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Biryani is a well known rice dish from the Indian sub continent. It is a magnificent dish redolent of myriad spices, saffron and caramelized onions, and is probably the most aromatic rice ever cooked. In all its elegance, it is a dish fit to be served on a royal court. The cooking process of Biryani manifests a perfection of culinary art.
Friends are our life! You meet someone along the road and you just know that you are meant to be in the very first few minutes that you have met; vibes ripple through you before the exchange of words. And that is the story between me and Fatema. The first time was not the usual first time, it was more like we met after a long time – calm and steady with a promise to last for a life time! Both of us just recently stepped into our twenties and just got married, far away from home, sharing a lot and also teaching and encouraging each other out in our culinary adventure in our little basic apartment kitchen.
I never dared to cook Biryani till I saw her make it. I stood by her and watched her every move; the meat, the rice and the innumerable spices, along with little stories from home got laid out in front of me. She was confident, I was fascinated. Her Biryani always came out perfect with flying colors; aromatic with spices, the meat rightly cooked and the rice grains nestled against each other standing out separate and proud – just the way it should be. That day seems a long time ago, but every time I make my Biryani, I feel her standing by me. I did experiment over the years with the spices and the amount of each to suit the taste of the rest of my family and I can proudly say that I am pretty much satisfied with what I make, but her’s will always be the best. I owe this post of my very very dear friend Fatema. Thank you again!
Biryani originated in Persia and as it was brought in to India by the Iranian travelers many years ago. It slowly left its footsteps in different parts of India, traveling with the royalty and the locals from north to south, while each region adapted the original in their own ways. In the present times, there are more than one kind of Biryani, and the way it is cooked depends from one region to another. But the basics remain the same – the precious fragrant spices, the layering of the meat and the rice and finally the dam or the steam which combines it all and culminates into this treasured royal recipe.
In its more original form, the dish is known with the general name of “Dam Pukht/Dam-pukhtak” – the words in Persian means “steam-cooked”—a reference to the steamed rice and the meat in layers that forms the basis of the dish. In some preparation the meat is marinated but uncooked and finally cooked during the steaming process along with the partially cooked rice. This process is called the Kacchhi/Kutchi (raw) Biryani. While the other one is the Pukki (cooked) Biryani, that I have done here today. Here the meat is cooked into a curry/with sauce, the rice is partially cooked and the rice and the cooked meat is layered for final cooking.
This is a recipe to indulge, during family times and special times. The list of spices are long, but the spices are the probably the most important of all ingredients here. Cinnamon, mace, clove, nutmeg, cardamom, dried mint and also the nuts and the dried fruits combine contributing to the fragrance and the taste. While it indeed is a royal dish, it is however enjoyed in the most casual atmosphere; during special occasions but with friends and family among love and laughter. Cooking Biryani could take many hours, but it is a labor of love!
The amount here that I have for the ingredients will make Biryani for an army as this was for a party. Do read through and adjust amounts if making for a small party.
Ingredients: (serves about 18-20 as main meal)
- 6 lbs chicken, skinless and cut into big pieces
- pomegranate arils, nuts, chopped cilantro/coriander for garnish (Optional)
- 2 tablespoons ginger paste
- 1 tablespoon garlic paste
- 1 teaspoon dried mint
- 1 cup strained yogurt/Greek yogurt
- 2 tablespoon lemon juice
To cook the chicken:
- 3/4 cup oil
- 10 small green cardamom pods
- 2 black cardamom pods
- 8 cloves
- 3 sticks of cinnamon
- 1.5 teaspoons cumin seeds
- 1 teaspoon whole black peppercorn
- 5-6 medium onions, sliced thin
- 3 tablespoons garlic paste
- 2 tablespoon ginger paste
- 1 tablespoon chopped hot green pepper
- 1 teaspoon turmeric
- 3/4 cup tomato paste
- 1 cup thick strained yogurt/Greek yogurt
- 1 teaspoon mace
- 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
- 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper/chili powder
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
- 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon powder
- 1/2 teaspoon dried mint
- 1/2 teaspoon cardamom powder
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
- 1/2 teaspoon ground caraway seeds
- 1/2 cup alubokhara/dried plums (substitute: prunes)
- 1/2 cup sliced/chopped toasted almonds
Note: If you do not want to make a completely homemade combination of spices, you can use store bought Biryani Spice Mix, available at the Indian Groceries instead of the the spices in the “to combine” list. I usually use Shan Sindhi Biryani Masala.
For caramelized onions:
- 4 medium onions, sliced in to very thin half moons
- 1.5 tablespoons ghee
- a pinch of sugar
For the rice:
- 12 cups Basmati rice
- 3 tablespoons oil
- 3 tablespoons garam masala
- cooked chicken
- partially cooked rice
- caramelized onions
- finely chopped fresh cilantro/coriander
- 2 teaspoons good quality saffron
- 1/2 cup warm milk
- 1/2 cup ghee. melted
- food color (optional)
- 1/2 teaspoon kewra/screw pine (optional)
- 1 teaspoon rose water (optional)
Wash the chicken and pat dry. Rub the lemon juice and salt on the pieces and let them sit for about 15 minutes.
Combine all the other in ingredients of the marinade and whisk. Place the salted chicken in the marinade and toss. ( I usually use a large ziploc bag and put everything together in it and give it a good shake). Let the chicken sit in the marinade for at least 2 hours. Overnight really works better.
Heat the 3/4 cup oil in a large pan. Add the cinnamon, cardamom, cloves to the oil; when the spices sizzles and when they are fragrant, add the cumin and the peppercorn. When the cumin starts to sizzle, add the onions and cook till they start turning brown. Remove the chicken pieces from the marinade and save the marinade. Add the chicken to the pan and cook till the chicken is light brown on both sides. Add the ginger paste, garlic paste and the tomatoes. Toss everything together. Add salt and turmeric and chili peppers and cook till the chicken is completely cooked and the oil starts separating from the sauce. While cooking slowly add the marinade. The chicken should be cooked and there should be about 4 cups of sauce left in the pan.
Caramelizing the onions:
Heat ghee in a pan; add a pinch of sugar and the onions and fry them slowly at low to medium heat till they are caramelized, crisped and dark brown. Once they are uniformly brown , drain on thick layer of kitchen paper, so that extra oil is soaked. As they cool down, the onions will become crispy. Set aside.
Cooking the Rice:
Note: The rice is going to be only partially cooked. The cooking of the rice will be completed when the meat is layered with the partially cooked rice and steamed/baked again.
Wash the rice till water runs clear. Soak the rice in cold water for 30 minutes. Drain. Use 2 cups of water for every cup of rice. (Since I had cooked in a big quantity, I had to cook the rice in 3 containers.) Bring the water to a boil; add salt, oil, garam masala and rice. Cook till the rice is about 3/4 cooked. They will look long and segmented and whitish in some parts. To test, take a grain in between two fingers. If the rice breaks in about 3 parts, the rice is cooked just right. It is very important not to overcook the rice. Drain immediately and spread the rice in a tray/plate for the remaining water to dry off – for about 15 minutes.
Combining yogurt and spices and the chicken:
Whisk the yogurt till smooth and creamy. Combine all the spices and the dried plum and the nuts with the yogurt evenly. Add this mix to the cooked chicken and toss well to combine. DO NOT COOK. Set aside and get ready to layer the rice, chicken spices and the final cooking.
Combine the saffron in warm milk and let it rest for about 10 minutes; the milk will turn deep yellow. If you are using orange food color, use a couple of drops in the milk.
Divide the caramelized onions, so you have about a few tablespoons left for final garnish of the finished dish.
You will need a thick bottomed deep pot with a very tight fitting lid. If you want to cook in the oven, use a an oven safe deep dish.
Coat the bottom of the pot with ghee. Spoon a thin layer of the sauce from the cooked chicken. The bottom most layer has to be the sauce to prevent the rice from sticking to the bottom. Next will be a layer of rice. Do not make a thick layer; it should be about 2 cups of rice for each layer. Over the rice layer, spoon some of the sauce and the chicken and gently spread it out evenly. Add some of the caramelized onions, top a tablespoon of chopped cilantro, and a tablespoon of ghee. Next drizzle some of the saffron milk. Cover this layer with another layer of rice. Keep going with the rice, meat/sauce, caramelized onion, cilantro/coriander, ghee and saffron milk sequence. The top most layer has to be rice.
(Since I had a big quantity, I used 2 big pots to cook the Biryani)
After the final layer of rice is done, use the back of a wooden spoon and make several (about 6) holes from the top layer to the bottom of the top. This allows the stream to distribute and cook evenly. Drizzle the rest of the saffron milk on the top. Drizzle a few drops of screw pine/kewra and/or rose water. Cover the pot tightly. (If the cover if not tight enough, use aluminum foil to tightly cover the pot and use the pot over over that.
If cooking on the stove top:
Leave the pot on the stove top at the lowest heat and cook for about 30-40 minutes.
If cooking in the oven:
Cook in the oven at 350 degree F for about 30-40 minutes.
Serve warm/hot as a mail meal.
Serve with Raita (Thick whipped yogurt + dried or fresh mint + cucumber + salt to taste)
If you would be interested, here is a comprehensive history/information of Biryani.