Our Daily Bread

The chicken recipe that flew from Yemen to Bengaluru

Indians do not, in general, take very well to foreign cuisines in general, but a bland, Yemeni style of cooking meat is a hit down south

Samar Halarnkar
First Published2 Jun 2024
Chicken mandi.
Chicken mandi. (Photo by Samar Halarnkar)

This week, the spouse persuaded me to watch MasterChef Australia, the cooking show that is so beloved to a certain kind of Indian. She does not really cook but loves MasterChef. I cook regularly but have no time or patience for MasterChef or any other cooking show.

It was a couple thing to do, so I agreed. I watched with interest as the judges oohed and aahed over an Indian contestant’s pani puri. The novelty faded somewhat when she made tandoori prawns, and by the time she was on to butter chicken, I thought they were struggling to be polite. When the famous chef Jamie Olivier allowed the contestants only ingredients from a “magic box”, she was floundering because it had zero spices.

Two things irked me. First, that Indian food abroad is usually identified with Punjabi food. Second, our culinary horizons are limited to our food.

You could argue that India has welcomed some foreign cuisines, except that gobi Manchurian does not count as Chinese, and even pizzas have been desi-fied with spicy kheema and butter-chicken versions. Yes, we have taken to some cuisines, such as Thai and Korean, without major modifications. These are well-known examples, mostly because they have spice levels on par with ours.

Also read: The mystique of saffron in a summer lunch

This is why it is surprising that in the south, in lands known for the fieriness of their spices, from Telangana to Kerala, many restaurants now offer a cuisine mild on spices, teetering on the edge of blandness. I am referring to food—mostly meat—from the Arabian peninsula.

Alongside the mutton brain dry fry and shaadi ki biryani—and local atrocities like popcorn chicken kebab—the menus of the modest restaurants in my neighbourhood inevitably have an Al Faham or mandi mutton or chicken, usually the latter.

Al Faham in Arabic only means charcoal, but here it refers to a grilled or barbecued chicken with mild spices, such as coriander and cumin. Mandi meats are meant to be slowly baked underground, but, of course, that isn’t happening here in Bengaluru’s cantonment where these restaurants abound.

Their version of mandi may use some desi spices, but nothing that will make the chicken or mutton Indian-style spicy. The mandi style of cooking is popular across the Arabian peninsula, but it comes from Yemen, using a spice mix called hawaij. Look it up, the spices that comprise it are mostly familiar to Indian homes. I roasted and ground the hawaij spices the first time around. The second time, I used whatever was at hand.

I’ve tried my hand at mandi chicken twice, and I’ve been struck by how amenable it is to modification, which suits my style of cooking perfectly. I like the mildness of the meat on days when I’ve had enough of spicy food, and I like the fact that it is a one-pot dish. It is made with rice, and both cook gently and slowly in an oven, the urban replacement for a pit.

The spices I used each time varied, as did the portion. The first time I used a whole chicken and extra rice, enough to feed the extended family (although I ended up eating it myself over three days). The second time (recipe below), I experimented with a nuclear family version, using modest quantities of chicken and rice.

I did not use smoking charcoal either, which you should for the last 10 minutes, if you want to impart the mandi with its original Yemeni backcountry flavour. The mandi has as many versions as its spicier Indian cousin, the biryani. All that matters is that the rice is cooked and the meat falls off the bone—as easily as dew, which is what mandi means in Arabic.

Chicken mandi, Hall Road version

Serves 2


For the sauce

2 tomatoes

2 large cloves of garlic

1 tsp coriander or cilantro

Juice of 1 lime

2 green chillies

Salt to taste

Grind all ingredients to a coarse paste.

For the rice

Three-fourth cup long-grained rice (I used Sela rice), washed and soaked for 30 minutes

1 red onion, sliced fine

1 bay leaf

10 strands saffron, soaked in a little warm water

8 peppercorns

Chicken stock, enough to cover the rice

Juice of half lemon

2 tsp vegetable oil

Salt to taste

In a stainless steel pan, fry the onions until they start to brown. Remove and set aside. In an oven-proof dish, spread out the soaked rice, mix with the fried onion, bay leaf, peppercorn, saffron, lemon juice, leftover oil from the fried onions, salt and chicken stock—just enough to cover all this.

For the chicken

500g chicken thighs with skin and bone

2 tsp smoked paprika

1 tsp red-chilli powder

1 tsp cumin powder

1 tsp sumac

1 tsp ginger-garlic paste

Juice of half a lemon or 1 small lime

Salt to taste

2 tsp vegetable oil for frying

Marinate the chicken in all the spices and salt for about 30 minutes. Gently heat a stainless steel or non-stick pan with the oil and fry the chicken pieces skin side up until nicely golden-brown. Flip and fry until the skin starts to brown. Remove from pan and set aside.


Cover the rice in the oven-proof dish with a foil. Press down the foil till it is depressed till just above the rice. With a knife, make small slashes in the foil. Grease the top of the foil with a little oil. Then lay out the fried chicken, cover with baking paper, then seal it in with another layer of foil.

Preheat the oven to 175 degrees Celsius. Place the baking dish in the oven and bake for 1 hour. Increase the heat to 190 degrees and bake for another 20 minutes. Serve hot with sauce.

Our Daily Bread is a column on easy, inventive cooking. Samar Halarnkar is the author of The Married Man’s Guide To Creative Cooking—And Other Dubious Adventures. He posts @samar11 on Twitter.

Also read: Cut kitchen time, up your cooking game with a squid recipe

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HomeLoungefoodThe chicken recipe that flew from Yemen to Bengaluru

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