The secret to a good biryani lies in the detail
The sight of Old Delhi’s Mota Biryani Wala (so-called because he is roughly the same size as his gigantic degh) serving up little plates of tender, spiced meat nestling in saffron-splotched rice, each grain separate and glistening with ghee, is one of my favourites in the world. It was here, many years ago, in the shadow of the Jama Masjid, that I first tasted the great Mughal dish as it should be made.
For a long time, I was content to enjoy biryani made by others, particularly by Mota Wala. Then, I had the great good fortune to attend a cooking class in which I was shown how to make a wonderful Hyderabadi version of the dish (the recipe came, allegedly, from the city’s royal family). While learning how to make biryani, I understood why it is one of the finest dishes in the Indian repertoire. As with so many traditional recipes, it’s all in the detail: frying the onions until they’re just short of burnt; marinating the chicken overnight to tenderize the meat and infuse it with spices; knowing the exact moment to take the rice off the heat; the delicate balance of spice and fragrance.
I also discovered the transformational power of a good raita—in fact, for me, this biryani simply can’t be eaten without raita, although purists might disagree. I think the crunch of the vegetables and the sharpness of the yogurt are the perfect foil to the richness of the biryani, elevating it from great to sublime.
One of my favourite kitchen moments is taking the lid off a just-cooked biryani, inhaling the great waft of fragrances that have been contained during cooking, followed by the visual treat of golden saffron, tantalizing crispy onions and green coriander and mint, and the promise of the delight below.
Hyderabadi chicken biryani
This recipe for the Hyderabadi kachhe gosht ki biryani, just one of hundreds of regional Indian biryanis, is now a firm favourite in our house and has been endlessly tested and tweaked. I know the potato layer isn’t authentic but it’s something I picked up from my friend’s mother—the potatoes crisp up during cooking and add yet another hidden treat as the layers reveal themselves on your plate.
For the marinade
2 large red onions
2-3 tbsp sunflower oil
6 small green chillies, roughly chopped
1 small bulb of garlic, cloves separated, peeled and roughly chopped
2 thumb-sized pieces of ginger, peeled and roughly chopped
1 tsp salt
1 whole chicken, skinned and cut into small pieces (about 18)
To assemble the biryani
125g plain yogurt
500g Basmati rice
1 tsp garam masala
2 tsp salt
7 tbsp ghee
1 potato peeled and thinly sliced
1/2 cup coriander leaves, finely chopped
A handful of mint leaves, finely chopped
Juice of 1 lemon
A large pinch of saffron soaked in 3 tbsp milk
For the ‘raita’
500ml plain yogurt
1/2 tsp of roast cumin seeds, ground
1 tsp salt
1 medium red onion, finely chopped
1 medium tomato, finely chopped
1 tsp coriander leaves, finely chopped
1 tsp mint leaves, finely chopped
1 small green chilli, finely chopped
Thinly slice the onions, then fry, very slowly, in a few tablespoons of sunflower oil on low heat until dark golden brown. Be careful not to burn the onions—the acrid taste of burnt onions will ruin the dish. Use a slotted spoon to remove the onions on to a paper towel and leave them to crisp up.
Make a marinade by grinding together the chillies, garlic, ginger and 1 tsp of salt, adding a little water if necessary to make a smooth paste. Tip into a bowl and mix with half of the caramelized onions.
Make slashes in the flesh of the chicken, add to the marinade and rub the marinade into the chicken. Then leave it in the fridge overnight or for at least 4 hours.
One hour before cooking the biryani, take the chicken out of the fridge and mix in the yogurt. Put the chicken back in the fridge until you’re ready to cook. Wash the rice and leave to soak.
When you’re ready to cook the biryani, in a large pan bring to a boil eight cups of water, to which garam masala and 2 tsp of salt have been added. Add the drained rice and let it boil. When the rice is O cooked, i.e., it still has a bit of chalkiness to it, drain in a colander—watch the rice like a hawk, it gets to this stage very quickly.
Melt the ghee in a large heavy-bottomed casserole that will hold all the chicken pieces in one layer and has a tight-fitting lid, and then turn off the heat. Lay the potato slices in a single layer on the bottom of the pan. Put the marinaded chicken pieces in a single layer on top of the potato.
Put half of the rice on top of the chicken, followed by half of the remaining caramelized onions. Then add half of the coriander, mint and lemon juice. Spread the rest of the rice on too and then the remaining coriander, mint and lemon. Pour the saffron and milk over this.
Put on the lid (and seal with some dough made from flour and water). Cook the biryani on medium heat for 15 minutes and then turn down to low heat for a further 10 minutes.
Mix the rice and chicken together, lifting from the bottom rather than stirring. Check if the chicken is cooked through.
Put the yogurt in a nice serving bowl and whisk in the cumin and salt. Add the onion, tomato, coriander, mint and chilli and stir to mix. Serve the biryani hot with the raita.
The Way We Eat Now is a column on new ways of cooking seasonal fruits, vegetables and grains.
The writer tweets at @eatanddust