This is my new favorite chicken dish. In fact, it is my new favorite dish, period. I am not being hyperbolic in the least. In fact, when I took a bite of this dish, the very first words that ran through my head were, “Holy —-, this is the best chicken I have ever eaten.” (Edited for posterity.)
Which is odd, really, because to be quite honest, the chicken is not what makes this dish. Sure, the chicken is cooked nicely, nestled amongst a cushion of basmati rice, softened onions, and fresh cilantro, but it’s the flavors of the marinade enveloping the chicken that really permeate this dish and make it shine. The spices, seemingly simple, are subtle, but with a great build. The first bite is pretty astonishing, but as you eat, each bite seems to take on a different characteristic. Some bites are packed with the sweet and mellow taste of slow cooked onion, while other bites are flecked with cinnamon and coriander. Occasionally I happened upon a strangely spicy bite, an unexpected, yet pleasant, surprise in a dish that is relatively mild on the spiciness scale.
And that’s one of the things that makes this recipe so mysteriously satisfying. There is no abundance of spicy sauce. There is no interplay between sour and spicy to test the agility of your taste buds. It doesn’t taste predominantly of chicken, but it doesn’t taste mainly of rice, either. Everything just sort of works together, tasting comforting and warm, well rounded, but also delicate. Does it seem odd that I am speaking of a chicken dish as though it were a fine glass of wine?
I hate to make so many grand statements at once, but I really do think that this recipe is darn near close to perfect. Even the casual side notes from the recipe’s authors are indispensible. Taking their cue, I paid special attention to the layer of crisped rice and chicken that had formed on the bottom of the pot during the long baking time. Though the recipe recommended that this layer of deeply browned bits be scraped from the pot and laid on top of the turned-out rice, I instead took the instinctive step of placing the browned bits directly into my mouth, a decision I highly recommend to anyone else who chooses to cook this.
All that said, I am not going to lie to you. This is not a quick dish. You are going to have to set aside some time to turn this baby out, but when you do, you will most certainly not regret it. Make it a weekend affair, when you’ve got your afternoon ahead of you and you can take some time to prep the ingredients without being rushed. Though the effort may seem to be a time challenge, I promise you that the result is nothing short of a reward.
Nearly perfect as is, there are a couple of things about this recipe that I have altered only slightly. One is the preparation of the garlic and ginger. I find that grating both items into a bowl and then mashing them with a spoon is a far simpler and more reliable method of turning them into a paste, rather than trying to wrestle with them in a mortar and pestle. I also decreased the amount of oil called for, as I had enough oil left over in the end that I thought it prudent to simply use less next time around.
1 pound boneless chicken breasts or thighs, or a mixture
3 large cloves of garlic, grated finely (you want to end up with about 2 teaspoons total)
1 teaspoon finely grated fresh ginger
1 ½ teaspoons ground coriander
½ teaspoon cayenne
¼ teaspoon turmeric
¼ teaspoon garam masala
½ cup plain yogurt (full or reduced-fat are both fine)
2 teaspoons salt
2 cups basmati rice
3 medium-large onions (about 1 pound)
½ cup vegetable oil
1 cup minced cilantro leaves
2 tablespoons of water
Rinse the chicken, then chop into 1-inch cubes. In a large bowl, combine the grated garlic and ginger, then mash together using the back of a spoon. Add the chicken cubes to the bowl with the garlic and ginger. Add the coriander, cayenne, turmeric, garam masala, yogurt, and 1 teaspoon of the salt. Stir to mix until everything is combined, then cover with plastic wrap and allow to marinate in the refrigerator for 2 to 4 hours.
While the chicken is marinating, rinse the rice in several changes of cold water. Place in a bowl, cover with water, and allow to soak for about half an hour.
About 1 ½ hours before you want to serve the dish, place a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.
Slice the onions as fine as possible. You will want about 3 cups of sliced onions. Place a large heavy ovenproof pot with a tight-fitting lid over medium-high heat. Add the oil and, when it is hot, add the onions. Lower the heat to medium. Cook until the onions are very soft, wilted, and just touched with golden brown (I love the way that is phrased), 12 to 15 minutes. Lift the onions out of the hot oil and set aside. There should be a little over ¼ cup of oil left in the pot. Remove 2 tablespoons of oil from the pot and set aside for later.
When the onions are cooking, precook the soaked rice. Place about 8 cups of water in a large pot and bring to a boil. Add the remaining 1 teaspoon of salt, and allow the water to come back up to a boil. Sprinkle in the rice. Allow rice to boil for 4 to 6 minutes, or until the rice is no longer brittle but still firm to the bite. Drain in a colander and set aside.
Place the heavy pot containing the oil over medium-high heat. Distribute half of the chicken pieces over the bottom of the pot, then sprinkle on half the precooked rice. Scatter half the cooked onions over the top, then sprinkle on half of the cilantro leaves. Repeat with the remaining chicken, rice, onion, and cilantro. Sprinkle on about 2 tablespoons of water, and drizzle on the reserved 2 tablespoons of oil. Lay a sheet of aluminum foil over the top of the pot to cover it completely, then top with the lid.
Transfer the pot to the oven and bake for 1 hour.
Carefully remove the lid and the aluminum foil (the pot will emit a great deal of steam, so stand back and be careful to steer clear of the hot cloud). Remove the biryani to a platter. Scrape out the crusty layer of chicken and rice from the bottom of the pot, and lay it on top of the biryani. Serve hot or warm.