Sunitha’s Chicken Biryani
Sunitha’s Chicken Biryani. Our first draft began just before Diwali last November, passed along to me by Jen, the editor of our area “Blue Bell’s Finest” magazine.
Shortly following the grand Diwali “Festival of Lights” Party of the Indian Community within our development, Sunitha and I then began our journey together observing, preparing, unraveling, and writing the recipe on one of the world’s most complex culinary preparations, Biryani. This particular Chicken Biryani recipe, that of Sunitha’s family.
Rather than speculate on the true origins of Biryani which might simply mention South Asia or Persia without regard to historical interpretation, I will share that there are many types of Biryani depending on the regional states throughout India, and that layered upon this is also the variation of masala, a spice combination, which varies by its preparer.
Being among the most complex dishes in the culinary landscape, if like me, you enjoy learning about food history, on the topic of Biryani you could spend hours, days, and years studying the single subject. One of the best articles I’ve found was in the Hindustan Times linked here. On the other hand, if you aren’t so compelled toward food history than just a brief overview of this article will perhaps make you want to pull your hair out. Tip: It possesses even more mystery and layers of complexity than preparing the dish. I’ll leave you to decide.
And speaking of layers, the commonality of Biryani is that it is a layered rice dish, so the ingredients contained between, along with its masalas, perhaps other additional spices, and toppings, each provides for their own unique distinction.
One of my top favorite foods in the world, the first time I ever had Biryani was over twenty years ago at the home of my friend Jyothi, one of the women in our Ladies International Group. Truly, at first bite, I thought I was in heaven. There was no food flavor profile ever to compare it to. I mean the depth of ‘all these flavors dancing in your mouth’ was at once highly stimulating and exciting, and in other ways, well, indescribable.
Now, after many years of experience eating Biryani, between preparing the dish with Sunitha, and later on in the savoring, I’ll fully admit I was jumping for joy! I should have even taken a selfie of me jumping for joy but then that might have looked just plain silly.
It is sometimes said that friendship takes a long time to develop, I think it should be added, or, preparing and writing a recipe for Biryani together.
In some ways, it brings me back to what I always say about people coming together at the shared table, it’s not just a saying that sounds good, or looks good, but rather it is about what can be, and is formed between people, when we share our cultures, recipes of our families, those special traditions in our lives together. The essence of food and its preparations to me is not only about flavor and sustenance, but one of the most important recipes for so many intangible things in life, those including, peace, understanding, love, and friendship. There is nothing to compare, it is the spice of life.
There are many ingredients and steps to preparing Biryani, no doubt. But once you take the time to really understand the recipe, you will have added one of the most flavorful dishes in the world into your mix.
Today Sunitha and I agree that our collaboration of preparing and writing her family recipe for Chicken Biryani provided a special means of bonding. And just like Diwali, The Festival of Lights, there is a renewal of knowledge, a recognition that in the process of cooking together there is always something gained in the learning of new things, both on the outer covering and in bringing forth the light from within.
- Step 1 For Preparing the Chicken:
- 4 pounds skinless, boneless, chicken thighs or breasts cut into one- inch bite sized pieces.
- ½ cup plain yogurt
- Step 2 for Preparing the Homemade Masala Mix:
- 5 pods green cardamom
- 2 small sticks cinnamon
- ½ teaspoon black peppercorns
- 2 small sized bay leaves
- 6 whole cloves
- 1 tablespoon fennel seeds
- 2 tablespoons ground coriander
- 1 sliver dried mace flower
- Few scrapes fresh grated nutmeg
- Step 3 for Preparing the Onion Layer:
- 8 small or 4 medium sized red onions, halved, thinly sliced
- 2 tablespoons rice flour
- 3 tablespoons oil, plus more if needed
- Step 4 for Preparing the Basmati Rice:
- 3 cups uncooked Basmati rice, rinsed well, soaked in water for a half hour
- 6 cups water
- 3 tablespoons clarified butter, ghee, or canola oil
- 5 whole cloves
- 5 green cardamom seeds
- 2 small bay leaves or 1 large
- 2 cinnamon sticks
- 3 pinches coarse kosher salt
- Step 5 for the Chicken Marinade Base:
- 3 tablespoons clarified butter, ghee, or canola oil
- 5 cloves garlic, crushed, chopped
- ¾ inch piece fresh ginger, peeled, chopped fine
- 8 fresh, slender, Indian green chilies, rinsed, stems removed, coarse chopped with seeds (seeds may be removed if preferred)
- 2 medium sized tomatoes, core removed, thinly sliced
- ¼ tablespoon ground turmeric
- 3 good pinches coarse kosher salt
- Marinated, cooked chicken in yogurt from Step 1
- juice of 1 fresh lime
- homemade masala mix from step 2
- small handful, around 18 stems fresh cilantro, washed well, dried with paper toweling, chopped
- 6 stems fresh mint, rinsed, leaves plucked, dried with paper toweling, chopped
- 1 black cardamom pod
- Step 6 For Assembling the Dum Biryani:
- good pinch saffron threads
- 1/2 cup milk, warmed
- ¼ tablespoon turmeric
- 2 tablespoons clarified butter, ghee, or oil, plus another 2 tablespoons
- ½ cup dried, black raisins (golden raisins or sultanas may be used)
- 10 cashews, lightly chopped
- Step 1 Preparing the Chicken: In a large bowl or long glass dish toss chicken pieces with yogurt, cover with plastic wrap, marinate in the refrigerator overnight. Just before beginning Biryani preparation, topple the chicken into a large sized pot, cover with a lid and cook on medium high heat for around ten to twelve minutes, just until chicken is cooked through, drain in a colander, set cooked chicken aside in the colander atop a plate
- Step 2 Preparing the Homemade Masala Mix: Grind spices in a spice grinder. Masala may be prepared a day in advance placed into a container with a well fitted lid and refrigerated until preparing Biryani
- Step 3 Preparing the Onion Layer: Toss onions with the rice flour to coat. Heat oil in a large sized sauté pan, fry onions in batches to avoid overcrowding. Cook each batch around ten minutes on medium heat until very well caramelized before draining on paper toweling. Onions may be fried one day in advance of preparing Biryani
- Step 4 Preparing the Basmati Rice: Boil 6 cups water in a pot or kettle. On low heat in another large sized pot, add clarified butter or oil, sprinkle in the spices and heat through for around 2 minutes until warmed and scented. Drain the soaked rice, tumble into the pot with the spices, and stir throughout, sprinkle in salt, stir. Cook rice on low heat for a few minutes, stirring, then pour boiling water into the rice, stir through again, cover and reduce heat to very low simmer, cook around one half hour or a bit less until rice is just done. Once cooked, remove rice from the pot and spread it across a flat baking tray to cool, use a fork to separate the grains
- Step 5 Preparing the Chicken Marinade Base: Using a mini food processor chop chilies to a very fine chop. Heat clarified butter in a large sized pot, add in the chopped chilies, garlic and ginger, cook on medium low heat for three minutes. Layer in the sliced tomatoes cooking around five minutes until tomatoes have broken down, stir in the ground turmeric and half of the fried onions, simmer 5 minutes. Topple in the marinated, cooked chicken from Step 1, stir, pour over the fresh lime juice, stir again, cook another five minutes. Sprinkle in the ground homemade masala mix from Step 2, blend throughout, simmer another few minutes stirring regularly. Once any liquid in the pot has mostly evaporated, sprinkle in the fresh chopped cilantro and mint, stir, drop in the black cardamom cook for a final five minutes, turn off heat.
- Step 6 Assembling Dum Biryani: Stir saffron threads into the warm milk, sprinkle over the turmeric, stir, and let sit to turn yellow colored. Heat two tablespoons clarified butter in a small sauté pan on medium low heat, add in raisins, stir constantly cooking until raisins have swollen to twice the size, transfer to a bowl then add cashews to the same pan cooking in the butter around a minute or so shaking pan coating to evenly distribute nuts until a slight golden color, remove from heat.
- Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Spread remaining 2 tablespoons clarified butter across a deep bottomed pan or casserole dish. Evenly spread the bottom layer with one third of the rice, gently top rice with half of the chicken mixture, then one-third layer fried onions, one third of the raisins and cashews, then drizzle all about with a third of the saffron milk. Spread over another layer of rice, the other half of chicken and another third of the onions, raisins, cashews, again drizzling all about with the saffron milk. Finish layering Biryani topping with the remaining third of rice, onions, raisins, cashews, drizzling over the rest of saffron milk all over. Seal the top of the casserole dish with aluminum foil or any tight lid in order for the “Dum” Chicken Biryani to steam cook inside the pan. Place covered pan into oven and cook around 20-25 minutes, turn off the oven, leave Chicken Biryani inside for another 10 minutes before opening oven door