Sunday, November 24, 2013

Chicken Biryani

I take a sabbatical from the scene of my crime. And a three week hiatus from writing! But more importantly, days of not thinking about daily cooking. Every morning waking up to a surprise on my plate. And that is rejuvenating for my soul and stomach. But all good things come to an end and I am back where I belong, jet lagged but ready to don my apron. 

In the fridge  I find stray remnants of frozen meals. I unearth petrified veggies, sitting in their green soupy slime. I throw out meat covered in fuzz. Three weeks away from the fridge makes for a thorough clean. But the beer disappears. Rehan manages my absence with a liquid diet!!!

I choose to cook a biryani...Hyderabadi style. I am inspired when I sample one in at the Golconda Bowl. It comes in a small handi, oozing flavor. Accompanied by raita and a mirchi ka salan ??? Salan? That's a first for me. I am informed of this  coupling by the Hyderabadis at my table. The biryani is everything I want it to be. Fluffy long grain rice, speckled with saffron, smothered with fried onions, and a bottom layer of  masala-coated mutton. It has the right amount of spicy heat. I try some with raita. And then with the salan. The latter is an acquired taste. I'm not sure it is for me. I abandon the salan. I pick a nalli or marrow bone with my fingers. The mutton is cooked to perfection. It falls off the bone and into my mouth. There is a taste revelation in eating meat cooked on the bone. Especially a nalli. Your teeth and tongue make for the best utensils as you pick the bone clean. Every crevasse can be manipulated with your tongue and the marrow sucked out with a loud slurp! If this grosses you out, move on! If it reminds you of an enjoyable past memory, you know what I mean!

I first come across this recipe watching a Padma Lakshmi travel show on Hyderabad. She visits master biryani maker, Mehboob Alam Khan who prepares a immense handi or pot of biriyani. The meat is marinated, layered with partially boiled rice and saffron. The handi is then covered, the lid sealed with dough and placed on a charcoal fire to cook. The finished product is then scooped on to a large thali! Smellovision would be an appropriate feature on TV at this juncture!

Years ago we had a biriyani wallah, a cook who travelled to our house to make biryani. Mohammed Bhai, as we affectionately called him, always favored me with the first plateful. A slim red-bearded man, I can see him sitting by the sigri or charcoal fire, slicing and dicing, stirring the mutton in a handi almost as big as him! Over the years I have tried to replicate that flavor, that first taste, with little success. Then I give up and revel in the memory. Till I find the present recipe! It is almost the same. I rejoice, I recreate and regale the family with biriyani war stories.... Of being tormented by delicious smells wafting through the house, of watching the unsealing of handi, of waiting for that first plate. Glenn vaguely recollects Mohammed Bhai's creation, so this new one slides over easily. His biryani memory is more current..Geet's version!!!!

I adapt this present one. Mutton, sometimes chicken, depends on the people I make it for. Roshni comes for lunch so I veer towards chicken as she doesn't care for mutton. Onions, always onions. You couldn't make biryani without them. A friend in India, Ambereen, gave me some birista a while ago and now I find it invaluable. Birista is crisply fried golden brown onions. They have a long shelf life in the fridge. If you don't have any, then fry thinly sliced onions till they are golden brown. I feel for people in India right now as the price of onions skyrockets!! It is the talk of the town! But I digress....back to biryani. I do not cook on charcoal but adopt a stove top braise. I do not use dough. It is replaced by tight-fitting foil. A few changes and I'm ready to go! 

Serves 4 hearty appetites

2 pounds Chicken legs and thighs
6 tablespoons Yogurt
1 teaspoon Turmeric powder
2 teaspoons Chile powder
2 tablespoons Ginger paste
2 tablespoons Garlic paste
1 Green Chile, slit in half
1 cup Cilantro, roughly chopped
2 large Onions
1 teaspoon Kosher salt
1 lime
Canola oil for frying onions
1 Cinnamon stick
4 Cloves
2 Potatoes
3 cups Basmati Rice
6 cups Water
A large pinch of Saffron
2 teaspoon Milk
1/2 teaspoon Kosher salt 
2 tablespoons Ghee
Fried Onions to garnish
Cilantro to garnish

Remove chicken skins and trim fatty tissue. Wash and drain. Place chicken in a large container.

Add yogurt, turmeric powder, chile powder, ginger and garlic paste, slit green chile, cilantro, juice of lime, cinnamon stick, cloves and kosher salt to the chicken. 

Peel and thinly slice onions.

Heat 1/2 cup of oil in a frying pan. Add onions to heated oil and fry till golden brown and crisp. Drain on paper towels. 

Keep 1/2 cup of fried onions aside. Crumble the rest into the chicken marinade.

Mix really well, cover and refrigerate for 8 hours, preferably overnight.

Let the chicken come to room temperature before you cook it. 

Meanwhile peel and cube potatoes. 

Heat oil in a kadhai or wok and deep fry potatoes till golden brown. Add them to chicken.

Place the chicken on a low flame. Leave the lid on and cook for 45 minutes or till chicken is cooked.

Wash the rice till water runs clear, about 3 rinses.

Add in the water, kosher salt and ghee. 

Bring to a boil, cover and turn the flame very low and leave undisturbed for 14 minutes. Uncover and fluff the rice with a fork.

Place saffron threads in a tablespoon. Hold the tablespoon over an open flame to let saffron crisp up for 15 seconds. Leave to cool.

Heat the milk in the microwave-safe bowl for 15 seconds.

Crumble saffron into hot milk and let it sit for 2 to 3 minutes.

Heat the oven to 350F.

Assemble the biryani in a deep casserole. Ladle the chicken and potatoes in the bottom of the dish.

Spread rice over chicken.

Dribble saffron milk over the rice.

Sprinkle fried onions over rice.

Take some non-stick foil and cover the casserole tightly and place in oven for 30 minutes.

Take care uncovering the foil. 

Arrange cilantro on rice and serve with raita.


This recipe can be made in the oven too. You have to parboil the rice for 6 minutes in boiling water. Drain and arrange atop the chicken. Place a lid on the pot and seal the edges with chapatti atta or dough or the easiest...aluminum foil. Place in 350F oven and cook for 50 minutes.

Mutton and lamb could be made the same way.

Adjust the heat index to your taste buds... At this point mine are overworked so I use mild spices.

I marinate overnight. It gives meat or chicken optimum flavor. If you are pressed for time, 4 to 6 hours should work. 

We have a leisurely Sunday lunch. The conversation covers a range of topics, from family escapades to impending holidays. Roshni says she can smell the biryani before she comes in to the house. A wild cold wind shrieks outside the windows. It's is warm and toasty in the kitchen. It smells heavenly as biriyani roasts. No Smellovision needed!!! Just hearty appetites!