Kerala Style Chicken Biryani

With succulent pieces of chicken, fluffy grains of rice, and caramelized onions, it’s no wonder this is one of my favorite Indian dishes.

Someone once said to me “I don’t understand why biryani is such a big deal, isn’t it just fried rice?” Uh, no! It’s so much more than that.

Biryani is all about rich and spicy flavors. It’s about the technique and layering of those flavors. It involves a lot of ingredients and steps and can take up to several hours to make.

It’s one of my favorite Indian dishes, but I have always been intimidated to make it. The recipes I read were daunting with too many confusing steps.

Plus, there are different styles and types of biryani, depending on the region they originated from.

Even the Kerala version I grew up eating has so many different variations and methods, there is no way to incorporate them all into one dish!

Instead, I will share a few tips and ideas I came across after scouring several Indian cookbooks, online recipes, and of course interviewing my parents. 

I developed my chicken biryani recipe based on some of this research as well as my personal tastes and preferences.

For example, I wanted my biryani to be less greasy but still rich in flavor. No matter how delicious my parents’ biryani was, my sensitive stomach can’t handle the extreme amounts of ghee and oil anymore.

I also wanted a more streamlined approach to making it. Steps I could prep ahead of time and then easily put together at the end.

What is Biryani?

Biryani is essentially a dish made of rice and a meat curry layered together with tons of spices, onions, and ghee. It is covered and cooked on the stove or in an oven until all the flavors meld together.

Rice is the main component and is parboiled with a variety of whole spices until it becomes fragrant. Sometimes rose water is added to give a floral note but I don’t use any in mine.

Basmati rice is most commonly used and it’s widely available in most places. However, Kerala chicken biryani uses a short grain “biryani” rice, making it very unique to the Malabar region.

It is what my parents used and what I grew up eating. I will stick with basmati for now because it’s easily accessible to me, but I am curious to try the traditional Kerala rice next time.

The partially cooked rice is then spooned on top of a savory meat curry or layered in between. The “meat” can be anything from chicken to lamb, beef, or even shrimp. 

My parents used skinless bone-in chicken thigh and leg pieces. However, sometimes small bits of thigh bone would break off and mix into the rice and biting into one was not pleasant!

In my boneless chicken biryani recipe I use boneless thighs but you can also use skinless drumsticks. With drumsticks, you get the flavor from the bones but there’s less chance of them splintering off.

As for the curry, some recipes use cashew paste to thicken up the gravy. Since I use cashews and raisins in my garnish as my parents did, I omitted the paste but will try it next time.

Another rather important ingredient is store-bought or homemade biryani masala, which is made with a long list of spices including ones I normally don’t have, like mace and caraway seeds.

Instead, I used my parent’s basic chicken masala recipe even though it may not provide authentic biryani flavor.

Fresh herbs are important to biryani as well. Cilantro and mint are commonly used for layering but also in the chicken marinade.

However, I don’t like the flavor of the cilantro and mint when it is cooked with the chicken, so I only use them for layering and as a garnish.

After the rice and curry get layered, the dish is then garnished with ghee, saffron, cashews, raisins, and fried onions. The cashews and raisins may be a South Indian thing.

But in my opinion, the real star of the dish is the birista or fried onions. I think they give biryani that quintessential flavor.

But, I hate frying. The oil splatters and gets all over the kitchen counter and cabinets, and the whole house smells of oil for days! Plus, the crispy onions end up getting soggy in the biryani, so I really don’t see the point. 

Instead, I sauté the onions in a small amount oil until they caramelize. It has the same flavor as the birista without the excess oil. This also makes the overall biryani less greasy which is better for my sensitive stomach.

Below, I go into more detail on how to make my biryani. There are still several steps, but I listed them in a way where you can prep as much beforehand. 

You will need multiple containers or bowls to store the prepped ingredients, but doing these steps ahead will save time in the long run.

Also, you will only need one cutting board for all the prep work and it only needs to be washed once after cutting the raw chicken, saving you even more time!

How to Make Chicken Biryani

The following steps can be done several hours in advance or overnight. If you are unable to prep ahead, plan accordingly. Total prep and cook time may take 3-4 hours.

Make Chicken Masala

In a coffee or spice grinder, add 1 tsp fennel seeds, 3-4 whole cardamom pods, 3-4 whole cloves, 1 1/2 inch cinnamon stick, and 3 black peppercorns.

Other optional spices I add are a bit of nutmeg, 1 petal of star anise, and a pinch of cumin seeds. 

Grind everything very well until a fine powder forms. Then transfer the mix to a small jar. Store it in the fridge for optimal freshness. 

Prep Ingredients for Layering and Garnish

Some of these ingredients will be used to layer in between the curry and the rice. While the rest will be used to top the biryani.

First, make a saffron milk by mixing together 2 tablespoons of milk with 1 teaspoon saffron strands in a small container. Keep it in the fridge until ready to use.

Then on a cutting board, slice 1 1/2 medium onions very thinly and keep on a plate. This cutting board will be used throughout the prep process and there is no need to wash it in between use.

On the same cutting board coarsely mince 1/4 cup cilantro and 2-3 tablespoons of mint leaves. They can be kept together in a small bowl or container that is lined with a scrap of paper towel. Place in the fridge if making the biryani later. Also, make sure to have some extra cilantro for a final garnish. 

Fry Ingredients for Layering and Garnish

Now it’s time to fry! Place a large skillet over medium-high heat. Choose a skillet with a tight fitting lid because it will be used to steam the biryani. 

When the skillet is hot, add 1 tablespoon oil. Once the oil shimmers, add 2-3 tablespoons each of cashews and raisins. Sauté them a few minutes until the cashews become golden. Use a slotted spoon to take them out and set aside in a small bowl. Keep in the fridge if making the biryani later.

Now, add another 1-2 tablespoons of oil to the skillet and most of the sliced onions from earlier. Set aside about 2/3 cup of the onions for making the chicken curry. 

Cover the pan with a lid, turn the heat down to medium-low, and cook the onions for 10 minutes while stirring occasionally. 

Take off the lid and continue cooking the onions for about 20 minutes longer. Once they have become golden, caramelized, and “sticky,” turn off the heat.

Remove the onions to a bowl using the slotted spoon. I use another spoon to press on the onions and squeeze out as much of the oil as possible back into the skillet. You can also use a small strainer to do this. You’ll need the oil for making the chicken curry. 

The cooked onions should be stored in the fridge if making the biryani later. They can also be made days or weeks in advance and frozen, saving you even more time!

Marinate the Chicken

Using the same cutting board, peel and mince a 2 inch chunk of ginger. Add half of the minced ginger to a large mixing bowl. Keep the other half with the 2/3 cup of fresh onions you saved from earlier. They will be used for sautéing later.

Now either mince, chop, or slice 1-2 medium green chilies. The smaller you cut them the spicier the chicken will be. Add the chilies to the large mixing bowl.

Also add to the bowl a 1/2 cup of plain yogurt, 1 1/2 teaspoons salt, 1 heaping teaspoon of the chicken masala you made earlier, 1/4 teaspoon turmeric, and 1 teaspoon lemon juice. 

Before using the cutting board to cut the chicken, mince 3-5 garlic cloves and dice 1 small tomato for the curry. Tomato paste can be used instead of tomatoes if you prefer.

Put the garlic with the ginger and sliced onions from above. They will be sautéed together. Put the tomatoes in a separate small bowl and set aside.

Now using the cutting board one last time, cut 1 1/2 pounds of boneless and skinless chicken thighs into 2 inch pieces. Alternatively, use 5-6 drumsticks with the skin removed. 

Add the chicken pieces to the yogurt marinade and mix well until all the pieces are covered in the marinade. Cover the bowl and keep in the fridge for several hours or overnight.

The Final Steps

This portion of the recipe can be done about 1 1/2-2 hours before eating.

Parboil the Rice

In a large pot add 3 quarts of water, 1 tablespoon salt, 2-3 bay leaves, 4-6 cloves, 4-5 cardamom pods, a 3/4 inch cinnamon stick, and 1-2 whole star anise. Bring to a boil.

As soon as the water boils, add in 1 1/2 cups of basmati rice. Bring the water to a boil again and cook the rice for only 4 minutes. Then immediately drain it. The middle part of the rice grain should still be hard because it’s only partially cooked at this point. 

After draining the rice, remove all the whole spices and set them aside for layering at the end. I only do this because I don’t like to bite into pieces of clove or cardamom when eating the biryani. You can leave the spices in the rice if it doesn’t bother you.

Make the Chicken Curry

Take the same skillet from above and place it back over medium heat. There should still be residual oil from earlier but you can add more if needed.

If you used the skillet much earlier like the night before and want to wash it before using it again, that’s okay. I don’t bother doing this.

Once the oil in the skillet is hot, add the reserved 2/3 cup onion, minced garlic, and minced ginger you saved from earlier. Sauté them for 5-8 minutes until golden brown. 

Next add in the diced tomatoes. Or use 1-2 tablespoons of tomato paste instead. Sauté until the tomatoes cook down or until the paste starts sticking to the pan.

Now add 3 tablespoons ground coriander, 1 teaspoon cayenne or chili powder, and 1 teaspoon paprika. Sauté another 1-2 minutes until aromatic. 

The spice level was fine for my kids but If you prefer a spicier dish, increase the chili powder to 2 teaspoons.

Finally, stir in the marinated chicken. Cover the skillet and cook over medium heat for 10 minutes. 

Remove the lid and add in 1/2 to 3/4 cup hot water. There should be a good amount of liquid as you can see in the pictures below. Otherwise, the curry will burn on the bottom. Give it another stir and lower the heat to very low!

Layer the Biryani

Now for the fun part! Before beginning, make sure to have ready your parboiled rice, the whole spices, and a few tablespoons of ghee. 

Also, take out the containers of cilantro, mint, saffron milk, as well as the sautéed cashews, raisins, and caramelized onions. 

While the skillet is still on a low-flame, evenly sprinkle the top of the chicken curry with all of the minced cilantro and mint.

Then add half of the caramelized onions. Do not stir them in, only lay them on top.

Now add all of the parboiled rice. Once again, do not stir it in, just spoon it evenly over. Make sure the rice is covering most of the chicken curry.

Finally, top the rice with a drizzle of ghee and saffron milk, followed by the remaining caramelized onions, cashews and raisins, and the whole spices. That’s it!

Cook the Biryani

Place the lid back on the skillet and increase the heat to medium. After about 10 minutes you should see steam escaping from the top. Once this happens, lower the heat and continue cooking with the lid on for another 15 minutes. It should take a total of 25-30 minutes.  

Now take the pot off the heat and let the biryani sit with the lid on for 10 minutes. Finally, remove the lid and garnish with a few springs of fresh cilantro.

This recipe makes about 4 huge portions or 5-6 smaller ones depending on what you serve it with. Biryani is a celebratory dish and is often served with multiple sides and condiments.

We like to eat ours with papadum, a vegetable thoran, homemade Indian pickle like mango or lime, and of course raita!

To me, this biryani is very reminiscent of the one I grew up eating. It may not be restaurant quality or as good as my parents’ recipe, but it’s perfect for my little family.

Of course, I plan to try different methods and ingredients next time, so this definitely won’t be my final version. 

Method for parboiling the rice and cooking the biryani is adapted from: https://www.recipetineats.com/biryani/

Here are some other Kerala inspired dishes

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Flavorful chicken wings with a hint of Indian spice!
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Joby's Test Kitchen Indian style chicken wings with chili powder, cilantro, and lemon slices.
Kerala Style Pork Curry
Tender pieces of pork are browned and then simmered in a sauce of tomatoes, onions, chilies, and spices for a rich and savory curry.
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Joby's Test Kitchen Kerala style pork curry in skillet.
Simple Kerala Beef Curry
A savory Kerala curry of tender beef simmered in onions, tomatoes, and spices.
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Kerala Style chicken biryani rice with chicken on plate.

Kerala Style Chicken Biryani

Joby’s Test Kitchen
This savory dish is made with fragrant rice and chicken curry layered together with spices, onions, and ghee.
Prep Time 1 hour 32 minutes
Cook Time 1 hour 36 minutes
Total Time 3 hours 8 minutes
Course Main Course
Cuisine Indian
Servings 4 to 6

Ingredients
  

Chicken Masala

  • 1 tsp fennel seeds
  • 3-4 whole cardamom pods
  • 3-4 whole cloves
  • inch cinnamon stick or ¼ tsp ground cinnamon
  • 3 black peppercorns or ¼ tsp ground black pepper
  • ¼ inch piece nutmeg or ⅛-¼ tsp ground nutmeg, optional
  • 1 petal star anise, optional
  • 1 pinch cumin seeds, optional

Layering and Garnish

  • 2 tbsps (30ml) milk
  • 1 tsp saffron strands
  • medium onions
  • 3 tbsps (45ml) vegetable oil
  • 2-3 tbsps cashews, optional
  • 2-3 tbsps raisins, optional
  • 1-2 tbsps (15-30ml) ghee (will be used at the end only)
  • ¼ cup cilantro plus few extra leaves for final garnish
  • 2-3 tbsps fresh mint leaves

Chicken Marinade

  • 2 inch chunk of ginger
  • 1-2 medium whole green chilies, optional
  • ½ cup (113g) yogurt
  • tsps salt
  • 1 heaping tsp chicken or biryani masala
  • ¼ tsp turmeric
  • 1 tsp lemon juice
  • lbs boneless, skinless chicken thighs or 5-6 drumsticks with skin removed

Parboiled Rice

  • 12 cups (3qts) water
  • 1 tbsp salt
  • 4-6 whole cloves
  • 4-5 whole cardamom pods
  • 2-3 dry bay leaves
  • ¾ cinnamon stick
  • 1-2 whole star anise
  • cup dry basmati rice

Chicken Curry

  • 1 tbsp (15ml) vegetable oil
  • cup sliced onions reserved from above
  • 2 tsps minced ginger reserved from above
  • 3-5 cloves garlic, minced
  • 3 tbsps ground coriander
  • 1 tsp cayenne or chili powder (e.g. Kashmiri)
  • 1 tsp paprika
  • 1 small tomato diced or 1 tbsp tomato paste
  • marinated chicken pieces from above
  • ½-¾ cup (120-180ml) water

Instructions
 

MAKE AHEAD (Can be done several hours in advance or overnight.)

    Chicken Masala

    • In a spice or coffee grinder, grind all the spices until a fine powder forms. Store in small jar.

    Layering and Garnish

    • Soak saffron in the milk and keep in a small container in the fridge until ready to use.
    • On a large cutting board slice the onions very thinly. Set aside.
    • Then coarsely mince cilantro and mint. Keep in a small bowl or container that is lined with a scrap of paper towel. Place in fridge if making the biryani later.
    • Now it’s time to fry! Place a large skillet over medium-high heat. Choose a skillet with a tight fitting lid because it will be used to steam the biryani.
    • When the skillet is hot, add 1 tablespoon oil. Add cashews and raisins and sauté a few minutes until the cashews become golden. Use a slotted spoon to take them out and set aside in small bowl. Store in the fridge if making biryani later.
    • Add another 1-2 tablespoons oil to the skillet and add most of the sliced onions. Set aside about ⅔ cup for making the curry.
    • Cover the pan with a lid, lower the heat to medium-low, and cook the onions for 10-15 minutes while stirring occasionally.
    • Take off the lid and continue cooking onions for about 20 minutes longer. Once they’re golden, caramelized, and “sticky,” remove with the slotted spoon. Use another spoon to press on the onions and squeeze as much oil as possible back into the skillet. Or use a small strainer to do this. You’ll need the oil for making the curry. Store onions in the fridge if making biryani later. They can also be made further in advance and frozen.

    Chicken Marinade

    • Using the same cutting board from above, peel and mince the ginger. Add half of it to a large mixing bowl. Add the other half to the 2/3 cup reserved onions from above. They will be used for sautéing later.
    • Now mince, chop, or slice the green chilies. The smaller you cut them the more spicy they will be. Add the chilies to the large mixing bowl.
    • To this bowl also add yogurt, salt, chicken masala, turmeric, lemon juice.
    • Before using the cutting board to cut the chicken, mince the garlic and dice the tomato for the curry. Keep the garlic with the ginger and the reserved onions. They will be sautéed together. Set aside the tomatoes in a small bowl. If making the biryani later, store all these items in the fridge.
    • Now using the cutting board one last time, cut the chicken thighs into 2 inch pieces. Add to the yogurt marinade and mix well until all the chicken pieces are covered in the marinade. Cover the bowl and keep in the fridge.

    FINAL STEPS (Should be done 1½ to 2 hours before serving.)

      Parboiled Rice:

      • Fill a large pot with about 3 quarts of water. Add in salt, cloves, cardamom, cinnamon stick, bay leaves, and star anise. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat.
      • As soon as the water boils add in the basmati rice. Bring to a boil again and cook for only 4 minutes. Then immediately drain it. The middle part of a grain should be still be hard because it’s only partially cooked at this point.
      • After draining the rice, remove the whole spices and set them aside for layering at the end.

      Chicken Curry:

      • Using the same skillet from above, place it back over medium heat. There still should be residual oil from earlier but you can add more if needed.
      • Once the skillet is hot add the reserved 2/3 cup onion slices, minced garlic, and minced ginger you saved from earlier. Sauté for 5-8 minutes until golden brown.
      • Now add diced tomatoes or tomato paste and sauté 3-8 minutes until the tomatoes have cooked down or the paste sticks to the pan.
      • Next add ground coriander, chili powder, and paprika. Sauté about 1 minute until aromatic.
      • Finally add the marinated chicken to the skillet and give it a good stir. Cover and cook over medium heat for 10 minutes.
      • Remove the lid and add in 3/4 cup water. Give another stir and decrease the heat to very low!

      Layering Biryani:

      • Have ready the parboiled rice, whole spices, and ghee. As well as the little containers of cilantro, mint, and saffron milk. And the sautéed cashews, raisins, and caramelized onions.
      • While the skillet is still on a low-flame, evenly sprinkle the top of the chicken curry with all of the minced cilantro and mint.
      • Then add half of the caramelized onions. Do not stir them in, only lay them on top.
      • Now add all of the parboiled rice. Once again, do not stir it in, just spoon it evenly over.
      • Finally, top the rice with a drizzle of 1-2 tablespoons of ghee, the saffron milk, the remaining caramelized onions, and the whole spices.

      Cooking Biryani:

      • Place the lid back on the pot and increase the heat to medium for about 10 minutes or until you see steam escaping from the top. Lower the heat and continue cooking with the lid on for another 15 minutes. It should take a total of 25-30 minutes.
      • Take the pot off the heat and let the biryani sit with the lid on for 10 minutes. Finally, remove the lid and garnish with a few springs of fresh cilantro.
      Keyword chicken, Kerala, onions, rice, spicy

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