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Biryani Basics

The only action that I get these days apart from my usual work-from-home schedule is time spent in the kitchen. I turn to cooking to keep me entertained for hours on end. I try as much as possible to go the laborious route, and I am seeing more and more each day that all the effort spent in making things from scratch as opposed to using a mix really does pay off at the end.

The long route

Today’s biryani may be the most ambitious and the most labour-intensive cooking project I’ve ever done by farWe’re talking several days in the making because before I took on this behemoth of a recipe, I actually decided I was going to culture my own curd at home.

Curd requires a bacterial starter, and with the aid some friends who were coaching me virtually, I was able to set my own from a store-bought tub of dahi, or homemade Indian yoghurt. Dahi is similar to Greek yoghurt , and is only slightly different because of its different strain of bacteria. Had I known that the process to develop dahi was this simple, I would have done it a long time ago and I would have never had to buy yoghurt from the store, ever. In less than 8 hours, I had a tub of really tart, zesty and beautifully chunky dahi. I will be re-feeding the starter with more milk when I run low.

Some history

Biryani’s origins can be traced back to the royal kitchens of the Mughals, a Muslim dynasty that conquered much of what is now India and Pakistan. In modernity, biryani is a mystifying concept for most people (at least those without South Asian ancestry) as it is usually only eaten in restaurants, and nobody really sees the process. The rice dish, with fragrant mounds of spiced basmati and some protein or another, takes so much time and effort to put together that it is truly a dish fit for emperors. Quick note: North Indian biryanis, or the biryanis closer to their Mughlai origins are not piquant or spicy at all, just aromatic and fragrant. The further South you go in India, the spicier the biryani is.

Notes on the recipe

I used my newly set curd to marinate the chicken in advance. Whilst the chicken was marinating, I roasted and ground my own spices to create a homemade biryani masala that was to my liking – more fragrant and aromatic than earthy, which could be the case if the mix is overpowered by cumin. Instead, I highlighted the bright notes of clove, fennel and cardamom, and complemented them with the deep woodsy and nutty notes of nutmeg and cinnamon.


After marinating the chicken in dahi, I sauted it in caramelized onions and simmered it until the oils and the milk solids from the curd separated, forming a luscious and spicy curry. Apart from tenderizing the chicken, dahi makes the resulting curry very rich and gives it a good body and thickness. When the dahi mixes with the ghee used to saute the onions, it forms a sweet and sticky vehicle for the twelve different spices required for this dish.


The chicken cooked in gravy is layered with fluffy basmati that was previously boiled to three-quarters of its doneness. The rest of the cooking time for the rice is spent in the pot, with the gravy from the curry infusing the rice.

Time to eat

Biryani is traditionally eaten with raita, a cold and zesty condiment made from dahi, lemons, carrots, cucumbers, and spices. The acidity of the raita cuts the richness of the biryani gravy, and the cool temperature of the sauce quells any spiciness and pungency from the chilis. Of course, I used my own dahi to make my own raita and I made enough for storing in the fridge for other future recipes.

I have conquered the dish of kings, it looks like, as it was a lip-smacking meal. It kept me busy for hours, too, so that was a great way to keep boredom at bay. It doesn’t have to take this long, though, mind you. As my life peg the Barefoot Contessa Ina Garten would say, if you are in enhanced quarantine and if you don’t have a pantry full of whole spices, then a store-bought biryani mix is just fine. Or just go to a restaurant.



Posted on 10 April

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