Spiced chicken in an onion-enriched tomato sauce on a bed of fluffy rice. Chicken biriyani – it has all the components of comfort food, but it’s a little bit special, with all those fragrant spices: cinnamon, saffron, cardamon and cloves. It certainly doesn’t have to be chicken, you can use prawns, fish, vegetables, cubes of toasted paneer or lamb instead. The toppings also vary wildly, I’ve seen french fries, fried onions, toasted cashew nuts and boiled eggs cut in half. The chicken is cooked in an onion-based sauce and the rice is partially cooked separately. Then the two are layered together in a dish and cooked again in the oven for the flavours to meld and come together. It is a fairly long-winded process, but so worth it.
2 large onions/3 medium
2 sticks of cinnamon
4 cardamon pods
1 chicken, boned and cut into pieces
2 teaspoons finely minced garlic
1 teaspoon finely chopped ginger
1 can of tomatoes, blitzed
1 teaspoon freshly ground cumin powder
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground corriander powder
1/2 teaspoon dried turmeric
powdered and fresh chilli, to taste
salt, to taste
2 cups Basmati rice, washed and soaked for half an hour
1 small cucumber, peeled, deseeded and finely chopped
Salt and cumin powder to taste
Using a food processor, chop the onions until they are about the size of a kernel of sweetcorn. Add a couple of tablespoons of oil to a large pan and add the chopped onions, along with the cardamon, cloves and cinnamon sticks. Fry these on a low/medium heat for about 30-40 minutes, it’s a long time, but as they are cooking, you can get on with cooking the rice. Stir constantly, and you should end up with lovely caramelised onions that are almost dark brown.
Once the onions are done, add the tomatoes, ginger, garlic and all the spices, remembering to taste (and an optional step: blitz this whole mixture with a stick blender, if you want a smoother sauce). Then put the heat back on to low/medium and pop in the raw chicken. Cover and cook for about twenty minute-half an hour, or until the chicken is completely cooked through.
Put a couple of tablespoons of butter in a large pan, on a medium heat. Once it’s melted, add the cumin seeds and fry for a few minutes. Add the washed rice and fry (like you would for risotto) for five minutes, and then add water from a recently boiled kettle, until the rice is just covered. Once that water is almost evaporated, lower the heat, add more water from the kettle to just cover the rice, and cook covered on a low heat. Check every few minutes and add water if needed. The rice needs to be just undercooked (75% cooked through), as the whole dish will cook again the oven.
Once the rice is done, assemble the dish. In an oven-proof dish add a layer of rice, using a third of what you have. Then add a layer of chicken in sauce, more rice, chicken again and then rice. If using saffron, soak a few strands in water for a few minutes and then sprinkle over the dish. Also, if using toasted cashews and deep-fried onions, add now. Put in the oven (300 F/150 C) and cook for half an hour.
Serve with raita or plain yoghurt.