Welcome to the fourth entry in my Remembering India series, where I share recipes, meals and adventures from my 2008 studies abroad. Today I share my recipe for chicken biryani, inspired by an unforgettable meal I ate on an overnight train from Mumbai to Goa.
You can find the story about this meal in the third installment of this series.
For 8 years I’ve been dreaming of a single serving of chicken biryani. I ate it from a tin on an overnight train—a setting I least expected for one of the best meals of my life.
Since that meal, I’ve eaten a lot of biryanis, hoping that I could relive those bites from the Konkan Kanya Express. Nothing has ever come close, so I’ve spent the last 6 months re-creating it at home.
Biryani is a special rice dish whose ingredients vary from region to region and family to family. There are lamb, chicken, vegetable and even fish biryanis—each one a distinct representation of the person in charge of making it. As someone from an Italian family, I have come to understand biryani the way I think about tomato sauce. Every cook has their own recipe, and they’re probably going to prefer the one they grew up eating.
Since I didn’t grow up eating biryani, my source of inspiration was this single dish from 8 years ago. I remembered that it was red-ish, juicy and unmixed—with bone-in chicken and flavorful white rice. As for the spices, I’d only recognize them by taste.
It took a lot of research (see resources below) and trial and error to get this journey started. Apart from my limited knowledge of Indian cooking, I had a sentimental, but fading memory to deal with.
My biryanis ranged from charred—to soggy—to tasty, but with no resemblance to the biryani of my dreams. The more I practiced my technique, the more freedom I had to play with flavors and spices. Even up to the day I photographed my plated biryani, my spice blends still weren’t there. As my deadline was approaching, I decided to try something different. Instead of adding spices and aromatics in the proportions that made sense on paper, I decided to work slowly and carefully, adding each of my flavors bit-by-bit.
I tasted after each addition, realizing that my chilis, tomatoes, spices, ginger and garlic probably hadn’t been playing well together because I’d been adding too much. I stirred in the chicken, topped it with my rice and garnishes, and sealed the pot with a ring of dough.
An hour later I pried it open with a steak knife, took a big scoop and piled it onto a plate. It passed the visual test of red-ish, juicy and unmixed—with bone-in chicken.
Then came the taste test. Two days prior I’d made a biryani so wrong that I sent it straight to the freezer. I was skeptical that this time would be different, but it was. Building my flavors bit-by-bit is exactly what I needed to send me back to that electric-blue train in India.
Since biryani is typically made for special occasions, I’ve decided to dedicate it to the Sunday Dinner section of this blog. It’s no small undertaking, but if you start a day ahead and take on each step one at a time, you’ll end up with one of the most rewarding dishes that will ever come out of your kitchen.
The process begins by marinating the chicken overnight in yogurt, ginger-garlic paste and spices.
After prepping some vegetables, spices and garnishes for later, it’s time to soak the rice and cook the chicken.
I like to keep my garam masala as basic as possible (cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, black pepper and fennel) so I can use it in both savory and sweet recipes (like banana bread). You can find my favorite garam masala recipe here.
Tomatoes are next, cooked down to a concentrated, flavorful pulp.
Meanwhile, a bath of water, salt and a bundle of whole spices gets prepped for the basmati rice. Though it’s more traditional to boil the whole spices directly with the rice (instead of in cheesecloth), I prefer not to have them mixed in the final dish.
The chicken and its yogurt marinade get added off of the heat to keep the yogurt from curdling. Whole milk yogurt is essential, or it will separate and curdle.
The next three minutes involve a little multitasking: boiling and watching the rice while cooking and stirring the chicken. The idea is to cook the rice just slightly enough (or as I like to say, al dente) so that once it’s layered on top of the raw-ish chicken, it will have enough of a head start to finish cooking at about the same time.
I’ve learned the hard way that even once you’ve strained the water, the parboiled rice will generate enough steam to continue cooking in a colander. This is why I only cook the rice for 3 minutes. I can give myself a buffer during final assembly, while still avoiding the unappetizing risk of soggy rice.
A little chopped mint and cilantro get mixed into the chicken at the last minute to impart their bright aromas. I prefer to use both, but if you scour the internet, you are likely to find recipes with only one or the other, and a heated discussion on why.
Then comes the fun part.
By inverting the rice onto the chicken, the least cooked grains end up closest to the chicken, while the most cooked grains end up at the top in the driest part of the dutch oven. This allows for even cooking.
I like to drizzle a couple of tablespoons of ghee over the rice for moisture and flavor. Then comes a tablespoon of saffron-infused milk. I’m fairly confident there was no saffron on my Konkan Kanya Biryani (most likely because it’s so expensive), but I couldn’t do without the flavor and color on my at-home version.
Then comes a shower of chopped mint and cilantro, cashews, raisins and homemade crispy fried onions.
Out of respect for the dum process (meaning, cooking the biryani low and slow in a sealed environment), the dutch oven gets sealed with a flour and water dough, which traps steam throughout the cooking process. If this is too much, just crumble a large sheet of parchment paper and spread it out over the pot before placing the lid on top.
After an hour of cooking (see preliminary notes), plus a couple of extra minutes of steaming off of the heat, the biryani is ready to reveal.
The best way to serve the biryani is to dig all the way to the bottom and lift a large, unmixed scoop out of the dutch oven.
There are 4 layers: the chicken, the flavorful rice with gravy, the plain rice, and the garnishes. With a little yogurt, hardboiled egg and a few extra garnishes, each bite will have a different combination of fragrance, spice, sourness, sweetness, juiciness and crunch.
Related Stories & Recipes
Remembering India: My First 24 Hours
Remembering India: Pramila’s Paneer Bhurji
Remembering India: Sights, Sounds & Railway Food
Remembering India: Ghee + Thane
Remembering India: Before We Begin
$1 Grilled Cheese Party
This chicken biryani is a dedication to a dish I ate in 2008 on an overnight train to Goa. Its flavors are a blend of heat, sourness, sweetness, and aromatic spices. Though my inclusion of tomato is a major no-no in the highly respected Hyderabadi biryani, its color and juiciness are essential to my taste memory of this dish (and many other biryanis throughout India). After 6 months of testing this recipe, I bring you my closest approximation to the chicken biryani of my memory. It’s the product of love, research and respect for one of the most unique and special dishes in Indian cuisine. It makes a great centerpiece to a Sunday Dinner meal, and even better leftovers.
Cooking the biryani in a sealed environment involves a little blind faith in the chicken’s doneness (see step E5 for recommended cooking time). Since everyone’s stoves are a little different, I’ve come up with two pieces of advice:
(1) It’s better to add more time than more heat. Cooking the biryani on a high flame is guaranteed to scorch the bottom of your dutch oven (something I learned the hard way).
(2) If you suspect your stove’s lowest setting is “too low”, touch your hand to the top of the dutch oven after 15-20 minutes. It should be too hot to leave your hand there comfortably. If it isn’t, raise the heat ever so slightly and touch again every few minutes until the lid is too hot for your hand. Cook the biryani for 40 minutes from that point.
serves 6 hungry eaters
1 recipe Chicken in Marinade (see below)
1 recipe Crispy Fried Onions (see below)
1 recipe Parboiled Rice (see below)
1 recipe Sealing Dough (see below)
6 cold eggs
6 tablespoons ghee, separated
2/3 cup raw cashews
1/3 cup raisins
2 cups halved and thinly sliced red onion (about 3/4 medium onion)
1 medium tomato, halved and thinly sliced (about 1 cup)
4-6 Indian green chilis, halved lengthwise and seeded
1 tsp ginger-garlic paste (see the bottom of this post)
1 1/4 tsp my favorite garam masala
1/2 tsp red chili powder (not to be confused with spice blend)
3/4 tsp ground coriander
3/4 tsp ground cumin
2 black cardamom pods
1 tsp Kosher salt
1/4 cup tightly packed mint leaves, coarsely chopped, plus more for serving
2 tbsp tightly packed cilantro leaves, coarsely chopped, plus more for serving
1 tbsp whole milk
1/2 tsp saffron
yogurt, for serving
sliced cucumber, for serving (optional)
Chicken in Marinade
1 lb chicken drumsticks, skin removed
1 1/2 lbs boneless, skinless chicken thighs
1 cup plain, full-fat yogurt
1 tbsp ginger-garlic paste (see the bottom of this post)
1/2 tsp turmeric powder
2 tsp red chili powder (not to be confused with spice blend)
2 tsp Kosher salt
Crispy Fried Onions
makes 3 cups
3 medium red onions, sliced into 1/8″ rounds (about 6 cups when stacked)
2 1/2 cups peanut oil
8 cups water, plus more for rinsing and soaking the rice
3 cups basmati rice
1 bay leaf
6 green cardamom pods
2 black cardamom pods
1 cinnamon stick, broken into two pieces
1/2 tsp whole black peppercorns
1 tsp Kosher salt
10″ x 5″ piece of cheesecloth, folded in half
1 cup all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting the countertop
1/3 cup water
dutch oven or heavy-duty casserole (6 quart, minimum)
A. Prepare the Chicken in Marinade
- In a large bowl, whisk the yogurt, ginger-garlic paste, turmeric powder, chili powder and salt together.
- Trim the chicken thighs of any undesired fat and cut them into pieces about 1 1/2 inches wide by 3 inches long.
- Place the drumsticks and chicken thigh pieces in the bowl with the yogurt mixture. Toss to coat, cover the bowl with plastic wrap, and transfer to the refrigerator for at least 4 hours—preferably overnight.
B. Prepare the Crispy Fried Onions
- Heat the oil to 350° in a dutch oven.
- Fry the onions in batches (stirring occasionally with a wire basket) until they are crisp and deeply golden, like honey). Each batch should take about 4-7 minutes.
- Using a wire basket, transfer the fried onions to a plate lined with paper towels.
- Repeat for the remaining batches.
- If not using immediately, store the crispy fried onions in an airtight container in the refrigerator. They will keep for at least 1-2 weeks.
C. Prepare the Sealing Dough
- Mix the flour and water in a large bowl until it comes together into a dry, shaggy mass. Cover with a damp paper towel and allow it to sit out until ready to use. The dough will continue to hydrate as it sits.
D. Prepare the Biryani & Parboiled Rice at the Same Time
- Rinse the starches off of the rice by placing it in a bowl with cool water. Swish it around, drain the water through a colander, and repeat two more times.
- Soak the rinsed rice in a bowl of cool water for 30 minutes to one hour (about the time it takes to complete the following steps).
- Remove the chicken in marinade from the refrigerator. Set aside.
- Combine the saffron and milk in a small bowl. Set aside. The saffron will infuse the milk with its floral aroma and golden yellow color.
- Heat 3 tbsp of the ghee in a dutch oven over medium heat.
- Gently fry & toss the cashews in the ghee for 3-5 minutes, or until they are toasted and golden brown. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the cashews to a plate lined with paper towels.
- Repeat for the raisins for 1-2 minutes, until they have puffed up (they will deflate again once they come off of the heat). Using a slotted spoon, transfer the raisins to the same plate as the cashews.
- Toss the black cardamom and bay leaf into the ghee and stir them around for 1-2 minutes to allow them to become fragrant.
- Add the sliced raw onion and 1 tsp salt into the ghee and gently fry for about 3 minutes, until the onions have wilted and become slightly translucent. Add the green chilis to the onions and allow them to cook for another minute or two.
- Stir the ginger-garlic paste, garam masala, chili powder, coriander and cumin into the onions. Toss the mixture around for about 2-3 minutes to take the raw, bitter edge off of the ginger-garlic paste.
- Add the tomatoes to the onion mixture, and give them a good stir to release any brown bits from the bottom of the dutch oven. Cook for about 7 minutes, or until the tomatoes have broken down into a concentrated pulp.
- Meanwhile, prepare a spice bundle by layering the bay leaf, cloves, green cardamom, black cardamom, cinnamon and peppercorns over the square of cheesecloth. Gather the edges, twist the bundle, and secure it by tying a knot with the kitchen twine.
- Bring the water, spice bundle and salt to a rolling boil.
- Remove the dutch oven from the burner and turn off the flame. Add the chicken and all of its marinade to the onions and spices. Toss to coat (doing this off of the heat reduces the risk of curdling the yogurt).
- Return the dutch oven to the burner and ignite the flame to “medium-low”. Add 2 tbsp of the mint and 1 tbsp of the cilantro to the chicken. Toss to coat and sauté the chicken (stirring regularly) while you parboil the rice.
- Meanwhile, drain the rice and drop it into the boiling water for 3 minutes. The rice should be very al dente. Drain the rice and remove the spice bundle.
E. Layer and Cook the Biryani; Prepare the Hard-Boiled Eggs
- Stir the chicken one last time and lower the flame to the lowest setting.
- Invert and spread the drained rice over the chicken.
- Drizzle the remaining 3 tablespoons of ghee over the rice. Garnish with the saffron milk, the remaining mint and cilantro, and half of the crispy fried onions, cashews and raisins.
- Turn the sealing dough out of the bowl onto a lightly floured countertop and cut it in half. Using the palms of your hands, roll each piece of dough into a “rope” long enough to wrap halfway around the rim of the dutch oven (note: I typically do this with the dutch oven over the flame).
- Pinch the sealing dough around the edge of the dutch oven*, securing it with your fingertips. Cover with the lid and cook the biryani for 55-60 minutes (see preliminary notes for more information on cooking time).
- Meanwhile, bring 7-8 cups of water to a rolling boil in a 3-quart saucepan. Using a slotted spoon or wire skimmer, gently transfer the cold eggs to the boiling water.
- Lower the heat ever so slightly, and boil the eggs for 12 minutes (note: you can also refer to this post for prettier eggs, but since the biryani is already so much work, I prefer the simpler, less attractive method).
- Prepare a bowl of ice water to shock the boiled eggs. Using a slotted spoon or wire skimmer, transfer the eggs to the ice bath until they reach room temperature.
- Peel the eggs and place them on a plate for serving.
- Remove the biryani from the heat and allow it to sit for 15 more minutes before removing the dough-sealed lid. You will need to use a thin knife to help loosen the seal, so please be careful!
- Serve the biryani with yogurt and hardboiled eggs, along with the remaining mint, cilantro, crispy fried onions, cashews and raisins.
*If you are wary about using the dough, you can also crumble a large sheet of parchment paper and spread it out over the pot before securing the lid on top.
makes 1 cup
4.5 ounces fresh ginger (about 3 small knobs)
4.5 ounces fresh garlic (about 2 heads)
2-3 tablespoons water
- Peel the ginger and slice it against the grain into thin coins. This keeps fibrous bits to a minimum (a technique I learned from Neelam Batra’s 1,000 Indian Recipes).
- Peel and coarsely chop the garlic.
- Purée the sliced ginger, chopped garlic and 2 tablespoons of water in a small blender, adding extra drops of water as necessary to achieve a smooth paste.
- Store leftovers in an airtight container in the refrigerator (about 1 week) or freezer (indefinitely).
- Shweta Lalwani
- Ashwini Ramanisankar of The Cambridge Center for Adult Education
- Peter Rudd
- Business Standard’s When Rice Met Meat
- The Times of India’s The Big Biryani Fight: Hyderabadi or Lakhnawi?
- Cooking with Thas’s Thalassery Biryani
- Edible Garden’s Chicken Dum Biryani
- Indu Gets Cooking’s Hyderabadi Dum Biryani
- Meera Sodha’s Lamb and Caramelized Onion Pulao
- Playful Cooking’s Chicken Kofta Dum Biryani
- The Pattern Plate’s Malabar Chicken Biryani
- Second Last Supper’s Deconstructing our Humble Biryani
- Swasthi’s Recipes’ Chicken Dum Biryani
- Walk Through India’s Ten Delicious and Different Styles of Indian Biryani
- Yummy O Yummy’s Hyderabadi Chicken Biryani
- Chef Harpal’s Hyderabadi Chicken Biryani video
- Ready Steady Eat’s Lucknowi Chicken Biryani video (read the comments to see how contentious this dish can be)