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What Is Biryani?
Biryani is a South Asian rice dish of spiced aromatic rice layered with meat, vegetables, and herbs. Beloved in Pakistani, Bangladeshi, and Indian cuisine, biryani has hundreds of regional varieties. It typically involves marinating meat in spices and yogurt, parboiling rice with whole spices, and combining the saucy meet with the fragrant rice in distinct layers.
Where Does Biryani Come From?
Although seasoned rice dishes have been eaten in India for a long time, what we think of as biryani today likely comes from the Mughals. It’s believed that they were the first to combine Indian spiced rice dishes and Persian pilaf to make biryani.
Although the Mughals ruled in the north of India, biryani is more popular in the south (it’s especially associated with the city of Hyderabad), likely because more rice and meat are eaten in the south than in the north. The word biryani is Urdu, and comes from the Persian word biriyan, which means fried.
8 Key Ingredients for Making Biryani
- Rice: The best rice to use for biryani is long-grain, aromatic basmati. Traditionally, local rice varieties were used, such as the aromatic, short-grain seeraga samba, jeerakasala (aka kaima), and golden sella rice.
- Meat: Marinated chicken, goat, buffalo, lamb, mutton, and kofta (meatballs) are all common biryani meats. Seafood can also make its way into a biryani.
- Vegetables: Fried onions are a typical feature of biryani, while tomatoes, chillies, fresh ginger, and garlic (often ground into garlic paste or garlic-ginger paste) are used to marinate meat.
- Spices: Biryani features both whole and ground spices including nutmeg, mace, peppercorns, cloves, green cardamom, cinnamon, bay leaf, coriander, saffron, rosewater, screwpine water, garam masala, and red chili powder.
- Herbs: Mint, cilantro, and curry leaves can all be added to the marinade.
- Ghee: Often drizzled over the rice.
- Yogurt: Yogurt and other fermented dairy products (such as dahi and doi) are used in the marinade to tenderize the meat.
- Toppings: Fruit; nuts such as cashews or almonds; dried rose petals; and halved hard-boiled eggs are all common biryani toppings.
2 Different Ways to Make Biryani
Biryani can be categorized according to both cooking method and ingredients, the combination of which yields hundreds of regional versions. There are two basic ways to make biryani, and they both involve dum, a northern Indian slow-cooking method that involves cooking food in a heavy-bottomed pot over a low fire. The pot is sealed tightly with a lid, aluminum foil, and/or a wheat-based roti dough that can be eaten with the finished dish. The two main ways to cook biryani are called:
- Kacchi biryani: Raw marinated meat is layered with parboiled rice and cooked dum-style.
- Pukka biryani: The rice and meat are cooked separately, then brought together for the final steaming.
11 Regional Biryani Styles
- Hyderabadi biryani: Maybe the most well known type of biryani. Rich and spicy, it’s traditionally made with goat meat, but can be made with chicken as well. The meat and rice are cooked together, kacchi style. Seasoned with saffron.
- Calcutta biryani: Involves less spices than other biryanis, but the meat is still marinated in nutmeg, cinnamon, mace, cloves, cardamom, black pepper, and dahi. The meat is cooked separately from the saffron- and rosewater-seasoned rice, pukka style. Garnished with hard-boiled eggs.
- Malabar biryani: Traditionally made with kaima rice drizzled with ghee. It features meat or seafood marinated in cilantro, mint, coconut, and curry leaves.
- Indonesian nasi kebuli: Features rice cooked in goat broth, milk, and ghee. It’s typically spicy.
- Navratan biryani: Garnished with cashews, grapes, apple, and pineapple.
- Tehari biryani: A vegetable biryani made with potatoes instead of meat.
- Kalyani biryani: A buffalo biryani from Hyderabad. Cubed buffalo meat is marinated with ginger, garlic, turmeric, red chili, cumin, coriander, onion, and tomatoes.
- Chevon biryani: From Dhaka, Bangladesh, this version features goat meat, mustard oil, black pepper, saffron, clove, cardamom, cinnamon, lemon, doi, peanuts, raisins, and cheese.
- Thalassery biryani: From Kerala, this variation is made with kaima rice mixed with ghee, chicken pieces, mace, cashews, raisins, fennel seeds, cumin, tomato, cloves, and cinnamon.
- Ambur biryani: From Vellore in northern Tamil Nadu, this version is made with seeraga samba rice and mutton marinated in mint and yogurt. Cooked pukka style.
- Sindhi biryani: From Sindh, Pakistan, it features chicken, mutton, or seafood marinated in tomatoes, yogurt, cilantro, and mint. Garnished with prunes.
7 Tips for Making Biryani
- When sourcing rice, the older the better: Look for long-grain aromatic basmati rice that is two years old.
- For grains that are separate, and smooth, not sticky, rinse rice in three or four changes of water to remove excess starch and soak rice for at least 20 minutes before cooking.
- You can infuse flavor into your rice by parboiling with whole spices such as cumin seeds, whole cloves, black peppercorns, bay leaf, and cardamom pods. Make sure your rice cooking water is well seasoned with salt, too. If you don’t want to find whole spices in your finished dish, tie them up in a cheesecloth sachet.
- To parboil rice, boil rice in water 2 to 3 minutes, then remove a couple grains. They should still be firm, but break into two pieces when pressed. If the grains break into three or more pieces, your rice is overcooked. Adjust cook times or start over.
- Use a heavy-bottomed pot, such as a Dutch oven, for dum biryani. Since you’re steaming food for long periods of time, thin cookware can cause scorched rice.
- The type of meat and vegetables used in the briyani will determine how long it needs to steam. Chicken breast, for example, can dry out if cooked too long.
- Serve biryani very hot, by spooning it from the sides, and leaving the layers intact, with raita on the side.
Chicken Biryani Recipe
Prep Time30 min
Total Time2 hr
- 3–4 lb skinless, bone-in chicken thighs and drumsticks
- 1 cup roughly chopped fresh cilantro leaves and stems
- 1 cup roughly chopped fresh mint leaves
- 3 tbsp garam masala
- 1 tsp cayenne pepper
- ¼ tsp ground turmeric
- 6 cloves garlic, peeled
- 1 jalapeño pepper (or other hot pepper), thinly sliced
- 1 (4-inch) piece ginger, thinly sliced
- ½ lemon, juiced
- 2 cups plain full-fat yogurt
- Kosher salt, to taste
- 1 cup peanut oil
- 1 large yellow onion, thinly sliced
- 2 cups basmati rice
- ½ tsp cumin seeds
- 3 whole cloves
- 2 green cardamom pods
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 2 bay leaves
- ½ cup ghee, melted
- 1 pinch saffron threads (about 10), soaked in 2 tablespoons warm milk
- Marinate the chicken: In a large bowl, combine a third of the fried onions with cilantro, mint, garam masala, cayenne pepper, turmeric, garlic, jalapeño, ginger, lemon juice, yogurt, and salt. Add the chicken and toss to combine. Cover and refrigerate at least 1 hour.
- Make the fried onions: Heat the peanut oil and onions in a saucepan over medium heat. Cook, stirring, until onion slices separate and begin to turn golden brown, about 25 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the onions to a paper towel–lined plate to drain. Reserve oil for another use.
- Meanwhile, soak and rinse the rice: Rinse rice in 3-4 changes of cold water, then soak in fresh cold water, at least 20 minutes before cooking.
- Parboil the rice: In a large pot, combine cumin, cloves, cardamom, cinnamon, bay leaves, salt, and 6 cups water over high heat. Bring to a boil, then add rice. Cook rice until slightly tender, about 2–5 minutes. Rice should break into two pieces when pressed, not more. Drain rice in a fine mesh strainer, discarding water.
- Layer the briyani: In a Dutch oven or other heavy-bottomed pot, spread a third of the parboiled rice on the bottom of the pot. Top with half the chicken and its marinade. Top with a third of the remaining fried onions. Repeat layering. Drizzle ghee and saffron milk over the final layer of rice. Cover the pot tightly with aluminum foil, and then place the lid on top. Steam until chicken is fully cooked, about 35–40 minutes. Garnish with remaining fried onions.
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