Heavy cream stained yellow by Spanish saffron. Cumin, cardamon and cinnamon perfuming the air. Butter and oil sizzling lightly in a pan. This is the making of Lucknow Biryani - an assemblage of sensory delights that hit you from the moment you begin your journey.
I tried my hand at making the dish with a little help from Pushpesh Pant. His Lucknow Murg Biryani is mild and aromatic. The minor changes I made to his recipe included halfing it, for I have no army to feed, and cutting out the ghee, for I have my arteries to consider. Don’t get me wrong - ghee is welcome to your party. But you don’t need it to have a good time.
For the chicken:
- 1 ½ lb skinless chicken breast and leg pieces
- 2 tbsp butter
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- ½ tbsp ground cumin
- 1 tsp ground green cardamom
- ½ tsp ground cinnamon
- ¼ tsp ground cloves
- 1 small pinch nutmeg
- 1 tbsp ginger paste
- 1 tbsp garlic paste
- 1 ½ tsp red chili powder
- ½ cup yogurt, whisked with 1 tsp water
- salt to taste
For the rice:
- ½ tsp saffron threads
- ¼ cup whipping cream
- 1 ½ cups basmati rice, rinsed and drained
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 4 green cardamom pods
- 1 tbsp butter
- 1 yellow onion, sliced
- ½ tsp kewra or rosewater
Begin by soaking the saffron threads in cream and set aside. By the time you’re ready for this, the cream will be neon bright and will smell a bit like heaven.
Next, fry the onions in 1 tbsp butter. How long you cook them is entirely up to you - you can go for translucent, lightly browned, or crispy and dark. For this biryani, I was in a soft, translucent mood. When the onions achieve the cooked level of your choosing, remove from the pan and set aside.
For the chicken, heat the olive oil and butter in a large pan over medium-high heat. Add the spices, pastes and the chili powder and fry for 2 minutes. Throw in the chicken, salt to taste and stir, coating the chicken in the spices. Cook for about 5 minutes. Then reduce the heat to medium-low, stir in the yogurt, cover and simmer until the chicken is tender. Incidentally, this makes a great chicken dish all on its own!
For the rice, bring 3 cups of water to a boil and add the basmati, cinnamon and cardamon pods. Cook until the rice is almost done and all the water is absorbed, about 15 minutes.
And now the fun part - the layering! Spread half of the rice along the bottom of a dutch oven. Pour over half of the saffron-infused cream and half of the kewra or rosewater. Spread half of the chicken on top. Repeat this process with a second layer and top with the fried onions. Cover with a heavy lid.
You can cook this two different ways - on a stove over very low heat for 20-30 minutes or in a 325 degree oven for 20-30 minutes. When the rice is cooked fully, stir all the layers up and serve with yogurt and pickle.