Saturday, 25 January 2014

chicken pulao and biryani friday's

chicken pulao with cucumber raita
when he was a boy, my brother m designated friday lunch to be biryani. we were living in our f-7/2 house at that point and our cook-cum-driver siraj was in charge of cooking. he was sindhi and had a fiery temperament that was reflected in the spicing of the biryani. in addition, his shoddy kitchen habits caused mama much discomfort. fortunately we had a lean-to kitchen annexed to the house where siraj was encouraged to cook. it often resembled a battlefield when he was done.

every once in a while mama, baba and i would encourage m to alter the friday menu and on days like these he would concede to chicken pulao. i must confess that i much preferred the chicken pulao. i often think of it as a distant relation of biryani. it is true that it lacks the chilli spiciness of biryani and its base is pared down in comparison. but made well, it shares the complexity of flavours and like biryani is a one-pot meal. 

chicken or yakhni pulao is essentially rice cooked in chicken broth laced with aromatics. in my family it is baba’s cousin n apa whose pulao has legendary status. she would often make a large dekcha of it when family or guests arrived unannounced. i remember visiting her house in lahore as a little girl and most often found her in the kitchen. this was a compact space off an open courtyard. on sunny days her two-frame stove would sit in the courtyard, serviced by a rotund cylinder of gas. n apa also had a low stool on which she would sit when cooking. she would make roti and parathas with such deftness, always in perfect circles. but what i remember most is that when she would slide the flat lid off the dekcha, the air would fill with the smell of chicken broth laced with the subtle floral scent of cardamom and bay leaf. it was a broth based on extracting the essence of the chicken’s bones.

a pulao gains its colour from onions browned in plenty of oil. the fat also lubricates the grains, enabling the rice to remain separate and fluffy when cooked. when mama sent me this recipe the opening line read ‘for pulao you will have to forget your principles of less oil, it just doesn't work.’ having tried to defy this advice, i can assure you that she is right.
dinner is served on a dastarkhawan
this recipe for pulao is adapted to the realities of modern day living. even my phoopo makes this streamlined version, where the chicken broth is made to the principle of speed. a decade or so ago and especially for those who employed cooks, the broth would be simmered for at least two hours, allowing time for the flavour of the bones to be fully drawn out. in this improvised version the chicken is fried with the onions and whole spices until it is just shy of fully cooked. n apa, phoopo and mama also include half a cup of yoghurt to create a light masala and absorb any odour that may come from the chicken. i do without this step because i can get free-range of organic chicken in london, which is not always the case in pakistan. after this, water is introduced to the pot and bought to a rolling boil, at which stage the rice is added to the pan. the rice absorbs and is gently steam in the broth whilst the cucumber raita is readied to serve the pulao. i always add plenty of fresh green chilli to the raita given that pulao has a gentle constitution. siraj’s biryani, on the other hand, demanded plenty of plain yoghurt as a balm to its numbing heat. 

in pakistan, raita is made with 'koonday wallah dahi', live yoghurt that is set in shallow earthen vessels called paraats. we would often stop to buy this on our way back from school from siddique in rana market. it was scooped into a clear plastic bag with a half moon shaped utensil. this curd was tart with a loose texture and well suited to cut through rich and spicy meals. for this reason it is always served aside biryani and pulao. here in london one can buy live yoghurt from south asian or turkish corner shops. 

{mama’s chicken pulao}

a medium sized chicken, skinned and cut into ten to twelve pieces
eighty ml sunflower oil + more if required
a medium sized onion
three plump cloves of garlic
two cardamom pods
four whole cloves
a bay leaf
a piece of cassia bark
eight whole peppercorns 
three teaspoons salt + more if required
five hundred grams basmati rice
nine hundred and fifty ml water
a tablespoon of black cumin seeds
a few coriander leaves to garnish (optional) 

i prefer buying a medium sized free-range chicken as it has good flavour. ask the butcher to skin and cut the chicken into twelve pieces. if your chicken is large i would recommend fourteen pieces.

the rice needs to be soaked for at least an hour. before soaking rinse the rice several times in cool water. the water will be cloudy at first so continue until it runs clear. do not agitate the rice as this breaks the grains. properly rinsed rice is necessary to remove the starch allowing the rice grains to fluff up individually. if you skip this step the pulao will be sticky and clumpy. once the water is more of less clear soak the rice in tepid water. mama says she learnt this tip from the iranians who are maestros of rice cooking.

peel, halve and slice the onion into thin half-moons. pound the cloves of garlic into a paste. i find that adding a little salt to the garlic hastens this process. bruise the cardamom pods so that they slit open. place all the whole spices in a little bowl so that they are ready to be added together.

you will need a heavy bottomed pan that is large enough to accommodate the chicken in an almost single layer. heat the oil on medium heat. add the onion and brown it gently. do not be tempted to raise the heat. if you try to hurry the browning process you run the risk of the onion becoming too dark. this may give the pulao a bitter taste and also make the colour very dark. it takes me around fifteen to twenty minutes. the onion is ready when dark biscuit in colour.

the whole spices are added to the onion half way through the browning process. they will toast in the oil allowing them to release their full potential. when the onion is ready add the garlic paste and fry until it smells warm and aromatic. keep stirring it and make sure that the garlic does not burn.

dial up the heat and add the chicken. fry it on high heat for around three to five minutes stirring constantly. it should not gain colour. then turn the heat to medium and continue frying for another twelve to fifteen minutes. the chicken should lose its raw smell and the meat should be almost cooked. this means that there should be no visible pinkness. if there is continue frying till this is achieved. 

add the salt and water to the pan and bring it to a rolling boil. check the seasoning. it should be on the salty side allowing for the fact that the rice will dilute it. add more if you think it is required. strain the soaked rice, ensuring that all the water has been removed. add this to the pan. wrap the lid of the pan with a clean tea towel and secure it over the pan making sure that it fits tightly. this will prevent the steam from escaping. dial the heat down to low and allow the rice to cook undisturbed for thirty minutes.

after thirty minutes lift the lid, gently fork the rice to loosen it and sprinkle the cumin seeds on top. re-cover the pan and allow to steam for a further ten minutes. 

{cucumber raita}

five hundred grams live yoghurt
a cucumber
a teaspoon of salt
two spring onions
a few sprigs of mint and coriander
two thai bird green chillies
two to three tablespoons of milk
a few coriander leaves to garnish (optional) 

spice mix
one teaspoon red chilli flakes
one teaspoon white cumin

put the yoghurt in a bowl and whisk it to smooth any lumps. 

peel and grate the cucumber coarsely, adding it to the yoghurt. add a teaspoon of salt. finely cut the green parts of the spring onions, mint and coriander leaves and green chillies and add these to the raita.

if required, use milk to thin the raita. it should be a thick pouring consistency. 

dry roast the spices in a small frying pan over medium low heat. watch them carefully as they should not colour. they will be fragrant when ready. try not to inhale them as once toasted they are strong and will make you choke. roughly grind the toasted spices before adding half and stirring it into the raita and sprinkling the remainder on top. 


  1. Anonymous8.10.14

    So glad I stumbled upon your blog, have been looking for a simple pulao recipe for ages. One question though, if I was to add yogurt in the pulao, like your family does, when do I add it? Like you, I live in London and get free range chicken, but my Urdu speaking roots mean I am petrified of having 'hamaq' in any meat, so I rather just add the yogurt to quell the smell. Many thanks!

    1. I hope you enjoy making it. Chicken Pulao is one of my favourite one pot meals! As for the yoghurt, you would add it when you 'bhuno' the chicken. Add it right at the end and fry it till the moisture is all but evaporated.

    2. Anonymous8.10.14

      Great, thanks so much!