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Indian Cooking Lessons: Chicken Biryani with Gravy and Raita

With our few weekends left we've decided to have our housekeeper come in for some over-time on Saturdays to teach us how to cook some of our favorite dishes. Yes, at any time over the last two-plus years I could have learned these things but it's difficult for me to concentrate with Muffin underfoot, I'm often busy with other things so our housekeeper can cook quickly while I work, and Mike wants to learn too. So on Saturday mornings Muffin goes to two hours of music and art class and Mike and I have cooking lessons.

Hyderabad is known for its biryani. It's a layered rice dish. It's the reason we moved here when given the option of several Indian cities. Chicken biryani is the first dish our housekeeper made for us and it's remained our favorite. Muffin has grown up on it. One of the reasons its imperative that I learn how to make it is so that I don't deprive Muffin of one of her favorite foods. Moving to the United States is going to be a shock to her and I want to continue making some of her favorite Indian foods to ease her transition.

So, to the best of my ability, I have transcribed my notes from watching my housekeeper make chicken biryani and making it myself under her supervision.

If anything in the recipe is too confusing please let me know. I've been living with it for a while now and it makes sense to me but it's not helpful to others if it doesn't make sense to them!

Chicken Biryani 
½ kg chicken – boneless chicken breast cut into one-inch pieces or quartered chicken with bones
½ kg yogurt
bunch of cilantro, leaves and stems chopped
bunch of mint, leaves and stems chopped
2 chilis (mirchi or serrano), chopped
1 big spoon garlic-ginger paste
1 tsp ground cloves
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp cardamom powder
1 tsp chili powder
1 tsp turmeric powder
juice of 2 small limes
2 tsp salt

Put all of the above into a big pot to marinate for 30 minutes. 

Chicken marinating with yogurt, spices, and herbs

In another pot...
2 medium red onions, sliced
pinch of salt

Heat up enough oil to completely cover the onions for deep frying. Once the oil is hot, add the onions and fry until deep brown. Remove onions from oil and drain on paper towels, allow to cool. Save the pot and the oil!

Cover onions with oil...

Fry until golden brown; drain and cool until crispy
Back to the chicken pot
Add about half of the onion oil to the chicken pot (save the frying pot and the rest of the oil). Start cooking on high heat, bring to boil. Boil for 5 to 10 minutes, then reduce to low heat.

In a medium pot
½ kg rice
sprinkle shazeera seed (taste similar to caraway seed)
2 Indian bay leaves (English bay leaves can be used)
3 black cardamom pods (green okay if black is not available)
pinch salt 

Add to a medium pot and cover with water plus about one inch. Cook over high heat until boiling. The rice should not get fully cooked; it needs to be a little hard.
Aromatics in water, waiting for rice
Back to the chicken pot
Crumble about two-thirds of the fried onions and add to chicken pot.

In a small cup
Prepare food color: About 1/3 cup milk with orange color powder. Set aside.

In the rice pot
Stir rice occasionally. When it boils, take it off the heat and drain. Remove bay leaves. Spread the rice over chicken mixture and smooth off. Spoon food coloring over the rice in swirls; crumble the rest of fried onions evenly over the top. Spoon 1 to 2 Tbs of onion oil over top of rice. Cook on low heat for 15 to 20 minutes. To test for doneness, press a spoon into the rice. When it’s firm, it’s done.

Finished with fried onions and food coloring
Toast 1 Tbs white poppy seeds; grind to a fine powder then add 1 – 2 Tbs water and grind into a paste. Set aside.

1 medium red onion – chop into large chunks
2 chilies – chop
2 medium tomatoes – chop into large chunks
1 large handful mint
1 large handful cilantro
½ tsp each cinnamon, cloves, turmeric, and chili powders
½ cup yogurt
1 tsp cumin powder
1 tsp coriander powder
2-3 large pinches of salt

Grind in the blender until smooth. Add to the frying pot that still has oil in it from frying the onions. Cook on low or medium flame for five minutes until the oil separates. Add a big spoonful of ginger-garlic paste and the poppy seed paste. Simmer for a few more minutes.

Grate one large cucumber and mix with a cup of yogurt. Add a pinch of salt and a pinch of mustard or cumin powder to taste. Carrot, tomato and/or onion can also be used along with the cucumber.

To serve, spoon through all the layers of rice, yogurt, and chicken and place on a large plate or broad, shallow bowl. Add some of the gravy and some of the raita. Dig in!

My taste-tester
The key is to use the same proportion of chicken, rice, and yogurt. Using a half kilogram, or about one pound, makes enough for four to six people. All the other spices and seasonings can be adjusted to taste.

When I made it myself, with our housekeeper watching, it tasted great but not quite the same. I think I went a little light on the spices and I know I didn't use enough salt. The recipe includes approximations of what my housekeeper uses; I used about half the amount of salt and my teaspoons were a little scant. You can make the biryani less spicy by not putting in fresh chilies and by using less chili powder. Then, you can make the gravy spicier for diners who want their biryani with more kick. Muffin also prefers plain yogurt to the raita, so that's another option for those who don't want quite so many flavors.


Anonymous said…
For the 'orange food color powder' - would turmeric work?

I'm lucky enough that my Matt has a coworker from Hyderabad who came to my birthday party last year bringing veggie biryani. Really tasty stuff, and I've wanted to learn how to cook it since then. Because Matt hates onions we're going to adapt it that much, but I'm going to try to convince him to make this as soon as I can, so I'll hopefully be able to give you further feedback regarding understandableness of the instructions. :) (though it may not be soon soon, as it's hard to convince him to cook new things.)
Stephanie said…
Turmeric would add more flavor and I don't know if it dissolves in milk or water prettily. The food coloring is just for show so you could use a liquid or gel food coloring. But if you wanted extra turmeric flavoring you could try it. Or omit the color completely. You really can't taste the onions, they're so fried. To make it veg you can replace the chicken with carrots, potatoes, and/or cauliflower chunks and follow the rest of the recipe the same.

Good luck!

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