Biryani is probably one of my wife’s favorite Indian dishes. For the longest time, I didn’t really understand biryani. To me, it just seemed like somewhat spiced, brown rice with dry bits of meat thrown in. If that’s been your experience, I promise, there’s much better biryani out there–deep, complex, tangy flavors, tender chicken, and enough mixed in so it doesn’t feel like your plate is 95% rice. Biryani is a classic for a reason, and I thought I’d spread the good word now that I’ve been won over.
So in case you never have had biryani (or good biryani, for that matter), this is a popular dish in many countries with many different styles of preparation. I only know it through Indian cuisine, so that’s the perspective I bring to this. You have long grain basmati rice, cooked like any other rice with a handful of spices infusing the grains for flavor. But this is merely a foundation–not the most forward flavors in the dish. Separate from the rice, you prepare a chicken curry, kind of like many other curries–saucy, tangy, and very strongly flavored–and the rice is then mixed into this.
The final result doesn’t look wet like this process would imply, but instead, it all just comes together as a really powerfully flavored rice dish and you’d never know a wet curry was mixed in. Dressing this up is easy and there are all sorts of garnishes you could consider–I added cashews, golden raisins, saffron infused cream, rose water, and cilantro. These sweet garnishes, aside from looking nice, added a great high note on top of the spicier, stronger flavors in the rice and the curry, a great contrast to the richness of the ghee (which is just clarified butter) present in all layers of this dish. All together, biryani is a tough thing to describe, but an incredible dish with a deceptively simple appearance.
Now, a warning before you run the other way. Given the length of the ingredient list for this dish, this looks a lot more complicated than it actually is. The best way to approach this is to simply organize everything up front before you start cooking. You’ll find there’s actually very little work that you need to do beyond measuring/counting ingredients and putting them in separate bowls/piles for later–I promise!
- Ghee (several tablespoons worth)
- Chicken Tikka
- 1.5-2 lbs chicken thighs (boneless weight)
- 1/8 cup ginger paste
- 1/8 cup garlic paste
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1/4 cup plain yogurt
- 1/2-1 Tbsp chilli powder (adjust to taste)
- 1.5 Tbsp vegetable oil
- 2 cups basmati rice
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 stick of cinnamon
- 3 cloves
- 2 green cardamoms
- 4 cups of water
- 1 lime
- 2 Tbsp cashews
- 2 Tbsp golden raisins
- 2-3 Tbsp cilantro leaves
- Optional: 2 Tbsp milk/cream
- Optional: generous pinch saffron
- Optional: dash of rose water
- small pinch of asafetida
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 2 Bay leaves
- 2 black cardamoms
- 3 green cardamoms
- 5 cloves
- 4 shallots
- 6-8 cloves garlic
- 1 inch ginger
- 1/2 cup almonds
- 1 tsp cumin
- 1 tsp coriander
- 1/4 tsp turmeric
- red chili powder (to taste)
- ground black pepper
- 1/2 tsp dried mint
- 5+ green chilis (to taste–it will be milder than you think given the yogurt)
- 1.75 cups yogurt
- 1/4-1/2 cup tomato puree
- 1/4 cup cilantro
This is my pretty much my usual base chicken tikka marinade. Ideally, the night before you intend to cook (or worst case, an hour before), simply throw all of the marinade ingredients (6-8 peeled cloves garlic, peeled inch of ginger, yogurt, salt, etc) into the food processor, whiz until nicely blended, and dump into a container. Chop the chicken thighs into bite-size pieces and rub all over with marinade, doing your best to submerge all of the meat in it. Put this in the fridge. Easy peasy.
Prepare the rice by soaking it in cool water for 30 minutes. Drain off the water.
Now, warm up 2 Tbsp of ghee in a pan and fry the whole spices for about 2-3 minutes or until fragrant. With great care (the ghee might sputter and spatter), add 4 cups of water and a good dash of salt. Raise this to a boil and then add the rice. Cover the pot and drop the heat to medium-low for 15 minutes. Sample a piece of rice–if it feels almost done, turn off the heat and let it stand 5-10 minutes more. If not, give it 5 minutes more and repeat. Squeeze in the lime juice and fluff the rice with a fork. Set the rice aside.
Fry the cashews and raisins in ghee until the cashews turn golden and the raisins get puffy. Set these aside.
In a small bowl, steep the crumbled saffron in warm milk. Set the rose water next to this bowl so you don’t forget about it.
Chop up some cilantro leaves and set these aside.
Commonly, fried onions would also be prepared and set aside as a garnish, but since I am forbidden from using onions, I can only dream of such things. Sigh!
Very finely mince the shallots and set aside. Peel the garlic, ginger, and almonds before grinding these three to a paste in your food processor.
In a large pan, warm 2 Tbsp of ghee and then fry the asafetida and whole spices for 2-3 minutes or until fragrant. Then add the shallots and fry until golden brown over medium high heat before adding the garlic/ginger/almond paste, which you should fry while stirring fairly constantly for another 2-3 minutes. Things will get dry and clunky–don’t worry, this is ok.
Now, get your marinated chicken and add it to the pan, cooking until no longer pink (figure roughly 10 minutes). Stir things with some regularity.
While all of that’s going on, mix all of the remaining ground spices in a bowl along with the yogurt and tomato. Somewhat coarsely chop the chilis (and while they might be hot on their own, the yogurt will cut the heat in a big way, so add more than you think you need) and cilantro before throwing this in the bowl as well.
Once the chicken is no longer pink, dump the contents of this bowl into the pot and stir constantly for 2 minutes or so to prevent the yogurt from separating. Loosely cover the pot and simmer for ~20 minutes so the flavors can meld and the gravy can thicken up a bit.
Finally, all of your components are cooked and ready to come together. Grease a baking dish (mine are kind of small, so I used two) with ghee. Now, kind of like lasagna, you want to layer the chicken + sauce with the rice, so from bottom to top, go rice, meat, rice, meat, rice (as best you can). Then, drizzle the saffron cream on top along with the rose water. Strew the other garnishes (cashew, raisin, cilantro) about as well.
Cover the baking dish with a lid (or foil) and bake in a 350°F oven for 20 minutes.
Once time is up, plate a very generous, deep scoop (so you get all the layers) and dig in. I served with some parathas. Enjoy!