Hyderabadi Biryani

Hyderabad is the capital of the state of Andhra Pradesh, India. Hyderabad is renowned for many things: its IT industry, its biotechology industry, its pharmaceutical industry. You may even have called Hyderabad unknowingly (or knowingly) to speak with “Sam”, a computer technician, to help you set up your internet or resolve a customer service issue. Hyderabad is one of the richest cities in the world and its economy is booming. 

Hyderabad is rich with history and the “Nizams of Hyderabad”, the rulers of Hyderabad at one time. It is home to the famous Charminar, a mosque with four minarets, built by the Sultan Muhammed Quli Qutb Shah. Hyderabad is known for its people, Hyderabadis, who have their own, unique way of expression and language. They may speak Urdu, Telegu or Hindi, but you can tell Hyderabadis from a mile away just from the way they speak and express themselves.

However, one thing Hyderabad is especially famous for is its cuisine. The mix of South Indian, Mughal and Persian influences make Hyderabadi cuisine one of the most refined and complex cuisines in the world. The traditions of the stately dishes that were served to the nizams of the time have carried through to today. The dishes are rich in history, spices and taste. They are most often than not, cooked slowly and with an array of complex spices that layer flavour upon flavour. There is heavy usage of nuts, coconut, dairy and meat. Hyderabadi food is truly fit for a king; from their rice dishes, to their kebabs and kormas, each one is royal in its own right. 

Some of the dishes famous and unique to Hyderabad are baghare baigan (braised aubergines/eggplants in a rich, spicy gravy), haleem (spicy wheat and meat porridge), paya nehari (spicy stew made with sheep feet), khatti daal (spicy and tangy lentils), Hyderbadi korma (chicken or meat braised in a yoghurt/cream sauce with nuts and spices), dum kebab (steam/baked kebabs), luqmi (pastries stuffed with meat and fried), to name a few. Our famous desserts; qubani ka meetha (dried apricots, stewed), double ka meetha (bread pudding infused with saffron and sugar syrup and cream.) Last but not least, the one dish that Hyderabad is most famous for, and maybe even more so than all its industries and money, Hyderabadi biryani.

Hyderabadi biryani. For those who have eaten this, those words alone send a chill down their spine, a momentary loss of consciousness and a drool they can’t control. Yes, it’s that good. Its creation is an art; its preparation a ritual. It’s a serious matter and each cook’s reputation lies in their biryani. My mum was a very good cook and her biryani was excellent. I watched her make it several times but never noted the recipe or asked for the quantities. My biryani is one I have perfected with the help of my dad. I am always tweaking it and I think it’s good and it gets good reviews. However, I don’t think I am ready to go in a throwdown with a khansama/bawarchi (chefs from the palaces of the emperors, and cooks) from Hyderabad, I’ll tell you that much!

When any of my uncles or aunts were getting married, we would always travel to Hyderabad to attend the wedding. I remember, I always wanted to accompany my grandfather when he went to inspect the food preparation. There I was dressed to the gills, in my fancy frock and shoes, trudging through the dirt to see the food being cooked. It was absolutely fascinating to me. The dinner for the wedding was cooked in, what looked liked to me, these huge cauldrons. These cauldrons sat bubbling, very fittingly, over a wood fire. The bawarchi, would take a long handled spoon or spatula and climb onto something to stir it up. I can’t even imagine the quantities stated on the recipe! Amazingly, every dish was perfect. My dad told me that these guys are experts at cooking in huge quantities and dish after dish, they prove themselves. The dum kebabs and luqmis; the biryani and korma, I remember them like it was yesterday.

There are many biryanis out there and each region or city has their own style. Basically, all are layered rice dishes with meat and spices. Some have tomatoes, some have potatoes and some have nuts and dried fruit. A vegetarian biryani also exists. Most biryanis layer rice with a cooked meat mixture and maybe vegetables and then the whole thing is put on low heat to steam. Hyderabadi biryani is different, in that it uses a raw meat mixture at the bottom of the pan and then half cooked rice is placed on top. When the meat starts cooking, it gives off steam to the rice above and the rice is then infused with all the spices and onions that are mixed into the meat. This kind of biryani is called kacchi biryani (kacchi meaning raw, because of the raw meat mixture.) 

Kacchi biryani can be a bit tricky, but the more you make it, the easier it will get. The trick is to time the cooking of the rice just right. The rice that tops the meat mixture has to be undercooked so it can finish steaming with the meat. In India, the biryani is put on a low flame on the stove to finish cooking. I prefer to place the biryani in the oven; there is less chance of it burning at the bottom. Most commonly, the meat used is mutton, lamb or goat. My children and I like the chicken biryani and so, that’s the one I make the most. Though a well made lamb biryani is exceptional. I will post a recipe for a lamb/mutton version later since its preparation is a little different. 

For now, here is my Hyderabadi chicken biryani.
This will serve 8-10 medium appetites.

Hyderabadi Biryani

3 or 4lbs/approx 1.5/1.8kg chicken, in medium pieces*
5 cups/1kg Basmati rice, soaked for 20 minutes*
2 onions, sliced finely and fried golden crisp
1/4 cup/59ml oil, from the fried onions preferably
1 cup/245g yoghurt
1 tablespoon/15ml garlic, minced
1 tablespoon/15ml ginger, minced
1 tablespoon garam masala*
1 teaspoon/5ml turmeric powder
1 teaspoon/5ml red chilli powder
3 or 4 green chillies
juice of 1 lemon
handful cilantro
handful mint
1/4 cup milk/cream
4 tablespoons/56g butter 
pinch of saffron threads
red colouring
whole spices to boil with rice: 1 teaspoon kala zeera, 8 cardamom pods
10 whole cloves and 2 cinnamon sticks

*NOTE: For best flavour, use bone in chicken, like a whole chicken, in 12-18 pieces, depending on the size of the chicken. Make sure the pieces are not too small and not too large. Can use thighs or bone in breasts (what I use). If the pieces are too large they do not cook at the same time as the rice and if the pieces are too small, they will disintegrate after cooking.
Indians prefer more rice and less meat so the proportion of rice is always higher. If you want a higher proportion of meat to rice, then reduce the rice to 4 cups/800g.
Every Indian cook usually has their own garam masala mix. My biryani mix is:
2 teaspoon/10ml kala zeera, 11/2 teaspoon/7ml cardamom pods, 1 teaspoon/5ml whole black pepper, 1 teaspoon/5ml whole cloves and 2 cinnamon sticks. Grind all the spices together in a spice grinder. Can double or triple quantities and store in airtight jar. This will make enough for 2 batches of biryani.
Kala zeera is not easy to find in regular super markets. If you want an authentic taste, search it out. Look for this in an Indian store. If you don’t want to buy all these spices, then in a pinch you can use a ready made garam masala, you can find garam masala in regular super markets these days. Taste will be a little different, because they use a different ratio of spices, but it will work. If you have a Penzeys Spices near you, they actually carry kala zeera which I was very surprised to find (search for kala jeera on their website)

Marinate the chicken:
Mix the chicken pieces with the yoghurt, lemon juice, garlic and ginger pastes, green chillies, turmeric, red chilli powder and garam masala for atleast an hour.
The longer the better. Transfer to a large oven proof pan, I use an eight quart
Dutch oven but any heavy duty large, deep baking tin/roasting pan will work.

Preheat the oven to 400 deg F/ 200 deg C

Mix the marinated chicken with 3/4 of the fried onions, cilantro and mint.
Add 2 teaspoons of salt and the 1/4 cup of oil.
Heat the 1/4 cup milk with the saffron threads.
Add the butter to the warm milk and let it melt.
Add food colouring to the milk mixture.
Add about 3 tablespoons of this mixture to the marinated chicken
Reserve the rest to pour on top of the rice.

Bring a big pot of water to boil with the whole spices (cloves, cardamom, cinnamon sticks and kala zeera) for the rice.
Once the water is boiling add 1 1/2 tablespoon/25ml of salt to the water
Add the soaked rice and boil.
Boil the rice till its almost al dente, firm but not raw.
Has to have a hard bite to it still.
Drain the rice and sprinkle the rice over the marinated chicken
in the pan. 
Sprinkle the reserved fried onions over the top and some cilantro and mint.
Drizzle the remaining milk/butter/saffron mixture over the top of the rice.
Cover tightly with some heavy duty tin foil.

Place in the centre of the oven and cook for 45 minutes.
After 45 minutes, lift the foil carefully and insert a spoon down between the pan

and the rice and take a peek. If the chicken mixture is dry and you see oil,
then the biryani is done (when the chicken and onions are cooked, they
will form a masala and the oil will separate).
If you see liquid, then that means that the moisture from the chicken has not been absorbed yet. Cover the pan with foil again and place it back in the oven for another 15 minutes. You may set it on the bottom rack to help expedite the moisture absorption. Check again after 15 minutes and then pull out of the oven 
when it is done. One way to know its cooked; there will be great aromas in your kitchen. 
To serve, mix the rice and chicken from the bottom gently, taking care not to break the rice kernels. Try and distribute the masala  and chicken evenly in the rice.
Garnish with more fresh cilantro and mint if desired. 

There are a few steps to this and you may not get it perfect the first time. I have been cooking this for years and every time I make it, there is a little nervousness.
However, its taste is undeniable and you will continue to try to perfect it just because it is so good. I know I still do. 
So please have a go and if you do, let me know. If there are any issues please comment or email me directly. I have tried to explain everything in detail but if there is something missing please let me know. 

Happy eating!

  1. I love this one tooo now then only two days off and so many things to cook and then EAT tooo .. I better take a couple of days off from work now 🙂