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~ Indian Chicken Biryani: Demystified (& Simplified) ~

IMG_0623Back in 2005 and 2006 I volunteered my services as a cooking consultant to WPSU-TV.  It turned out to be one of the most valuable experiences of my life, as, without knowing, it evolved into a  launching pad of sorts:  it exposed me to the workings of a television station, and, allowed me to participate, from beginning to end, in the production of cooking on television.

IMG_0707With no credentials other than "a local woman known for her cooking", Charlie, the producer, put me on his team.  I took my 'job' seriously and am proud to say:  I redesigned the look of their cookbooks, instituted a standard format for recipe submissions, edited each recipe, decided which ones went into each book, and, got every book to the publisher on time. In preparation for each show, I recommened 6-8 guests to be invited to cook on-air, estimated the time for each appearance, and, chatted with each person about what was expected.  I presented the show's host (Charlie) with relevant facts and commentary about each person and their dish, then, did food-styling for the final camera presentation of every dish made on-air.  It was a lucky experience! 

The second book/show I 'worked on' was all chicken recipes.  A lovely Indian woman, Mytri Acharya, submitted her recipe for Biryani Pilaf, accompanied by her recipe for Chicken Biryani. Mytri prepared her pilaf as a side-dish that day (because there wasn't enough time to prepare her time-consuming chicken biryani on live TV), and it was marvelous.  It was so marvelous, a few weeks after the show, I called her because I wanted to make her chicken biryani, which outwardly seemed complicated to me.  She was kind enough to discuss her recipe with me in detail, in three easy parts, which I have "Westernized/customized" a bit for my family!

IMG_0597In India, this dish is served at celebrations because it is joyful!

A bit about chicken biryani (beer-YAH-nee):  Known as one of India's signature dishes, variations exist in Pakistan (Sindhi biryani) and all surrounding countries.  Biryani is basically a rice-based dish made from an exotic and wide array of herbs, spices and other flavorings, along with meat poultry, fish, shellfish and/or vegetables.  Yogurt usually plays a part somewhere too. The flavors come from ingredients like:  ghee (clarified butter) or oil, bay leaves, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, cumin, ginger, mint, saffron and/or turmeric.  "Basmati" rice, a Himalayan grown fragrant rice, which literally means "queen of fragrance", is classic to the preparation of biryani. Vegetables like broccoli, green beans, peas, carrots and/or tomatoes are often added.  In some regions of India, dried fruits and toasted nuts are added as well.

The most important thing to remember about biryani is:

IMG_0630The meat and/or vegetables are cooked separately from the rice (each in their own spices).  The meat portion is cooked until almost all liquid has evaporated from it, and, the rice is steamed until the grains are separated and fluffy. The two components are then combined one of two ways:  They are stirred together in one pot, or, layered and baked in one pot.  The final dish is minimally moist, with the grains of rice remaining separate.  If you think about it for a moment, that just makes sense.  The time it takes to properly cook the meat and vegetable portion of this dish, does not equate to the time it takes to properly steam or cook rice. Cooking them both together in one pot would result in more of a creamy risotto consistency -- and that is NOT what biryani is about!

Part One.  Marinating the Chicken

IMG_04202  pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs, trimmed of large pieces of fat, cut into 1 1/2"-2" chunks, about 6 large thighs after trimming (Note:  boneless chicken tenderloins may be substituted, but, I rather enjoy the fuller flavor of chicken thighs in this dish.)

1/2  cup chopped, fresh cilantro leaves, a minimal amount of stems are ok

1/4  cup chopped, fresh mint leaves

2  tablespoons finely-diced (about 1/8") fresh garlic cloves

2  tablespoons finely-diced (about 1/8") fresh ginger

IMG_04231/2 cup plain yogurt (Note:  I try to purchase Indian yogurt, but, can't always find it.  Substitute Greek yogurt without  compromise.)

1  tablespoon garam masala (a mixture of fragrant spices like cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, coriander and black pepper) 

1  teaspoon Madras curry powder (a piquant mixture of coriander seeds, turmeric, chile pepper, salt, cumin seeds, fennel seeds, black pepper, garlic, ginger, fenugreek, cinnamon, cloves, anise and mustard seed)

1/2  teaspoon sea salt

IMG_0432 IMG_0436~ Step 1.  In a small bowl, stir together the yogurt, garam masala, Madras curry powder and sea salt.  Prep the chicken, cilantro, mint, garlic and ginger as directed, placing them in a 1-gallon food storage bag as you work.  Add the yogurt mixture, seal the bag and toss to coat.    Marinate at room temperature for 1 hour, or, in the refrigerator overnight.

Part Two.  Making the Curry and Cooking the Chicken

IMG_04522-3  tablespoons canola, coconut, corn, vegetable, peanut or sunflower oil, just enough to thinly coat the bottom of the pan, not olive oil

1 1/2 cups medium-diced (about 1/2") yellow or sweet onion

1  teaspoon ground turmeric

all chicken and marinade (from above)

1 cup coconut milk, shaken or well stirred prior to measuring and adding to curry

1  14 1/2-ounce can diced tomatoes, well-drained, juice reserved

4 whole bay leaves

IMG_0468the seeds from 2 whole green cardamom pods

(Note:  Cardamom is a member of the ginger family, and, inside of each pod are 17-20 seeds full of spicy-sweet flavor.  Just cut each pod in half widthwise.  Squish it around between your thumb and index finger and the seeds will fall right out.  Don't worry about any small pieces of the pod or rib sections that join the mix -- they will disintegrate when cooked)

2 whole cinnamon sticks

6 whole cloves

2  whole star anise

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

1/2  teaspoon coarsely-ground black pepper

IMG_0475 IMG_0474~ Step 1.  In a 5 1/2-quart chef's pan, place just enough oil to coat the bottom of the pan.  Prep and add the onion.  Adjust heat to medium-high and saute, stirring frequently, until the onion is beginning to soften, about 3 minutes.  Do not brown the onions.

IMG_0487~ Step 2.  Reduce heat to low and stir the turmeric into the onions.  

Add and thoroughly incorporate the chicken and all of the marinade.  

IMG_0495Return heat to medium-high and cook until chicken is no longer pink and is firming up, stirring almost constantly, about 6 minutes.

IMG_0515~ Step 3.  Add the coconut milk, reserved juice from tomatoes, cinnamon sticks, bay leaves, cloves, anise, black pepper & salt.  

IMG_0521Adjust to a steady simmer and cook, uncovered, until almost all of the liquid has evaporated from the pan, about 30- IMG_053845 minutes, stirring constantly towards the end of the cooking process to prevent browning or scorching, lowering the heat towards the end, if necessary.  

Note:  Depending upon the heat on your stove, and what you consider a steady simmer, this could take up to an hour.  Don't panic, just stir, allow the liquid to evaporate and thicken, and, don't let the mixture brown at the bottom.  How easy is that!

IMG_0550 IMG_0544~ Step 4. Stir in the reserved diced tomato pieces and cook for about 30 seconds.  Their acid will 'sort of' deglaze the pan (which shouldn't have any browned bits to begin with but you get the idea). Turn the heat off, cover, and, allow to steep while preparing the rice.

Part Three.  Steaming the Rice, Serving & Garnishing

IMG_06674  cups uncooked basmati rice

2  whole bay leaves

the seeds from 4  whole green cardamom pods

1  cinnamon stick

4  whole cloves

1  whole star anise

4  cups water (measured in the same cup used to measure the rice)

Note:  I use a rice steamer to cook my rice for this dish and I error on the side of cooking a bit too much rice.  Every time I make this dish, the chicken mixture requires a slightly different amount to achieve the proper texture.  Leftover rice never goes to waste in my kitchen!

IMG_0685While the rice is steaming, I prepare my garnshes.  I place 1/2 cup slivered almonds in a 350 degree oven to lightly-toast for 5-6 minutes, and I mince about 1/4 cup of mint leaves.  If you prefer cashews over almonds and cilantro over mint, feel free to substitute either one of them!

In Classic Indian cooking, all types of biryani are usually topped with crisp, deep-fried onions called birista.  Stay tuned for my next blog post, when I show you how easy it is to make them!

IMG_0569~ Step 1.  Using the measuring cup from the rice steamer, add the rice, 4 cups of water and all of the spices as listed.  Give the mixture a quick stir, close the lid and turn the steamer on.

The moment the steamer shuts off, unplug the steamer, open the lid and rake through the rice with a fork (I use a pasta fork) to fluff it.  Do not allow the rice to sit in the steamer on the "keep warm' cycle or it will be overcooked!  Think "al dente"!

IMG_0563~ Step 2.  Uncover the still warm chicken mixture.  Remove the bay leaves, cinnnamon sticks and star anise.  Take a moment, inhale, and smell the love.  Transfer about half of the rice to the pan of chicken. Using two large spoons, toss like you would a salad, until the rice is incorporated. Continue adding rice until the rice is taking on an identity all its own, meaning:  the grains are enjoying the chicken mixture without being stuck together in it.

I added all of the rice today!

IMG_0588Serve immediately in warmed bowls garnished with toasted almonds and mint leaves: 

IMG_0661Indian Chicken Biryani:  Demystified (& Simplified):  Recipe yields 6-8 hearty servings.

Special Equipment List:  1-cup measuring container; cutting board; chef's knife; 1 gallon food storage bag; 5 1/2-quart chef's pan w/straight, deep sides & lid; spatula; electric rice steamer (optional); 2 large spoons

IMG_0406Cook's Note:  Chicken Biryani is what is known as a "dry curry".  To learn the difference between a dry curry and a wet curry, as well as everything I can tell you about cooking Indian food, click on the Related Article link below to read ~ Easy Indian Chicken Curry in a Hurry w/No Worry ~!

"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti

(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2014)


Lavanya -- thank-you for the kind comment.

Thanks for providing the details, its really a good information
Hyderabadi Chicken Biryani Recipe

Great to hear from you Linda! If it hadn't been for Mytri, I don't think I would have attempted to make biryani on my own. Now, it is one of our favorite Indian dishes (next to curry of course)!

Wonderful recipe. I love Indian food and can't wait to try this recipe! Great post, Melanie.

Well, thank-you again my dear friend Teresa. I searched my photo archives for hours in the writing of this post, as I KNOW I had a great photo of Mytri in the WPSU studio cooking her dish on set. Sadly, as Joe reminded me, between then and now, I had a PC crash, which let me to my IMAC, and, in the process, some lovely photos got lost. At the end of this week, in retrospect, I suppose I picked up more Indian cooking skills than I thought I did over the years. I do want to learn more about this cuisine though. ~ Mel.

PS: I'd love your "overnight waffle" recipe!

My admiration just grows for you with every post, Mel. I love the history of your TV forays, and meeting Mytri. :) Your biryani- OMG- the spices! And it does sound so much simpler. You've outdone yourself! xx

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