Asma Khan's biryani is famous–you have to pull many strings to get a table to sample it at her acclaimed restaurant Darjeeling Express in Covent Garden, London. Khan is in fact one of the hottest people in food in the UK. In 2017, she became the first British chef to be filmed for her own episode of the Netflix series Chef’s Table.
It is not surprising to learn that her signature style of cooking is influenced by her childhood in Kolkata. The city is, after all, famous for its biryani and biryani fanatics. As she says, “It’s everything that most Indians recognise: what you eat on the streets, what you eat in your house, and what you eat at a wedding. The food of the rich and the food of the poor."
Recently Khan published a book of recipes–Ammu, named after what she calls her mother. It is a story about their relationship and the food that binds them together. The book has 100 recipes divided into five chapters for each decade of her life–from dishes that celebrate her childhood to what she cooks for her children in London today.
Here she shares a recipe for the perfect biryani from the book. Enjoy.
Ammu’s Chicken Biryani (serves 6)
Biryani was always made for big celebratory occasions. In my mother’s family, it was usually made with khasi, or goat, and cooked in a giant pot with layers of rice, meat, and potatoes infused with spices and saffron. This recipe is a very personal one. This was the biryani that was made just for the five of us—my parents, my two siblings, and me. On days when there was some good news, or more typically on days when something had gone wrong—from my brother losing a cricket match or me not doing so well in my exams—Ammu would get this biryani on the table and suddenly everything seemed okay! This is also usually the last dish I eat at home before I make the five-hour car journey from my parents’ home to the airport to catch my flight to London. I always felt that layered in that biryani were things my mother couldn’t say. When the biryani arrived on the table, it felt like Ammu’s secret code, telling me that she loved me.
I N G R E D I E N T S
200 g all-purpose flour
500 g good-quality basmati rice
5 tbsp salt
1⁄2 tsp saffron strands
1⁄3 cup (80 ml) whole milk
8 tbsp ghee or vegetable oil (sometimes I mix both and it works really well)
2 white onions, thinly sliced into half moons
1 kg bone-in chicken thighs, skin removed
3 garlic cloves, crushed
5–6 cm piece of fresh ginger, grated
2 tbsp full-fat Greek-style yogurt
1⁄2 tsp chile powder
2 green cardamom pods
1⁄2 in (1 cm) piece of cinnamon stick
1⁄2 in (1 cm) piece of mace, crushed
1⁄8 tsp grated nutmeg
1⁄4 tsp sugar
Juice of 1⁄2 lemon
M E T H O D
Mix the flour with enough water to make a firm dough, cover, and leave to rest. Wash the rice in a bowl of cold water, moving your hand in gentle circular movements in one direction to avoid breaking the delicate tips of the rice (the virtually invisible tips, if broken off, will boil rapidly when the rice goes into the hot water, because of their size, and turn into glue-like starch, which will make all the rice sticky).
Wash the rice in several changes of cold water until the water remains clear. Next, soak the rice. There should be about 6–8 in (15–20 cm) of water in the bowl above the rice level. Add 6 teaspoons of the salt and soak the rice for at least 2 hours. The long soaking allows the rice to absorb water. Since the rice is not hollow and dry when it is put into boiling water, the cooking time is minimized; this will help keep your rice grains long and separate. Put the saffron in a small bowl. Warm the milk to tepid: my mother would describe it as blood temperature—if you touch the milk it should feel only slightly warm. If you are using a microwave to heat the milk, remember to stir the milk before checking the temperature since there may be hot spots.
Pour the tepid milk over the saffron and set aside to infuse. Heat the ghee or oil in a large heavy-based pot over medium–high heat and fry the onions until caramelized. Using a slotted spoon and leaving as much of the oil in the pan as possible, transfer the onions to a plate, spreading them across the plate to cool. Remove half the oil from the pan and set aside. Add the chicken to the remaining oil and cook over medium–high heat until golden brown on both sides. Add the garlic, ginger, yogurt, chili powder, and 2 teaspoons of the salt and cook over medium–high heat until the garlic and ginger have lost their raw smell and the yogurt has reduced. Add half the caramelized onions, then add warm water to cover the chicken, bring to a boil, then cover and simmer for about 25 minutes. You do not want the chicken to be tender: it should still be firm, since it will be cooked further with the rice. Drain the soaked rice. Boil a kettle and pour the water into a large pot. Bring back to a boil, add another 6 teaspoons salt, then add the drained rice and boil until the rice is three-quarters cooked (this should not take more than 5 minutes). To test, remove one grain from the boiling water and squeeze it. There should be a hard core to the grain of rice. When the rice reaches this stage, drain and spread it on a tray to prevent it from continuing to cook.
To assemble the biryani, you will need a heavy based pot with a tight-fitting lid. Using a slotted spoon, remove the chicken from its cooking
liquid and place it in the pot. Strain the cooking liquid and pour over the chicken. Try to squeeze as much as you can from the onion/ginger/garlic residue, so the broth is nice and thick. It should just about cover the chicken pieces. Next, add the cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, mace, and nutmeg.
Add half the saffron milk and the sugar and squeezed lemon juice. Then add the rice, ensuring it covers the chicken. On top of the rice, add the remaining caramelized onions, the remaining saffron milk, and the reserved oil.
Put the biryani pot over high heat and wait until the steam starts coming out. Let the steam come through for 1 minute. Meanwhile, roll the dough into tubes and use the dough to seal the lid of the biryani pot. Put the pot on top of a cast-iron frying pan or tawa over medium–high heat: this is to diffuse the heat. If you do not have a cast-iron pan, put the biryani pot into a preheated oven at 375°F (190°C) for 10 minutes.
After 10 minutes, turn the oven to 300°F (150°C) and leave for 20 minutes. If you are using a tawa on the stovetop, reduce the heat to low, cover the top of the pot with a folded clean kitchen towel, and simmer gently for 20 minutes.
When ready to serve, unseal the biryani lid. Using a large spoon and starting from one side, gently lift the chicken up and mix with the rice. You need to gently merge the wet rice with the dry rice on the top, so each grain is perfectly moist.