Malabar Chicken Biryani

Chicken Biryani - The Patterned Plate

If there is one, significant, food word that could define happy moments for me, it would be biryani. Beautiful, bountiful Biryani. Even the sound of the word is pleasing. A huge, catering sized platter took  pride of place on a dining table for every birthday, engagement, wedding and christening. Most South Indians could chart their life’s course with plate or banana leaf piled with biryani. I cannot recall the names of the many weddings I attended while living in India, but the ones that recall to memory in an instant are those where the biryani was outstanding.

Like Natasha’s cousin’s wedding. Her parents let me take her on my 50cc gearless scooter, to the venue which was half an hour out of Kozhikode, the town I was living in. Though we didn’t make it for the ceremony, we were in excellent time for the food. The house was situated at a hillside, with plenty of stepped land around it. Tables and chairs were arranged higgledy piggledy, wherever one could be squeezed. Banana leaves were placed in front of you as soon as your posterior hit the seat. Out came a man, wearing a dhoti (white Indian sarong) and a shirt, carrying practically a bucket of biryani in one hand, and a side plate in the other. Using this plate, biryani was heaped onto your leaf, swiftly followed by chumundi (coarse coconut chutney), pickles, raiti and papadum by another bloke right behind him. Man No. 3 filled your glass with warm water. On this would go, steady as an assembly line. Seconds were encouraged, even bellowed for.

That biryani I shall never forget. Made in the famed, Kerala Thalassery style, refined to an art by the Muslim cooks particularly, the rice was tinged a mild, eau de nil green due to the concentration of fresh coriander. The grains glistened with flavoured ghee, stood separate from it’s neighbours but harmoniously came together under the pressure of greedy fingers. The masala was hot and almost ‘tart’ with the flavour and heat of green chillis and black pepper, heady with fresh coriander, perfumed with cassia bark, clove and cardamom. The meat was so succulent, falling apart in hot strips. As you dug your fingertips under the rice, you could feel the lightness of the tender grains, puffed and full of the masala flavours.

In the aftermath of that meal, Nat and I sat under a coconut tree in the heat of the tropical Kerala sun, us two with swollen bellies from gorging on double rounds of that biryani, sweating while drinking hot, sweet chai to finish it all off, incapable of even thinking but feeling so utterly satisfied; it was the best biryani coma ever! That wedding is one of my fondest Indian memories. Not only for the visuals it conjures up on that hillside, but the scents, the taste, the feel and being with a like minded friend. An all round experience.

Chicken Biryani - The Patterned PlateI could waffle on about biryani stories for ages. Like when my mum flew into the worst winter Scotland had seen in decades and me waking up at 3 am, the morning after she arrived, to the smell of a biryani masala cooking. I maintain she’s bonkers, but she would justify it saying it was 7am in Abu Dhabi. That would effectively mean biryani for brekkie in either country. In fact, I think I ate her chicken biryani three days straight and with renewed greed at each serving. She knew it was just what I needed. Which makes me as bonkers as her.

And yet for all the passion I have for this Indian wonder of a dish (well not technically Indian as it came to India by way of the Moghul Persians, who brought their amazing ‘dum’ technique and in which cuisine, rice has a royal hold), I could never bring myself to cook it. I could and will bore you to tears verbally dissecting the finer nuances of a Malabari biryani, but didn’t have the guts to make it myself. It could only set me up for bitter disappointment. How can you recapture the very scent of your mother’s famous biryani or the love and work that went into it? Although not complex, biryanis are lovers of hard core labour. There may be some things that are better off left in another’s capable hands.

But this is the start of a new year and with that comes new challenges. I figure I’d do well to start in an area where I just might have a little advantage and that would be the kitchen. So biryani was top of the list and apple pie followed swiftly under, but that’s another post. I have foodie pals who have made my mother’s recipe several times over, posted about it, sung its praises and shook their heads when I confirmed, again, that I haven’t made it…yet. Well, ‘yet’ is long overdue and it has become Now, today in fact. I made my mother’s Malabari Chicken Biryani and it was a cracker! It was close, very close to my mother’s, close enough to make me very happy. And that qualifies for a blog post.

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I’ll tell you right now, that this isn’t going to be a bung in the pan sort of job. There are stages but it can be divided over two days. In succint terms, a curry or masala is made and then layered with a pulao in a large pot with a heavy lid, and left on a low flame, until steam rises from the top. That’s the bare basics of a biryani. What makes it special is the flavour of the masala. Every part of India has it’s own interpretation. Here I give you the most common combination for the Malabar Coast. It’s heady with fresh coriander, it’s the main player, followed by whole garam masala spices like cardamom, cassia bark and cloves. Ginger and garlic are used with abandon too. Other flavour notes are crisp fried onions dusted with garam masala powder, toasted cashewnuts, raisins and sometimes, fresh mint. Traditional accompaniments are a tart lime pickle – though my mother serves it with a freshly made date pickle, which would be more of a chutney in European terms- a freshly ground coconut, coriander and green chilli ‘chutney’, kinda like a fresh sambal and deep fried crisp urad dal pappadums. I like to offer a lime and salt dressed salad of sliced tomatoes and red onions to freshen things up. Raita or plain yoghurt are excellent too.

Lil Lassie is not a curry lover. She says she’s only half Indian so she only likes Indian food half as much! However, she attacked this plate with gusto as did her brother, both going for seconds after coming up for air. It was a proud Indian mama moment for me and I can now see why my mother busts out a biryani for us- her four kids – at the drop of a hat, without a birthday or anniversary in sight. Watching my kids eat something that I took a lot of care to prepare made me feel like they weren’t just nourishing their bodies, but their hearts as well. Biryani for me means love and happiness. And I think, they get that too.

The Patterned Plate - Malabar Chicken Biryani

  • Servings: 6 generously
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Biryani’s are multi staged in nature. To get ahead, you can make the chicken masala the day before you want to serve the meal. The next day, heat the curry and layer as explained in the recipe below.

The quality of your spices are paramount here. There isn’t a lot in this recipe, but it is enough to perfume the rice, rather than overwhelm. So ensure you use the freshest whole spices you can get, rather than one that’s been lying in a jar for years! Seasoning it correctly makes such a difference too. Carefully season the food, and season well. The curry has to flavour all the rice, so add a touch more salt than required. Also if you have any leftover a great dish for the next day is stuffing a bell pepper with the biryani, topping with cheese (pleases kids) and bake in a moderate to hot oven until the pepper is tender. If you want to eat a portion as is, its better to steam it hot rather than microwaving! Though I tend to to the latter after adding some water to the bowl. And lastly, but importantly, do use ghee (basically clarified butter). It doesn’t burn and the flavour and scent it imparts is wonderful. I understand there are health issues with ghee, but as this biryani isn’t going to grace your table weekly, it’s worth using ghee.

Traditionally, copper lined, round bottomed dishes with a narrow neck and wide lip are the perfect vessel for ‘dhum’ or this kind of layered dishes that are finished off by steaming. As this won’t be widely available, try to use a narrow and tall dish like a stockpot, rather than a wide pan. It all helps.

Ingredients:

For the wet masala:
3 big onions, finely chopped.
1 onion, finely sliced
4 cardomon pods, lightly crushed
3 whole cloves
1.5” cinnamon bark or cassia bark if you can get it.
1 scant teaspoon cumin seeds
1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder
1.5” piece of fresh ginger, crushed
1 whole garlic bulb, crushed
1 large bunch fresh coriander, chopped. 4 tbsp to be kept aside
6 green finger chillis, chopped (depending on the heat, you can add more, it will only taste good. If it’s mild, add more as it will impart a delicious flavour without the heat)
1 ½ cups full fat natural yoghurt at room temperature (low fat yoghurt will curdle)
1-1.25 kilo whole chicken, skinned and jointed into 8 pieces
6 raw, unsalted cashewnuts, ground to a fine paste

For the rice:
10 unsalted, unroasted cashew nuts
25 golden sultanas
¼ teaspoon garam masala powder
4 cups of basmati rice, washed and soaked in cold water for 15 min and strained
5 cups of boiling water
5 sprigs worth of fresh mint leaves chopped.

Ghee as needed

Method:

Heat 3 tablespoons of ghee on a low heat in a large saucepan/casserole and add the finely chopped onion to sweat until translucent.
Add the cardomom pods, cloves and cassia/cinnamon barks and saute for one minute until the fragrance hits you.
Add the cumin, turmeric, ginger garlic, fresh coriander, green chillies and saute´ on a low heat for 10 minutes until pulpy and mushy.
Turn up the heat and add the chicken pieces, toss in the masala and let cook for 5 minutes.
Lower the heat, add yoghurt, salt well and let the chicken cook until it’s almost done. The masala should be thick and fluffy with no pools of water. Add the cashew paste and let it cook for a minute. Taste it, it should be tangy, add lemon juice if it’s not. Take it off the heat.
While the chicken is cooking, get on with the rice.
Boil 5 cups of water.
In a largish saucepan, sauté the finely sliced onions until nicely golden brown and crispy. Remove from the pan with a slotted spoon and spread on a plate to cool and keep crisp. Sprinkle with garam masala.
Add the cashew nuts to the pan and fry until slightly brown and then add the raisins. When they puff up remove the nuts and raisins.
Put the drained rice into the pan and fry gently until the rice gets crispy but not coloured, around 5 minutes. Now pour the boiling water in, salt well and let it come to the boil. Put the lid on , reduce the heat to the lowest simmer and let the rice absorb all the water letting it cook till ¾ of the way done. Remove from the pan and spread on a non-stick sheet/ baking paper to stop the grains sticking together.

Now for the final stage

Take a large saucepan/stockpot. Spread a little of the masala, not the chicken at the bottom and spread half of the rice on top. Sprinkle half of the crispy onions, cashews and raisins along with ¾ of the chopped fresh coriander you have kept aside and the chopped mint.
Spread all the remaining chicken mixture on top of the rice in the pot.
Top the chicken with the remaining rice and strew the rest of the cashews, raisins, onions, coriander and mint.
Cover the pan tightly, sealing with foil if necessary and then the lid and place on a low flame, preferably over a heat diffuser, until you can see some steam rising out of the top*, anywhere from 30-40 minutes. Leave to steam for another minute, then turn off the heat.
Take off the lid and quickly place a tea towel over the rice and place the lid back on. The towel helps absorb excess moisture so that the rice at the top doesn’t turn soggy. and let it sit for half an hour before serving.
Serve with chutney/pickle, raita and pappadums

*If it’s getting close to that time and you cannot see the steam, lift the lid a crack and check that the underside of the lid is wet. If so, it’s done.

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79 comments

  1. Wow, this looks delicious, wonderful pics! I spent a month in India some years ago and I ate biryani almost every day; couldn’t get enough. I’ll definitely be trying your recipe soon.
    xx
    Sheila
    http://www.summery.org

  2. oh oh oh wow! the chicken biryani… the best ever! Thank you for your lovely post and above all for sharing the recipe… you remind me my trip in India some years ago.

  3. This looks absolutely delicious :)

  4. You’re back!! Happy New year! Oh my I think I will try this! Will keep you posted!

  5. Delicious looking recipe! I only ever make pilau. Thanks for sharing!

  6. Wonderful post!! The photos are absolutely gorgeous… they make it look as if everything is sitting right here in front of me, which I have to say, I wish it was sitting right here in front of me.
    It looks fabulous. I’ve never heard of Biryani… but I’m so happy you introduced me to it. I cannot wait to try this. Just lovely. :-)

  7. Wish I could sit down!

  8. Beautiful photos and post! This meal looks incredible. I might have to take the extra time to try this one out, yummm!

  9. I adore Biryani and your version is different to mine so will definitely try it out. Love the black tile wall btw. Really striking.

  10. Love the spread! T.W.O. will have to try this recipe!

  11. Your pictures have the Biryani jumping out at me! I am definitely going to try this, I’ll keep you posted on the turn out. Thanks for sharing!

  12. annauk1

    What a beautiful labour of love. Stunning.

  13. Hi Caroline, I guess the main difference with mine to yours is that I add one large spud sliced thickly, rose water, less chilli (although I love chilli so perhaps I should add more ;o), slightly less coriander – hence mine has not sure a green hue as yours. I also add a couple of tomatoes as well. Perhaps I should blog mine in the coming weeks so you can have a peek. Not sure my photos will be as stunning as yours….I do love the dining room wall of yours x

  14. You just became my hero! What beautiful photography. And easy to follow recipe. Great job. I can’t wait to make it.

  15. An absolutely beautiful biryani. Reading your post and dreamily looking at your photographs has left me feeling very inspired to branch and and make this. I have never tried to make anything such as this, a bit intimidating, however, I think I can. :)

    • I can understand exactly how intimidating it can be because I tell you, I broke into sweats thinking about even attempting a biryani. It’s considered the hard core level of cooking in India haha! But everyone has to start somewhere and this recipe is easy to do really. Give it a go, and you might surprise even yourself!

  16. Lovely words and pictures!

  17. Luchair

    This is such a wonderful dish and your mother’s recipe is a highly valued find – thank you for sharing this. I copied the recipe in n.com days, and was rather nervous the first time i made it. You gave me good advice at the time so i am not surprised that it was so successful for you. Love the pics.

  18. I’ve called Calicut home for the first 25 years of my life! I still miss those biryanis and the long queues for them at restaurants like Paragon.
    The recipe and pics look amazing!

  19. Carrie, well done on finally tackling your mother’s recipe. I feel that way about my mum’s puliyogare (tamarind rice) and can never bring myself to make it for fear of the bitter disappointment that comes with a less than perfect product. Thanks for sharing this recipe. …I am excited to try it as even though I have never tried your mum’s version, it sounds amazing!

  20. How generous of you to share this beautiful recipe with all of us. In fact, I would say that your generous spirit shines through on your blog in general! This is the second time this week someone has mentioned health concerns and ghee in the same breath. I have always thought of ghee as being fairly healthful! Am I wrong?

    • Hmmm see I grew up understanding that ghee was very much a treat! However Sarvani, one of the other commenters said it’s had a bit of a makeover. Apparently, it has a higher amount of short and medium fatty chain than butter, which is better for the body. At the end of the day moderation is best, even moderation itself! And thank you for your lovely, kind words :D

  21. indian food is amazing! so flavorful, with combinations you’d never think to try. love the pictures!

  22. Almost too pretty to eat!

  23. Oh yummy! Your photos and description are nothing less than inspirational. I want to race into the kitchen and make this right now!! Mmmm..

  24. Ooo.. lovely Carrie.. am making this for Sunday dinner for sure!! Lovely photographs.. and step-by-step too..!! News flash from India.. Ghee has had a PR makeover.. in moderation, it is excellent for one’s well-being.. and since everything with ghee tastes so fantastic.. who are we to complain?!

  25. perfect.. worth a try..

  26. Roger D'Souza

    No argument, still the best recipe.

  27. Such beautiful photos! Biryani is my go to Indian dish and I always order it when we go out for Indian food. I’ve never tried to make it at home before but your post is the perfect inspiration to give it a go. Thanks!

    • Thanks Kirsty! You must be luckier than I was ordering it in a restaurant in the UK, cos I never had a decent one in Aberdeenshire. Granted though, it doesn’t exactly have a huge Indian community so that might affect things. It’s not hard to do, but it needs a lot of time and some love and attention. Hope you try it :D

  28. This is so gorgeous. I love biryani too. I love how you took the time to do the onions just right. Your photos are fantastic. Thanks for sharing your passion!

  29. This pic is gorgeous! Wish I was sitting right there…and the food looks pretty darn good too!

  30. Love your blog…..I’m a biryani freak myself…and would definitely give this a try.:)

  31. Cannot wait to get started on this one. I’ve already factored it into next weekend! Superb photographic journal of events, too. Thanks for sharing.

  32. Rushi!

    Carrie you did it! Bravo!!!!! I love biriyani. My mom used to make it as a special treat on Weekends when she had a bit of extra time and I’d hang around the kitchen inhaling the aromas. Sometimes she’d serve it with hard boiled eggs but there would always be that green chilli chutney (wasn’t a big fan of the date version). A friend of mine’s mom makes her biriyani with rosewater, something I’ve tried to replicate but never been able.Does your mom use a banana leaf when she’s steaming her biriyani? Wish I could dig into a huge plate right now :)

    • Haha Yeah Rushi, I did :D The green chilli-coconut chutney is my favourite too. But then I won’t say no to the date chutney either. I am afraid I can’t stand rosewater! Many a gulab jamun has been desecrated by the use of rose water, or rather, kewra water. Not a fan! As for the banana leaf, no, I’ve never seen my ma or grandma do that….However, when we ordered it from restaurants, it would come wrapped in a banana leaf which was then wrapped with newspaper and tied with a coarse string. Oh the memories!

      • Rushi!

        Oh no Carrie, you don’t like rosewater? I love mixing it with orange blossom water and using it for my lemonade. I don’t use rosewater in my gulab jamun though. Some of my relatives use a banana leaf to line to clay chutti when they steam the rice. I think it’s more heavenly then :)

  33. Awesome photos, and you have me salivating over that biryani. What an amazing dish!

  34. Looks absolutely delicious- love making homemade curries, will add this to my ever-growing list of foods to make! :)

  35. Gorgeous, gorgeous photos! I can’t believe I’m saying this, since you’ve had so many other beautiful posts, too, and you seem to excel at sweet cake-like desserts in particular, but I think you’ve outdone yourself with this one. I love biryani, too, but I’ve never considered it to be all that photogenic (until now). This has made me crave it! Such a stunning post. :)

    • Aww Allison, thank you, it’s lovely to hear that! I think Indian food is the hardest to photograph! The only book I have where the photos were truly stunning was Rick Stein’s India. The photos in there were moody in tone, deeply saturated and just spectacular. I’m glad you liked the shots here cos I tell you, I was flapping over it haahah!

  36. This looks so delicious! Thanks for sharing the recipe. I will definitely be making this for my family.

  37. Love it. We made biriyani at home for every meaningful occasion. I seriously miss all the yum Malayalee food back home. There are zero Kerala style restaurants around here in San Francisco. I’ve been trying to cook more often and stumbled upon your blog which I love – for the food as much as the writing!

  38. This looks unbelievably delicious! After a trip to Southern India a few years back, I realized how much I loved all the gorgeous flavors of Keralan cuisine… and yet I still haven’t made the jump to making any at home yet. You’ve inspired me to get started- this looks too good not to. Thank you!

  39. I just had this at a restaurant for the first time – super great to know it’s something we could replicate at home! This is such a beautiful blog.

  40. Melanie Blanco

    I will print this one off to try when I have a free day. A truly wonderful blog post.

  41. This looks delicious! Really good recipe, thanks for sharing!

  42. This looks great! Amazing photography as well!

  43. Wow, this recipe looks delicious and easy to make especially when you follow this detailed step-by-step procedure you’ve prepared. Also the the photos provided are also wonderful. :) We expect more recipes from you and thanks for sharing this wonderful recipe. More power! :)

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