Whether you’re talking Arroz con Pollo, Hainanese Chicken Rice, or Oyako Donburi; chicken and rice is a classic pairing that has permeated culinary culture around the world. It makes sense that earlier in human history, this staple seed would be combined with a domesticated source of protein, but the fact that this combination has endured as a popular favorite today, speaks to its unassailable deliciousness.
Although widely associated with Indian cuisine, Chicken Biryani is a dish that has spread across a wide swath of South Asia, reaching as far west as Iraq, and as far east as Indonesia. The vast geographical area Biryani calls home has resulted in a huge variety of preparations and ingredients.
Pulao (a.k.a. Pilaf), a similar rice dish can be found in the same areas. While there’s some debate as to the difference between Biryani and Pulao, the latter tends to have less meat and veggies relative to the rice, which means it’s usually served as a side rather than an entree. The second big difference is that Biryani is usually layered and steamed, which creates a wonderful variation in flavor, texture and color when it’s all mixed together at the end.
The bottom layer of rice absorbs all the juices of the chicken as it cooks, giving it a tender texture and rich flavor, while the top layer of rice turns out white and fluffy. Buried in the Biryani, you’ll find whole cuts of succulent chicken that are bursting with flavor from the potent array of spices, herbs and aromatics it’s marinated in.
For my version, I’ve simplified the preparation a bit by marinating the chicken in a spicy mixture of garam masala, garlic, ginger, chili peppers, cilantro and garlic. When fried, the spices and aromatics on the exterior of the chicken caramelize into an insanely flavorful crust. I like to cook the onions separately, as it allows you to fully caramelize them into an sweet umami-packed layer that contrasts the spicy savory chicken. For the rice, a quick par-boil with cardamom, bay leaves and cumin infuses some flavor, while ensuring the rice is tender enough steam after the Biryani is assembled.
I like to serve my Chicken Biryani with a cooling raita made with yogurt, mint, cilantro and a pinch of salt, but this is also good with a variety of different chutneys.
- To marinate the chicken for the biryani, combine the vegetable oil, garlic, ginger, chili peppers, mint, cilantro, garam masala, cinnamon and salt in a large bowl and stir together. Add the chicken pieces and toss together making sure the chicken is thoroughly coated in the marinade. Allow the chicken to marinate for at least 1 hour or up to overnight.
- In a pot wide enough to hold the chicken in a single layer, add the ghee and onions and saute the onions until they are well caramelized (15-20 minutes). Transfer the caramelized onions to a bowl and set aside.
- While the onions caramelize, prepare the rice by washing in a strainer under cold running water until the water runs clear.
- To par-boil the rice, add the water, salt, cardamom, cumin and bay leaf to a pot and bring to a boil. Add the rice and boil for 7 minutes. Drain the rice, reserving 1 cup of the liquid.
- In the pot you caramelized the onions in, add the chicken in a single layer, skin-side down. Fry until golden brown on one side (about 5 minutes). Flip the chicken over and fry the other side until golden brown. Transfer the chicken back to the bowl you marinated it in.
- To assemble the biryani, add the saffron to the rice and toss to distribute evenly. Add half the rice mixture to the bottom of the pot you browned the chicken in.
- Top the rice with the chicken in a single layer.
- Top the chicken with an even layer of caramelized onions.
- Finish putting together the Biryani by adding the rest of the rice in an even layer. Add 1 cup of reserved liquid from boiling the rice. Cover the pot with a lid and put the pot on the stove over medium heat and set the timer for 20 minutes. When you can see steam escaping from under the lid, turn down the heat to low and continue cooking until the timer goes off.
- Without opening the lid, set the timer for another 10 minutes to steam the biryani.
- Mix the Chicken Biryani together and then transfer to a serving platter. Garnish with fresh cilantro and serve.