Ma’s Chicken Biriyani Recipe

Ma’s Chicken Biriyani
Part of spending time in Durban this weekend meant that I got to spend time with my grandparents. I am incredibly lucky to have able and willing elders who are in their early 80’s at the helm of my family. My grandfather still plays a weekly game of 18 holes and my grandmother is the centre of all familial ties to a large extended family. They have been travelling the globe since they got married, 50-something years ago, and have literally got stories to tell from every country in the world. Just last year they went to India (for the 6th time) where my gran got to ride a camel and walk the streets of a country that is both foreign and familiar to her. It sounded like an incredibly energising trip for them both. 

My gran is still the head chef at all gatherings, but is always keen to chat about recipes she’s seen on BBC Lifestyle or about the latest book she’s buried in. Being her eldest grandchild makes me a proud moment in her life and she always makes me feel that way, even when I doubt my deserving. 

The three generations of women in my family often end up spending many hours in the kitchen and while this might come off as a most archaic ideal, it works because we’re all quite particular about the process, not to mention the end product. But I guess the best thing about this kitchen-bound arrangement is that I get to hear stories about my grans life and about where I come from and about why I carry certain traits that can only be attributed to lineage. It’s a relationship that no amount of measurable anything could replace. 

It goes without saying that my gran is still an absolutely beautiful woman, but in her younger days, she was truly breathtaking. Her latte coloured skin, dark brown hair and jade eyes made her striking and exotic in a predominantly Indian community. So much so, that she would be sent to collect the food rations during the Apartheid regime because she would always retrun with more than the allocated amounts. 

As a child, Ma would always amaze me with her knife skills. She would be able to peel the jacket off any fruit or vegetable in one delicate spiral and carve out cores and foreign bits in near artistic form. She would be able to, with only a whiff, smell a pot and know what spice was missing. Her culinary wiles are still as precise as anybodies and she still grinds and mixes masala for our entire family, which is so good that it often finds its way over the sea into the homes of her family. 

This year was no different to any other. Ma made the Chicken Biriyani for us all.  This recipe is from, but it looks very much like the one my gran uses from the Indian Delights cook book. 


  • 4 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 4 small potatoes, peeled and halved
  • 2 large onions, finely chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger root
  • 1/2 teaspoon chili powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 medium tomatoes, peeled and chopped
  • 2 tablespoons plain yogurt
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint leaves
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
  • 1 (2 inch) piece cinnamon stick
  • 3 pounds boneless, skinless chicken pieces cut into chunks
  • 2 1/2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 1 pinch powdered saffron
  • 5 pods cardamom
  • 3 whole cloves
  • 1 (1 inch) piece cinnamon stick
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1 pound basmati rice
  • 4 cups chicken stock
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt

How to:
  1. In a large skillet, in 2 tablespoons vegetable oil (or ghee) fry potatoes until brown, drain and reserve the potatoes. Add remaining 2 tablespoons oil to the skillet and fry onion, garlic and ginger until onion is soft and golden. Add chili, pepper, turmeric, cumin, salt and the tomatoes. Fry, stirring constantly for 5 minutes. Add yogurt, mint, cardamom and cinnamon stick. Cover and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally until the tomatoes are cooked to a pulp. It may be necessary to add a little hot water if the mixture becomes too dry and starts to stick to the pan.
  2. When the mixture is thick and smooth, add the chicken pieces and stir well to coat them with the spice mixture. Cover and cook over very low heat until the chicken is tender, approximately 35 to 45 minutes. There should only be a little very thick gravy left when chicken is finished cooking. If necessary cook uncovered for a few minutes to reduce the gravy.
  3. Wash rice well and drain in colander for at least 30 minutes.
  4. In a large skillet, heat vegetable oil (or ghee) and fry the onions until they are golden. Add saffron, cardamom, cloves, cinnamon stick, ginger and rice. Stir continuously until the rice is coated with the spices.
  5. In a medium-size pot, heat the chicken stock and salt. When the mixture is hot pour it over the rice and stir well. Add the chicken mixture and the potatoes; gently mix them into the rice. Bring to boil. Cover the saucepan tightly, turn heat to very low and steam for 20 minutes. Do not lift lid or stir while cooking. Spoon biryani onto a warm serving dish.

And PS: Before embarking on this culinary expedition, invoke the unconditional love that only grandparents can give and remember, sharing is caring. 

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