Biryani, the storied Indian dish of fragrant layered rice, spices, and (usually) meat, if made well, is one of my favorite things. A good biryani is richly aromatic; indeed, a magnificently flowery aroma is an essential part of the dish. Biryanis are made throughout India, and preparation differs depending on the region. Some biryanis are made with coconut, some with ghee, yogurt, or buttermilk; spices may include cardamom, coriander, cinnamon, fennel, or mace, among many others. The intoxicating aroma usually comes from saffron, sometimes with a touch of rosewater or kewra (pandan syrup). The word biryani is said to be of Persian origin, a corruption of the word beriyan, which in Farsi means to fry before cooking, or birinj, which means rice. Biryanis are thought to have been brought to India by the Mughals in the 16th century, although some culinary historians believe the dish pre-dated the empire. Regardless of origin, the dish has proliferated—in Hyderabad alone, there are said to be over forty distinct versions.
My path to this recipe was precipitated by the much-welcomed reappearance of curry leaves in my life. Like most Americans, I never had curry leaves in the United States. It’s not our fault. Thank those humorless trolls, the FDA, who banned the import of curry leaves when a pest was found on a shipment. In London, I encountered them for the first time them fresh, sold by the bunch at a famous Notting Hill spice shop. Thence began a love affair. (Like a dog offered a tasty piece of meat, I find it virtually impossible to resist unfamiliar spices. My spice cabinet is jammed higgledy-piggledy with jars, bags, and tins. I buy spices when I travel like some women buy pocketbooks. When I moved house from London to Seattle, I brought my hard-won spice collection with me (are you listening, customs fascists?), save for those that could not masquerade as sealed containers. These remnants, which included some truly superlative, hard-to-find Georgian spice blends, I gave to my beloved friends Jess and Will, WHO HAD BETTER APPRECIATE THEM.)
But I digress. Curry leaves (not to be confused with curry, an English derivative of the word kari, meaning, simply, sauce) predominate in South Indian cooking. They have a slightly acrid aroma, not unlike asafetida, and a nutty, burnt cork flavor. They add dimension to all manner of dishes, and are wonderfully versatile, working equally well with fish as with vegetables, with meats as with dal. Tougher than other fresh herbs, they still are tender enough to be eaten. Curry leaves, as I learned the hard way, are impossible to find in Seattle. I searched for them in at least a dozen places. Most vendors hadn’t heard of them. At Uwajimaya, the excellent Japanese supermarket chain, I learned from a knowledgeable produce buyer that although the ban has been lifted, shipments frequently are still ‘detained’ at the whim of customs agents. I ultimately found them online here. They arrived fresh and fragrant, and since receiving them I think I’ve used them every day.
One of the most memorable biryanis I’ve eaten featured curry leaves, and so biryani was one of the dishes I was determined to make with my new stash. I cannot totally vouchsafe authenticity; this biryani is pretty close to a Lucknowi biryani, and I’m not 100% sure that curry leaves would be used in a biryani so far north, although curry leaves from Lucknow are reputed to be excellent. I researched a number of recipes before making this one; particular thanks go to Kavita for her excellent explanation of technique, and Pushpesh Pant’s India cookbook. My recipe uses shallots because I prefer them to onions; in India, the two ingredients often are used interchangeably. The dish involves a number of steps and many different spices, but beyond that it is not overly difficult to make. Traditionally, the pot in which a biryani is cooked, or dum, is sealed with dough to ensure that absolutely no steam escapes while the dish finishes. You can seal the pot with foil, however. If you want to try the dough method, a recipe and instructions can be found here.
You will need:
A large casserole dish with a tight-fitting lid
A mortar and pestle or spice grinder
2 cups (420 g) basmati rice
1.5 pounds (approx 2/3 kilo) boneless chicken thighs, cut into rough bite-sized chunks
1 cup (240 g) yogurt
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 and 1/4 teaspoon salt plus one tablespoon salt, divided
6 tablespoons ghee, divided
300 grams (about 2/3 pound) shallots, or 7-8 medium red shallots, sliced thinly into rounds and then roughly chopped
25-30 fresh curry leaves
2-3 black cardamom pods
6-7 green cardamom pods
½ teaspoon fennel seeds
½ teaspoon nigella seeds
2-3 whole cloves
2 cinnamon sticks
5 large cloves (about ½ medium head) garlic, finely grated, or about four tablepoons
2 tablespoon grated fresh ginger
2-3 small green chillies (Thai chillies are fine) finely chopped
Four tablespoons fresh mint leaves, roughly chopped (divided)
Six tablespoons fresh coriander (cilantro) roughly chopped (divided)
½ teaspoon saffron, crumbled, and bloomed in a small bowl with 4 tablespoons of boiling water
A few drops rosewater and/or kewra (optional)
2-3 tablespoons slivered toasted almonds
- First stage: Initial preparation.
Combine the yogurt, turmeric powder, and 1 and ¼ teaspoon salt in a bowl with the cut-up chicken, and toss to combine. Set aside to marinate. Wash the rice well until the water is no longer cloudy, then put the rice in a bowl, cover with water, and leave to soak for at least 20-30 minutes.
Heat four tablespoons of the ghee in a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-high heat, then fry the shallots until they are golden brown, stirring occasionally to prevent them from burning. (This will take about 20-30 minutes.) Remove from the pan with a slotted spoon and set aside. Fry the curry leaves in the same pan until crispy. Remove to a plate or dish and set aside, reserving the leftover flavored ghee.
In a dry saucepan over medium heat, toast the two kinds of cardamom, fennel seeds, and nigella seeds until they are aromatic and the cardamom has begun to color. Remove from the pan. It should be easy to remove the cardamom seeds from the pods; if not smash the cardamom lightly with the flat end of a knife to crack the pods, remove, and reserve. Combine the cardamom seeds with the toasted fennel and nigella seeds and pound to a powder in a mortar and pestle. Wrap the reserved cardamom pods together in cheesecloth with the cinnamon sticks and cloves, and tie with twine to secure.
- Second stage: Par-cooking the ingredients.
Making sure that you have removed all crispy shallot remnants (one way to do this is to pour the contents of the pan through a strainer), add two tablespoons of ghee to the pan with the reserved ghee and heat over medium-high heat until melted. Stir in the toasted ground spices, toss briefly to temper, then add the chillies and grated garlic and ginger. Stir rapidly with a wooden spoon until the mixture has begun to soften and turn pale golden (3-5 minutes). Stir in the chicken together with the yogurt marinade, and cook uncovered over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, until the liquid has reduced to a thick sauce and the fat has begun to separate, about 40 minutes. When the sauce has reduced and thickened, remove the chicken from the heat, and stir in half of the chopped mint and coriander.
While the chicken is cooking, heat six cups of water in a large pot until rapidly boiling. Add one tablespoon of salt, half of the chopped mint and coriander, your cheesecloth spice package, and the rice, and boil briskly over medium-high heat for 6-7 minutes, or until the rice is par-cooked. It should be somewhat soft but still have some bite to it, like al dente pasta. Remove from heat, drain excess water, and rinse with a little cold water to stop the cooking. Remove and discard the spice package.
- Third stage: Assembly.
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit (180 degrees Celsius). Grease the bottom and sides of your casserole dish with a little ghee or vegetable oil.
Spoon a thin layer of rice (about ½ inch) over the bottom, and sprinkle with a few fried shallots. Cover with one third of the chicken mixture, distributing evenly over the bottom.
Spoon over this one third of the remaining rice, sprinkle with one third of the fried shallots, one third of the fried curry leaves, and drizzle with one third of the saffron mixture. If using rosewater or kewra, add a few drops to the saffron before assembly. Repeat this layering process—one third chicken, one third rice, one third shallots, curry leaves, and saffron—until you’ve used all the ingredients. Sprinkle the slivered toasted almonds over the top of the final layer.
Seal tightly with aluminum foil, then cover. Or, if using dough, seal the edges after you’ve covered the pot.
Cook for 35 minutes in the oven. Serve hot.