How to Cook Hyderabadi Chicken Biryani

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Start to Finish: 3 hoursServings: 4 to 6Difficulty Level: Moderate

Biryani means "roasted" in Persian, and South India's city of Hyderabad, famed for its diamonds and pearls, prides itself on serving top biryanis -- compelling enough to drive tourists to visit. In Hyderabad, an authentic chicken biryani must include the traditional basmati rice, as well as mint and the spice mace -- called javintri locally. You may think, based on eating biryanis in restaurants, that they possess a certain intimidation factor, given their complexity and richness of flavor. But they come together surprisingly easily even in a Western home, with an intoxicating aroma that may surpass anything you've ever attempted.

Adapted from chef Sanjay Thumma at the cooking website Vah Reh Vah

Ingredients

Meat

  • 4 skinless whole chicken legs, about 2 1/2 pounds

Marinade

  • 8 ounces yogurt
  • 1 serrano chili pepper, sliced in half the long way, seeded and cut into 1/2-inch slices
  • 1/4 cup mint or lemon balm, lightly hand crushed
  • 1-inch cube ginger root, peeled and thinly sliced
  • 3 cloves garlic, peeled, crushed and thinly sliced
  • 1 cup cilantro leaves, lightly chopped
  • 8 whole peppercorns
  • 2 teaspoons whole cumin seeds
  • 1 tablespoon chili powder
  • 2 teaspoons turmeric
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon cumin powder
  • 1 teaspoon coriander powder
  • 1 teaspoon mace
  • 4 cloves
  • 1 cinnamon stick, 3 inches long
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 7 whole cardamom pods
  • 4 cloves
  • 1/4 cup olive oil

Additional Ingredients

  • 1 1/2 cups basmati rice
  • 1/2 cup additional fresh cilantro
  • 2 teaspoons saffron threads

Preparation

  • Mix together the marinade ingredients in a large enough bowl to eventually hold the chicken. Don't forget to add the oil, which makes the rather thick mixture more workable. Add the chicken legs and turn them in the marinade. Place the bowl in the refrigerator for 2 hours.
  • Relax for 90 minutes, and then soak the rice in water for 30 minutes. Toward the end of the rice's soaking time, begin boiling 2 pints of water in a saucepan. Add 1 teaspoon of salt to the water. 
  • Drain the rice in a sieve and add it to the boiling water. Keep track of the time -- you want to only cook the rice halfway, which may take about 5 minutes. Leave the cover off the rice saucepan.
  • Pull the bowl containing the marinating chicken out of the refrigerator.

Cooking

  • Place the chicken and 1/2 cup of water in a larger saucepan. Turn the heat under the saucepan on to low. Smooth the sauce evenly over the chicken as it warms up.
  • Monitor the rice. It will suddenly begin to swell. Spoon out a few grains. Let them cool slightly, and chew them. If they taste chewy, the rice is ready. Pour the half-cooked rice in a sieve to drain it, and then layer it evenly on top of the chicken. 
  • Sprinkle chopped cilantro and the saffron threads on top of the rice. Cover the saucepan -- turn up the heat for 5 minutes on medium-high, 15 minutes on high and 10 minutes on low. Let the pot sit for 5 minutes covered. 

Serving Suggestion

When you lift the lid, the basmati rice will be a pristine white, with little accents of yellow saffron and green cilantro. Stir the rice gently to bring up some of the rich brown juices in the bottom. Serve one chicken leg per plate on a bed of the rice. This spicy dish brings some complex, modulated heat, so you can serve it with an onion or cucumber raita.

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