Monday, August 23, 2010

Matt Plays Food Blogger: Chicken Biryani

I've never understood the national appeal of the New York Times. It's a regional newspaper--why would I want to read about what's happening in New York when I could just as easily read about what's happening in my own city? However, it has been an excellent source of delicious things to cook. Maybe I'm a Times fan after all.

Today's recipe was one I found describing how to make an Indian/Pakistani chicken and rice dish in a rice cooker. I don't have a rice cooker, but, hey, I just so happen to have an appliance that cooks things thoroughly and slowly! My slow-cooker version of chicken biryani is a lot simpler and takes fewer preparation steps, but I can't imagine it tastes much different from the original.


  • 1-1.5 lb. chicken thighs. This week's Mega Ultra Chicken Thigh pack from Safeway had eleven thighs, and I used five of them in this. I think it came out to 1.2 lb. or so.
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 2 inches of ginger, minced (I used a microplane)
  • 3 cloves of garlic, minced (I microplaned this too)
  • 3 small serrano chilis, stemmed and chopped (you could use just about any sort of chili)
  • 1 1/2 tsp ground coriander
  • 1 tsp turmeric
  • 1 tsp chili powder
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp cumin
  • 1/4 tsp garam masala
  • 6 cardamom pods
  • 6 cloves
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • a pinch of saffron
  • 3 cups of chicken broth
  • 1 1/2 cups rice (I used Thai Jasmine, because that's what I had around. The original used basmati. I'm not sure how different those two are.)
  • 1 cup of plain yogurt
  • 3 tbsp chopped fresh mint
  • 3 tbsp chopped fresh cilantro
  • juice from 1 lime
  • 1-2 tbsp olive oil
This is a whole ton of ingredients. Half of them are spices, though, so you might already have them lying around. I think you could probably get away with using 3 tsp garam masala instead of the coriander/chili powder/cumin/garam masala combination to cut down ingredients. I already had all these spices except for cloves and saffron, and it was a good thing, because those two bundles of joy cost me about twenty-five dollars.

Saffron is not messing around. I'd heard of how expensive this business was, of course, but exactly how much it gouged my wallet astonished me. You have no idea how strongly I'm considering dropping out of grad school and moving to Spain to become a saffron farmer.  

Preparation and Cooking

The original recipe suggests blending the onion, garlic, ginger, and chilis together to form a paste. Unfortunately, I don't have a food processor or blender, so I chopped and minced as above. Then slightly brown the paste (maybe "golden-brown the paste") by cooking in about 1 tbsp of olive oil. Take the paste out of the pan and set it aside. Brown the chicken in the same pan (first adding another tablespoon of olive oil if you need to) and put it on the bottom of a slow cooker. Layer the browned paste on top.

Throw in all the spices, powdered and whole, except for the saffron. (If you have a bit of cheesecloth or a dry, empty tea bag, you might want to throw the cardamom pods and cloves into a small bundle. You don't want to crunch down on one of these later.) Dump in the chicken broth and rice. Cook on low for 5 hours and 30 minutes. (Or longer, if you're worried about your slow cooker's ability to get the chicken cooked through.)

As the 5-hour mark approaches, chop the fresh herbs, juice the lime, and mix the saffron into the yogurt. Mine didn't mix so well--clearly my first time working with saffron. I probably should have tried harder to mix them. Add the chopped herbs, the lime juice, and the saffron yogurt at 5:30 or so, and stir everything together. Cook for another half hour, just enough to get everything to cook through.


I liked this a whole lot.  The turmeric turned the rice a fantastic yellow color, and all the fantastic south Asian spices melded together beautifully.  This is one of the first dishes I've made where the sweet-savory-salty balance was dead-on.

The chicken was tender and not too dried out--I think cooking it for longer than 6 hours in my particular crockpot more or less kills it.  The rice decomposed into a sticky mush, which I actually didn't mind at all, especially because the rice cooks in the chicken broth with all the spices dissolved in it.  Plus, given the choice, I'd much rather have a casserole consistency than crunchy undercooked rice.  That said, it makes for a fundamentally different dish.  You could probably work some fancy timing for exactly when to add the rice, but that would involve more work than a slow-cooked dish is supposed to.

It's my belief that lamb is probably the most tragically underrated meat there is, and nowhere does it go better than in Indian-ish cooking.  The reason I stuck with chicken here is that the dish uses chicken broth--I don't know if there's such a thing as lamb broth, lamb in chicken sauce just isn't as good as chicken in chicken sauce, and using beef broth in an Indian dish seems, well, sacrilegious.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I'm not sure if the vaunted saffron actually did anything at all.  But I'm naturally unwilling to make compromises to my authenticity.

Currently listening: "Lightning Rod", Guster

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