It was a modest neighborhood with 2 bedroom quarters, built in a row, one wall shared between two houses. Far from quiet, narrow streets separated two adjacent rows of houses.
If not at school, we kids were always on that street, kicking a soccer ball, hitting a four in cricket or flying kites. Come dusk, a gentle wind would blow and bring with it the aromas drifting out of the kitchens.
Aunty Anwari lived in the house right across the street from ours, and the days we would smell biryani were the days we’d be eating dinner at her place. No invitation necessary.
Hers was the first biryani I ever tasted as a kid and, to date, there hasn’t been any better.
What Is Biryani?
Biryani (pronounced bir-ja-ni), or biriyani, is a layered rice dish with its roots in the Mughal Dynasty in India. Mughals came to India in the 1500s and brought with them their own culture, language, and cuisine. When blended with those of India, this gave birth to many poetic things, biryani being one of them.
Born in the royal kitchens of the Mughal India, biryani was developed as an effort to blend flavors of spicy Indian rice dishes to that of the Persian rice dish called pilaf.
Just like the diversity in culture from one region of India to another, a biryani recipe changes from one region to another as well. Different biryani recipes were developed around the country in all mughal centers of India from Delhi to Lucknow, and all over the southern regions of India.
South India has great agricultural land for rice, the main ingredient used in biryani, so south Indians also slowly mastered the dish even further and came up with several varieties of their own.
A Layered Rice Dish
Out of all these, the most popular variety (in my humble opinion!) is Hyderabadi Dum Biryani, in which the main components of the dish—rice, meat and vegetables, spices and garnishes—are prepared separately and then put together in a layered manner, tightly packed, and then slow cooked to perfection.
Dum is a Hindi name for pressure and that is the technique mainly involved in cooking this Biryani.
An Easy Homemade Biryani
The recipe I am sharing today is a simpler, more approachable take on a traditional Hyderabadi Chicken Biryani. The technique and the ingredient list might look overwhelming but trust me, as long as you have all the ingredients in front of you, the hard part is already over.
This makes for a great dish if you want to please a crowd. It can be layered and refrigerated for up to a day and popped in the oven right before the guests arrive. Serve with a side of raita (a simple yogurt dressing) and it’s a complete meal.
Want More Great Indian Recipes?
- Weeknight Chicken Biryani
- Butter Chicken
- Tandoor Chicken
- Cauliflower Chickpea Curry
- Pressure Cooker Saag Tofu
- Savory Coconut Rice
Indian Chicken Biryani
It is okay to skip one of the varieties of cardamom pods if you cannot find both for the rice.
- For the chicken:
- 2 teaspoons ginger garlic paste, divided
- 1 teaspoon turmeric powder
- 2 to 3 whole chilis, sliced (jalapeno, serrano or cayenne)
- 1/4 cup plain whole milk yogurt
- 1 teaspoon olive oil
- 1 1/2 pounds bone-in chicken pieces (drumsticks or whole thighs)
- 1 tablespoon ghee (clarified butter) or unsalted butter
- 1/3 cup finely chopped red onion (about 1/4 of a large onion)
- For the rice:
- 2 cups long grain basmati rice
- 3 to 4 whole black cardamom pods
- 3 to 4 whole green cardamom pods
- 2-inch cinnamon stick
- 1 teaspoon whole peppercorns
- 1 to 2 bay leaves
- Salt to taste
- For the saffron milk:
- 1/2 teaspoon saffron threads
- 1/3 cup milk, cold or room temperature
- For the fried onions:
- 1 cup cooking oil
- 1 cup thinly sliced red onion (about 3/4 of a large onion)
- To assemble the biryani:
- 1 teaspoon ghee (clarified butter) or unsalted butter
- 1/4 cup cilantro, coarsely chopped
- 1/4 cup mint, coarsely chopped
- 1/4 cup whole milk plain yogurt
- 1 1/2 teaspoons garam masala
- 2 to 3 tablespoons pomegranate arils (seeds)
Marinate the chicken:
Combine 1 teaspoon of the ginger garlic paste, turmeric, sliced chilis, yogurt, olive oil, and salt in a medium bowl. Add the chicken and massage well to coat with marinade.
Cover and pop in the refrigerator to marinate for at least 30 minutes or up to 1 hour.
Prepare the rice:
Wash rice in 2 to 3 batches of water. Drain and set aside.
In a large pot, add the salt, the whole spices, and lots of water. There should be enough water for the rice to float around freely when boiling (see How to Boil Rice). Bring it to a rolling boil.
Add the rice to the pot. Cook until the rice is 90 percent done and still slightly crunchy in the middle; the rice will finish cooking in the dish.
Drain the rice through a sieve, then spread it on a baking sheet or a large plate to cool. Set aside for later. Do not discard whole spices in the rice.
Make the saffron milk:
Stir the saffron strands into the milk. Cover and set aside for 30 minutes or until ready to layer the biryani.
Fry the onions:
Heat the oil in a frying pan over high heat. Drop a strand of onion into the hot oil. If it sizzles loudly, then the oil is hot enough. The pan should be wide enough to accommodate all the onion slices without crowding. Set a plate lined with a paper towel nearby for draining the finished onions.
Carefully drop the onions into hot oil (be careful as the oil might splatter). Cook for 2 to 3 minutes or until the onions are brown and crispy. It’s easy to overcook and burn the onion so keep a constant eye on the pan.
Carefully remove all the onions with a slotted spoon or spider (that’s a ladle with a skimmer on it, like this one) and transfer to the paper-towel lined plate.
Cook the chicken:
Once the chicken has finished marinating, melt 1 tablespoon ghee in a medium-sized pot or pan on medium heat. Add the remaining 1 teaspoon of ginger garlic paste. Cook for a minute or until the paste begins to turn golden brown.
Add the finely chopped red onion. Cook for 3 to 5 minutes on medium heat until the onion softens and begins to turn golden.
Add marinated chicken and the marinade. Stir well. Cover and cook on medium-low heat for 8 to 10 minutes or until the chicken is about 90 percent cooked. The chicken will finish cooking in the oven after being layered with other components of the biryani.
Preheat the oven to 350ºF
Assemble the biryani:
Grease a 3-quart oval baking dish with 1 teaspoon ghee. Spread half of the rice in an even layer on the bottom of the baking dish. Press down gently with your hand to pack the rice layer.
Arrange the chicken and its sauce in a single layer on top of the rice, then top with the cilantro, mint, half of the fried onions, the yogurt, and 1/2 teaspoon garam masala.
Follow with the rest of the rice. Press down again gently to pack everything. Spread the rest of the fried onion over the top and sprinkle with the remaining 1 teaspoon of garam masala. Evenly pour the saffron milk over everything.
Bake the biryani:
Tightly cover the dish with 2 to 3 layers of aluminum foil. Place in the oven and bake for 40 to 50 minutes, or until the rice and rest of the ingredients are cooked through. The foil creates steam for the rice; just uncover a corner and check for doneness by pressing rice between your thumb and index finger.
Rest the biryani:
Transfer the biryani to a cooling rack and let it rest (covered) 10 to 15 minutes before uncovering the dish.
Serve the biryani:
Gently use a fork to mix all the layers together before serving with a side raita and/or a simple salad. Garnish with the pomegranate arils (seeds).