“A perfectly executed biryani will make you aghast with joy. You will remember it and you will make sure your friends remember it, for days or months thereafter.”
As Khusro Jaleel writes in his piece for Heated, My Life-Long Love Affair with Biryanis, biryani is serious business. For a dish that is, on paper, almost underwhelmingly straightforward – rice, meat, maybe vegetables, aromatics – biryani, when done well, approaches divinity. I hate desert-island-dish questions, but if I could eat only one thing for the rest of my days, biryani would probably be at the top of the list.
It helps that biryani, which hails from across South Asia and into the Middle East, comes in many forms. It is likely to be studded with dried fruits, in the Persian style, in parts of Pakistan, while in Hyderabad it is often sealed with a thin layer of dough, giving it a drum-like appearance. Across South India, biryani may feature mace or fennel seeds or star anise or a range of other distinctive spices. You can anoint biryani with saffron soaked in milk or drizzle it with rosewater. Whichever style you choose, biryani is the kind of showstopper whose abundance makes an impression: stagger to the table with a laden serving platter, and you have a holiday main to rival any given roast.
Of course, biryani is also tricky to get right. The meat must be tender and cooked-through; the rice all discrete grains, never soft or mushy. Many biryanis comprise multiple archaeological layers, which makes the process even more daunting.
That’s why a new recipe in Bon Appétit caught my eye. Written by Sohla El-Wayyly, it is a simplified adaptation of her mother’s storied biryani: there is just one layer of meat and one layer of rice, and it’s cooked together in a Dutch oven until it emerges, fragrant and perfect. Of course, it is only simple on biryani’s terms: ideally, the meat will marinate overnight, and the rice must be parboiled with a watchful eye, and it still takes hours. This is weekend cooking at its finest, and the process is nearly as much of a pleasure as the results.
I’ve said it before, but hazy IPAs and South Asian dishes tend to work unexpectedly well together. NEIPAs often evoke the tropical (in this case, I left the author’s original apricots and pineapple out of the dish, in favour of the beer’s innate fruitiness), and lack any puckering, astringent bitterness. Stigbergets’ Juleljus – whose name translates from the Swedish to “Christmas lights” and is also an homage to cult Massachusetts-based brewery Tree House Brewing Co’s flagship IPA, Julius – is just the right candidate for the job. From its brass can, it pours like peach nectar, topped with a glorious nimbus of foam.
Whether you plan to serve this meal for a festive feast or just on any wintry weekend, you can’t go wrong pairing one showstopper with another.
Chicken Thigh Biryani
Adapted from Bon Appétit
For the raita and marinade:
½ teaspoon sugar
345g whole-milk yoghurt, divided
3 teaspoons fine sea salt, divided
2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper, divided
1 red onion
1 4-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and thinly sliced
4 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon garam masala
½ teaspoon chili powder
6 skin-on, bone-in chicken thighs
2 fresh bay leaves
For the rice and garnishes:
105g fine sea salt
360g aged basmati rice
175ml vegetable oil
1 red onion, thinly sliced
100g pistachio kernels
100g blanched almonds
1 tablespoon caster sugar
Fresh mint leaves, to garnish
1. First, make the raita. Grate the lemon zest into a bowl. Add the juice of half the lemon, the sugar, 230g yoghurt, 1 teaspoon salt and 1 teaspoon pepper. Finely dice 1/4 of the red onion and add to the bowl. Stir to combine, cover and chill for a minimum of four hours and preferably overnight.
2. Next, make the marinade for the chicken. To a blender or food processor, add the remaining 115g yoghurt, the juice of the other lemon half, 2 teaspoons salt, 1 teaspoon pepper, the ginger, garlic and spices. Finely chop the rest of the onion and add. Blend on high until uniform, scraping down the sides if necessary.
3. Using your hands, remove the skins from the chicken thighs and discard. Add the thighs to a large, non-reactive bowl, and pour over the marinade. Add the bay leaves. Mix until evenly coated, cover and chill, for a minimum of four hours and preferably overnight.
4. The next day, prepare the biryani. Preheat your oven to 180° Celsius (350° Fahrenheit). Bring a large pot of water to the boil and add the salt – though it seems like a lot, please do add all of it, as the rice only cooks in the water for a few minutes and needs additional salt to compensate.
5. Meanwhile, rinse the rice. Place the rice in a bowl and cover with cold water; gently agitate the grains to release the starch. Drain and repeat 2–3 more times until the water is clear enough to see your hand through.
6. Add the rice to the boiling water and parboil until al dente. This process takes between 3-7 minutes and varies depending on your rice; start tasting early. Your rice is ready when the water has resumed boiling vigorously, most of the grains bubble to the top, and they are nearly doubled in size, though still have a hard, white core when bitten. As soon as the rice is ready, drain and rinse with cold water until cool. Set aside.
7. Add the vegetable oil to a large Dutch oven and place over medium-high heat. Once hot, add the sliced onion. Cook, stirring constantly, for approximately 8-10 minutes, or until the onion pieces are crisp and golden-brown. Using a slotted spoon, transfer to a paper-towel-lined plate and leave to drain and cool.
8. Turn the heat to medium-low and add the nuts. Fry in the remaining oil, stirring frequently, for approximately 2-3 minutes, or until fragrant and golden-brown. Transfer using a slotted spoon to a small bowl and set aside.
9. Transfer half of the oil from the pot to a small bowl and turn heat to medium-high. Pour in the sugar and cook for 2–3 minutes, stirring and scraping the pot with your spoon, until crystallised and darkened. Add the chicken and marinade and cook until the liquid starts to simmer.
10. Remove the Dutch oven from the heat and pat the chicken into an even layer. Top with 1/3 of the fried onions. Scoop the rice on top, patting lightly into an even layer; the chicken should be entirely covered. Using the handle of a wooden spoon, gently poke 5-7 holes into the rice layer all the way through to the chicken, which should help steam escape. Top the rice with another 1/3 of the fried onions, drizzle over the reserved oils and cover tightly with a lid.
11. Return the pot to medium-high heat and cook for 5 minutes, or until you can hear the chicken simmering and wisps of steam start appearing. Remove from the heat and carefully transfer to the oven, ensuring you don’t remove the lid at any point. Cook for 45 minutes. Remove from the oven and leave to cool for at least 15–20 minutes before opening the biryani.
12. To serve, gently scoop the rice layer onto a platter and top with the chicken thighs and any remaining sauce. Sprinkle over the reserved nuts and remaining 1/3 of fried onions. Garnish with fresh mint leaves and serve with raita on the side.
Claire M. Bullen is a professional food and travel writer, a beerhound and an all-around lover of tasty things. Our award-winning first book with Claire, The Beer Lover’s Table: Seasonal Recipes and Modern Beer Pairings, is out now and available in all good book stores (and at HB&B). Follow her on Twitter at @clairembullen.