Indians need chicken biriyani, not chicken soup, for the soul.

While it is no secret that Indians love chicken biriyani, it became official when chicken biriyani topped the list of most ordered items in India during the pandemic. The biriyani’s origin story is debatable; it either came to North India from Persia with the Mughal emperors or came to South India from Arab traders. Equally debated across India are the rankings of the different types of biriyanis, like the Hyderabadi biriyani, Malabari biriyani, Dum biriyani. Biriyani is a spiced rice dish with mutton, lamb, beef, chicken, fish, shrimp, or vegetables. Although the true connoisseurs of the biriyani scoff at chicken biriyani and eat only mutton biriyani, chicken biriyani is the pop star among biriyanis.  

What gives the chicken biriyani its mass appeal? Perhaps it is because chicken is readily available, cheap, quickly absorbs flavors, and is easy to cook. Every Indian restaurant that serves meat has chicken biriyani on its menu, but very few get it right. I am no chicken biriyani connoisseur, but even I have minimum standards. The recent order of chicken biriyani from Anjappar in NYC was a damp squib, the rice was watery and flavorless, and the chicken was bland. A fall from grace for the chain known as the chicken biriyani experts in Chennai, India.

Here is my description of good, soul-satisfying chicken biriyani. Like with sushi, it all starts with perfectly cooked rice. The rice must be long grained, Basmati is the safe bet, and cooked al dente. It should be firm, not greasy, and flavorful (with natural spices like cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, and anise). And nestled within this delectable bed of rice are pieces of chicken. A chicken leg is necessary for some, but prudish (and phony) meat-eaters like me prefer boneless smaller pieces. Even getting the number of pieces right is an art; too many pieces upset the rice-meat ratio, while too few do not make it a chicken biriyani anymore and ruins the mood knowing the restaurant has ripped you off. Unlike the rice, the chicken must be well cooked with sliced onions and spices. The ratio of onions must be just right so it does not overpower the chicken. A topping of crisp cashews and fried onions further elevates the biriyani.    

But even the best chicken biriyani is incomplete without its accompanying condiments. Foremost is the raita: fresh thick yogurt with thinly chopped raw onions. Some restaurants serve plain raita or tomato and cucumber raita, but they do not come close to the pairing of the chicken biriyani with onion raita. Thinly sliced onions with vinegar without the yogurt also go well with the biriyani. And then the papadum, lentil fritters, for that delicate crunch. Finally, the pickle, a bitter lime, or tangy white lime, is the best rather than mango. This list of the perfect accompanying condiments for the chicken biriyani is no accident. It is clearly the result of the painstaking trials over the years by scores of chicken biryani lovers to figure out how they can eat as much biriyani as possible without the accompanying heaviness. For some inexplicable reason that somehow makes perfect sense, the chicken biriyani is often served with a boiled egg pressed down into the rice. 

Over the ages, the chicken biriyani has satisfied the souls of millions of Indians and lovers of Indian food. However, this epitome of pleasure would be impossible without sacrificing millions and millions of hapless chickens. Chickens have sadly become products than sentient beings with beating hearts that panicked when the end was near. In the Japanese film, Tampopo, the ritual of eating noodles includes a note of thanks to the animal that gave up its life to serve the dish. Similarly, the least we can do is offer our gratitude to the humble chicken for allowing us to satisfy our souls with chicken biriyani.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *