Madras Chicken Biryani with Homemade Masala

Many moons ago, my first job as a flight attendant had me stationed in Madras, now known as Chennai. Sorry folks, but while this big city in South India is now officially know as Chennai, it will always be Madras to me. Barely into my second decade and away from home for the first time, I didn't know much about cooking, but I sure knew that I was hungry a lot of the time. And while it was fun traveling on weekly flights to Europe and tasting moules frites and lobster couscous for the first time, I'd look forward to a delicious Indian meal whenever I was back in Madras. Luckily there was no dearth of welcoming relatives in Madras. 

My uncle, 'The Doc' was a frequent inviter. "What are you doing? Come for lunch," he would say.

"You don't have to ask me twice," I would say. 

And then I'd get there double time and with a healthy appetite.

Luckily The Doc's home office was used to preparing copious quantities of food to feed their menagerie of cats, dogs, parakeets and two growing children with healthy appetites themselves. Thank heavens for Devi, their cook, who could be counted on to prepare the most delicious food at a moment's notice. So adding another place setting at lunch never seemed to be a problem.

Devi's Madras Chicken Biryani was classic. After relishing it a few times, I decided I must learn to make it and Devi couldn't have been more thrilled to teach me. 

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I arrived for my cooking class with my newly purchased, lined notebook, soon to become recipe book. With her large smile and humungous, round glasses that would slide down her nose every now and then, Devi demonstrated how to make her signature dish. And a very memorable cooking class, it was; since it came with a whole lot of constant interruptions and entertainment. 

"These are the newest kittens. They were born 3 weeks ago," said Little Cousin entering the kitchen with an armful of furry ears and tails, too many to count.

"Miaow, miaow, miaow," screeched the pet parakeets as they cocked their heads and mocked us through the kitchen window. Yes, they had decided that it was more entertaining to imitate the house cats than to learn to ask for a cracker or a bottle of beer. Perhaps if someone had actually brought them a bottle of beer...?

"Want to hear this new tune I learned to play on the guitar?" said Littler Cousin bouncing into the kitchen and bursting into song, without waiting for an answer.

"Miaow, miaow, miaow," went the parakeets joining in for the chorus.

"Come sit and chat," suggested the Mrs.

Now you must be wondering through all this commotion, if I actually ended up writing this recipe down correctly. But I'm glad to report that I did. Because over the years, I've often pulled out my now well-worn, lined recipe notebook and turned to the page that says 'Devi's Madras Chicken Biryani' and proceeded to make her delicious biryani. And every time it turns just as good as the day I first ate it.

With just a few simple ingredients that can be found in any supermarket anywhere in the world, I've made this biryani countless times in different corners of the globe. And every time I eat it, it takes me back to a time and place in Madras where parakeets mewed, when you were invited for a meal at the drop of a hat and when there were people like Devi we could always count on.

Masala for Biryani

This mildly spicy Madras/ Chennai style chicken biryani is made with an easy homemade masala and without using any commercially prepared biryani mix.

The ingredients for this biryani masala are really simple:

  • Whole spices:  whole cinnamon, clove and cardamom
  • Fresh greens: green chilies, fresh mint leaves
  • Fresh ingredients: onions, tomatoes, ginger garlic paste
  • Masala powders: Only chili powder
  • Other essentials:  Extra fried onions and ghee for flavor. And kesari color for effect.

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Madras Chicken Biryani with basmati rice and a homemade masala. Top of biryani sprinkled with fried onions and kesari coloring.

Madras Chicken Biryani / Chennai Chicken Biryani Recipe

Spice level: 2 on 5


☐650g basmati or 3 cups basmati rice
☐1 kg whole chicken, jointed
☐ 3 large tomatoes, chopped
☐ 6 small/medium sized onion, sliced
☐ 10 long green chilies, slit 
☐ 1 1/2 cups fresh mint, chopped
☐ 1 teaspoon chili powder
☐ 4 heaped teaspoons ginger garlic paste
☐ 6 cloves
☐ 1 stick cinnamon, broken,
☐ 3-4 cardamoms
☐ Salt to taste
☐ Cooking oil (Sunflower or Corn oil)
☐ Kesari food coloring, a pinch
☐ Ghee
☐ Extra fried onions to use when layering the biryani

Step by Step Instructions:

1. Prep

Rinse the basmati rice. Then soak rice for 10 minutes while prepping other ingredients.

Slice onions, chop tomatoes, slit green chilies, chop mint and set aside.

2. Fry masala

  • In a heavy bottomed pan or pressure cooker, pour a good amount of oil.
  • When the oil is hot, add the cloves, cinnamon and cardamom. Then add the sliced onions and fry, stirring to prevent burning.  
  • After about 10 minutes of frying, add the chopped mint
  • After the mint wilts, add the chopped tomatoes and slit green chilies.
  • Fry further, stirring to avoid sticking and burning. When the entire mixture looks mashed and pulpy, add ginger garlic paste and salt.
  • Add the chicken and chili powder and fry lightly. 
  • Add a little water and cook chicken. (I prefer to cook the chicken in a covered vessel. However, if cooking in a pressure cooker, when steam escapes from valve, add weight. After 1 whistle, switch off. After opening the pressure cooker, if there is a lot of gravy, cook open to reduce the gravy.) 

3. Boil Rice

Tip : While the masala is frying, start boiling the rice so that the chicken masala and rice will be ready around the same time.

  • Cover the soaked rice with lots of water, add salt and boil to cook rice.  
  • Take care when handling the soaked rice as the grains can easily break.
  • The water should be about as salty as sea water. 
  • When the rice is done and the grains are long, cooked yet still firm, drain rice into a colander. Spread the drained rice out onto a flat tray to separate the grains and stop the rice from cooking. Cover to keep warm.

4. Layer

  • In a large vessel, spread 3/4 of the chicken and hot gravy at the bottom of the vessel. Keep the vessel on a low flame as you layer the biryani.
  • Spoon half the rice lightly over the chicken. Spoon a few dollops of ghee onto the rice. Sprinkle fried onions. Spoon the remaining chicken and gravy over the rice.
  • Now, create the next layer by spooning the remining rice into the vessel. Add dollops of ghee.
  • Dissolve 1/4 teaspoon of kesari powder in a little water to create about 1 tablespoon of orange dye. Drop the orange dye over the top of the rice. Sprinkle with fried onions. Cover the vessel with a tight fitting lid.
  • Leave the vessel on a low flame for 2 more minutes. Switch off and allow the steam to heat up the rest of the rice. Open the lid slightly and let the biryani rest for about 20-30 minutes before serving.

5. Serve

Mix the biryani slightly before serving on a platter. 

Serve with Devi's apple yoghurt raita. But that's a story for another day.

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Devi's Madras Chicken Biryani

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