsing process about 3-4 times and you should be ok. If you wanted to get crazy, you could keep doing it until the water runs clear, but it’s not necessary. Once you’re done rinsing the rice, pour more clean cold water over it and let it soak for around 1 hour. This helps soften the rice prior to cooking, which will reduce cooking times. Why? Because we will be cooking the rice with things like onions and rice takes a lot longer to cook, so we need to prepare the rice in advance so the onion will not be overcooked. Step 1 is long, I know. Bear with me.
- Now we’re ready to actually cook. Finally. Organize all ingredients before you begin: place the cumin seeds, black cardamom, bay leaves and cinnamon sticks in one bowl. Sliced onion in another. The saffron and salt in another. Ok, now we’re ready to cook. Sorry.
- Pre-heat your oven to 350 F.
- Heat the first 2 tbsp of ghee in your pan over medium heat (about 5 on my dial).
- Once the ghee is hot, add the whole spices (cumin, cardamom, bay leaves, cinnamon sticks) and fry them until they are fragrant. This will only take about 20-30 seconds at most. You’ll notice when the spices start releasing their aromas. It’s strong.
- Immediately add the sliced onion. Fry the onion until the edges are lightly browned and the onions themselves are softened somewhat. This will take maybe 5 minutes.
- Add the saffron or turmeric now and stir it around to mix the colour into the onion. Let to cook for a minute.
- Meanwhile, drain the rice, and add it to the frying pan along with 2 cups of hot water (as hot as your tap will give you, anyway) – if you’re expand or contract this recipe, just remember that it’s a cup of water per cup of rice added. Add the salt as well. Stir the entire pan to get an even mixture of rice, whole spices, onions, and salt.
- Bring the water to a gentle simmer (small bubbles) then lower the heat to low (about 2-3 maybe) and let it simmer until some of the water absorbs. What we are looking for here is for the rice to absorb enough water that we can remove the rice from the pan without it dripping. The indicator we are looking for is small craters will form in the rice from escaping steam. The craters would collapse immediately if the mixture was too wet; the craters will stay when water has been absorbed. When this happens (maybe 5-10 minutes?), we are ready to prepare the baking dish. Take the rice off the heat.
- Gently spray the bottom of your baking dish with the cooking spray.
- Get your marinating chicken out of the fridge and spread the entire mixture in an even layer over the bottom of the baking dish. Make sure you scrape out every last bit of the yogurt and spices. Mmm.
- In a small bowl, melt the other 2 tbsp of ghee, and drizzle it over the yogurt-chicken mixture. Or maybe that much ghee scares you and you only use 1 tbsp. Whatever.
- Over top of the yogurt mixture, gently spread the rice mixture in an even layer. Include all the whole spices, and onions, as well. If the amount of rice would spill over the side of the dish, just fill up the baking dish as high as you can.
- On top of the rice, sprinkle the cashews and raisins. Or arrange them in a decorative pattern.
- Cover the baking dish with tin foil, and slide it into the oven.
- Let it bake for 1 hour. Don’t worry about checking on it halfway through or anything like that. It’s fine, and you don’t want excess steam escaping by opening the foil several times.
- Once it’s done, remove it from the oven and peel off the tin foil. There’s biryani in there. Scoop some onto a plate, dress it with some raita (seriously, you need this, see below) and garnish the whole thing with shredded cilantro and/or mint. Eat and enjoy.
My favourite part of all of this? Slow-cooked yogurt-marinated chicken pieces so tender they almost flake apart, but exploding with flavour. So good.
Oh look, a recipe for raita.
Raita often acts as a cooling agent to spiced dishes. Yogurt (or any dairy-based products) interacts with chilies’ volatile oils to render them slightly less volatile – this is why a glass of milk is recommended to anyone with a mouthful of chili heat. In relation to the biryani, this raita offers a pleasant cool sensation (due to fridge-temperature yogurt) in contrast to the baked rice, as well as a crisp crunch of cucumbers to contrast soft chicken and rice. The biryani spices on their own can be rather bold, smokey and rich – the raita filters these flavours through a cool, smooth creaminess to achieve a very harmonious flavour and texture. Although my girlfriend disagrees, I consider it to be essential.
- 1 cup plain yogurt
- 1/2 tsp salt
- approx. half of an English cucumber (or maybe 5-6 inches – who needs more than that?), cut into 1/4″ cubes
- 1/4 cup of firmly packed mint leaves, finely chopped
- 1/2 tsp cumin seeds, ground (you could toast them first if you’d like)
- pinch of cayenne pepper
In a medium-sized bowl, mix together all the ingredients to form a smooth, chunky mixture. 2-3 spoonfuls over a serving of biryani will work wonders on the palate. Seriously.