Flavors: South African Chicken Biryani

South African Biryani (02) by MeetaK

It is believed that a culture cannot have a great cuisine unless it is spiced with many outside influences. Should this be true then South African cuisine has got be among the greatest in the world.

I was introduced to this cuisine several years ago when a South African friend cooked a delicious bobotie for me. The several layers of flavor in this one dish were incredible and it prompted me to look a little more deeply into the food from South Africa.

The pre-colonial South Africa was largely characterized by a variety of fruits, nuts, wild plants and game. Later the European colonists brought their cooking styles with them. Although the cuisine of South Africa is known as Cape Dutch, it was the slaves, imported from Bengal, Java and Malaysia, who influenced the food of South Africa more than anyone else.

Today the resultant kaleidoscope - the famous "rainbow" - applies not only to the people but to the food, for one finds in South Africa the most extraordinary range of cuisines.

One dish that I personally enjoy is this rice prepared in a typical Biryani-style well known on the Indian subcontinent. Flavors of cumin, coriander seeds, cloves and cinnamon, to name just a few spices, highlight the dish and potatoes, chicken and peas bring texture and color.

The recipe is adapted from one of my favorite cookbook authors, Madhur Jaffrey and her incredible “Ultimate Curry Bible”. An incredible book with over 150 recipes covering curries from all around the world. A must have! 

South African Biryani (03) by MeetaK

While the Indian Mogul biryani is mild, elegant and refined, the South African counterpart has temperament, is aromatic and piquant - a very thrilling experience. Don't get put off by the long ingredient list - this is one dish that is worth every spice, every item on the list.

You will notice that the rice used is parboiled Basmati rice, it's more robust and will forgive small cooking errors, unlike the more sensitive Basmati rice. Normally Indian/Asian supermarkets carry parboiled Basmati rice, however you can use any parboiled long-grain rice should you not find it.

Don't Forget

MM low-sugar sweet treats

This month the team over at the Daily Tiffin are hosting the Monthly Mingle. We are all looking forward and eagerly awaiting your ideas and creations to this session's theme - Low-Sugar Treats. Come on over and share your healthy treats.

The deadline is December 8th, 2008. See you there.

Recipe: South African Chicken Biryani

(Recipe adapted from Madhur Jaffrey's Ultimate Curry Bible)

For 8 portions

Printable version of recipe here.

Marinating the chicken 

300g onions, cut into rings, then deep fried until brown and crispy
1.5 kg chicken, de-skinned and cut into pieces
350 ml thick natural yogurt, whisked
1 tablespoon fresh ginger, grated
6 garlic cloves, mashed
1 teaspoon saffron strands
2 teaspoons cayenne pepper
2 teaspoon paprika powder
1 tablespoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon turmeric powder
1 tablespoon ground coriander
1 medium stick cinnamon
8 cloves
6 cardamom pods
1 tablespoon salt
4 teaspoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon peanut oil

For the biryani

100g sabut masoor dal(whole red lentils), I used channa dal (gram lentils)
700 ml parboiled Basmati rice, washed
125g fresh or frozen green peas
4 medium potatoes, peeled and quartered
1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder
6 tablespoons peanut oil
1 medium stick cinnamon
5 cardamom pods
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
30g butter, cut into pieces


Wrap the saffron strands in aluminum foil and using a rolling pin gently crush them. Place crushed saffron in a bowl or cup and pour 250 ml hot water over the crushed saffron, cover a let rest for 1 hour.

Coarsely chop the fried onion rings and place in a large bowl. Add all the other ingredients for the marinade, except for the chicken pieces. With a wooden spoon mix well, then add half of the saffron water. Mix again to incorporate the mixture. Store the remaining saffron water in the fridge.

Reserve approx. 120 ml or the marinade mixture, placing in the fridge for it to remain cool.

Add the chicken pieces to the marinade in the bowl and coat all the pieces well. Cover and marinate for 4 - 24 hours.

When you are ready to prepare the dish, take chicken about an hour before use to bring to room temperature.

Cook the sabut masoor dal in a large casserole with 750 ml water until boiling. Place the lid, leaving a slit open and simmer for 25 minutes. When soft, drain.

Steam the peas for 1-2 minutes, then place in a bowl of cold water to retain the color. Drain.

Toss the potato pieces with 1/4 teaspoon salt and 1/4 turmeric powder until completely coated.

In a large skillet heat oil and on medium heat sauté potatoes on all sides until golden. Remove potatoes with slotted spoon, reserving the oil.

Bring 5 liters of water with cinnamon stick, cardamom and cumin seeds to a boil. Add 4 teaspoons salt and the rice, carefully stir with a wooden spoon and bring to a boil. Cook for 13 minutes then drain.

Take away about 350 ml cooked rice and mix with the reserved marinade.

Pre-heat oven to 150 degrees C. In a large casserole, that will fit in your oven, add the reserved oil (from the potatoes), a third of the cooked lentils and a third of the peas.

Spread out all the chicken, including the marinade, over the peas and lentils. Distribute the remaining peas and lentils over the chicken. Push the potato wedges in between the chicken, lentils and peas.

Layer the spiced rice (in the marinade) and the pure rice, then finally spread the butter pieces over the top.

Drizzle the reserved saffron water down the sides and over the top of the biryani. Cover the casserole with heavy duty aluminum foil, then with the lid. On medium to high heat, bring the biryani to a high cooking temperature. As soon as steam begins to escape from the foil, put the casserole in the oven and gently roast for 1 1/2 hours.

To serve: Using a skimmer carefully take out a portion of the biryani out of the casserole and serve on pre-heated plates or platter. Do not mix.


A delectable dish in so many ways. This is so perfect for a larger crowd - so if you plan on entertaining a larger gathering this is a great dish. It can be easily doubled and all you need is a few chutneys and some natural yogurt to enjoy this to it's fullest. The biryani is aromatic and as it is prepared gently in the oven all the flavors are retained keeping it moist and the chicken tender.

I thank Srivalli, who has kindly allowed me to send this entry to her Rice Mela event a little past the assigned deadline. Srivalli I hope it was worth it?

You might like these rice dishes from WFLH:

Black Bean Chilli 01 framed PumpkinRisotto 01 framed Spiced Risotto 01 framed
Black Bean Chili with Saffron Rice and Papaya Guacamole Pumpkin Risotto with Shrimps Sweet Spiced Risotto with Cherry Compote

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  1. When we visited south africa, I was fascinated by the cultural diversity there. Its always intriguing to see how food is influenced by colonization, immigration etc. My husband loves briyani, I'll be making this for him :)

  2. That's a fragrant dish! Really scrumptious looking. South African cuisine has been influenced by many different cultures...



  3. I am a big fan of African cuisine... I am loving this recipe, it looks super delicious!

  4. The flavors in this dish sound extraordinary, makes me want to eat dinner all over again.

  5. I know so little about South African cuisine. This dish sounds delicious, and will be a good place to start my exploration of the foods of this country. I'm bookmarking.

  6. I could eat biryani in any shape or form. It's so addictive! I really like the South African influence in this version Meeta. I've traveled there a few times and often enjoyed the variety of food on offer.

  7. Hey nice pics Meeta.
    I have a South African friend who came over to visit us (when I was in Kolkata).
    Mom had prepared Biryani...and she had commented that their rice dish was the same...very identical infcat. In bengal they use lentils too in Biryani...I whip up so many dishes using leftovers at time..rice is truly versatile.

  8. I am so proud to be a South African right now. Thank you for featuring some of our cuisine on your site!!! Biryani is indeed a favorite amongst many South Africans and it is so versatile because you can use chicken, beef,lamb or keep it vegetarian with just the legumes!!

  9. I love biriyani and this sound delicious. When my sister in law went to holiday in S.Africa she said she was really surprised to see so many indians there, but then i told her i did warn you that thee are lots of indians there :-)

  10. This is a very entertaining blog. Well-written and clever. You are now on my favorite list.

  11. A great dish for a cold night! What a fascinating combination of flavors.

  12. Hi Meeta!

    Excellent article Meeta! South Africa is multicultural country and its cuisine represents this colorful spectrum.
    Adorable blend of flavors and textures you've done!

    Gera .:. sweetsfoods

  13. Looks lovely. I've always see biryani cooked with parboiled rice and then finished off with the rice cooking with the filling.

  14. My wife and I love biryani and so its really interesting to see a different take on it from the versions we're used to (and random side note: I almost bought that same book yesterday!) It looks amazing

  15. Meeta, I love South Africa and I find it like Sydney. I had this in my friends house in Joburg while visiting them. The masoor dal certainly imparts a unique taste. Very well captured.

  16. Very interesting and flavorful! I am always for everything piquant ... if it has temperament, even better!

  17. Thats simply superb meeta...thanks for the lovely entry..its surely worth the wait!..:))

  18. I made an Indian chicken biryani yesterday and this one certainly is worth a try!

  19. thank you all so much for your comments! i am especially excited to hear from a few SA readers - who approve LOL!

    I love this temperamental type of food and glad you are enjoying it too!

  20. Biryani by itself is such a beautiful dish. I really never had masoor dal added to it. But I can imagine the taste & texture it must have added.

  21. I need to take a look at that book. I love all the spices in this and I'm sure everyone of them adds it's part.

  22. You've convinced me to try my hand at this biryani. Bookmarked: thanks!

  23. I also have a thing for South African Spicing.. Familiar but so distinctive and unique at the same time.

  24. I want to make this dish on Tuesday for a dinner party. I think I need to go and buy a casserole though. What size do I need for the 8 serving recipe listed here?

  25. Thanks for the feedback!

    Tanna that book is fantastic!

    Cara - I used a fairly large casserole - normally I cook a whole duck in it for Christmas. The reason is that you want to have enough of room for everything to cook well without it becoming to cramped in the casserole. Otherwise you'll get mushy rice etc. My casserole is oval shaped ad I can cook whole fish and poultry in it too.

  26. I bought a large oval casserole at the store with a lid that measured 11"x8" inside. I decided to test how long it would take the steam to escape the dish on the stove so that I could time it for the party. I put about a liter of water in the bottom, placed the lid, and turned the burner on medium. After about 10 minutes the dish shattered.
    I think I'm going to use a metal pan.

  27. Oh Cara sorry to hear about that mishap. But I think it might not have been a good idea just to cook the water in the casserole for so long. I am presuming that it boiled dry and that is what caused it to shatter. Normally when you are cooking with a casserole there are ingredients, liquids etc. in it that keep it from shattering. Casseroles are quite robust and therefore will not shatter when using it to cook and bake.
    I hope it works in the metal pan. Can it be put into the oven?

  28. Don't know how I missed this the first time round Meeta - yaaaaaay, you cooked South African! I love how our cuisine is such a crazy mixture of influences - I've blogged a few times about the origins of our dishes like this briyani, or sosaties, or bobotie. We truly have a rainbow cuisine!


Thank you for visiting What's For Lunch, Honey? and taking time to browse through my recipes, listen to my ramblings and enjoy my photographs. I appreciate all your comments, feedback and input. I will answer your questions to my best knowledge and respond to your comments as soon as possible.

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