We were in Delhi in late November. Days were short and evenings cool. One evening we sat outside on the terrace at a restaurant, in layers of sweaters, not wanting to go inside; the stars were beautiful, the sky a midnight blue. All the other diners were safely indoors. We ordered dum biryani murgh from the very patient waiter, along with a chopped salad and a raita. The biryani came baked in its own small clay pot, aromatic, hot, tender, inviting. This is our take on that dish.
Biryani is associated with the culinary legacy of the Moghuls; the word biryani is from the Persian word for rice, birinj. Based in Iran and Afghanistan, the Moghuls began to make incursions into what is now Pakistan and the Punjab about one thousand years ago. By the early sixteenth century, they had conquered much of northern India and had established their capital near Agra (later it was moved to Delhi). With the conquest came Moghul culture, with its highly developed Iranian—central Asian architecture, music, and cuisine. The cooking traditions of the Moghul court, since adapted to local ingredients, are still associated with the wealthy classes in many regions, from Hyderabad to Delhi and Lucknow.
Biryani is a close cousin of the Iranian rice and meat dishes called polo, in which partly cooked rice is layered with flavorings, then slow cooked, though over the centuries the spicing has taken on a distinctively subcontinental personality. It’s like a meal-in-one casserole, a delicious dish to serve on a cold night or any time you feel like celebrating. It cooks for an hour in a moderate oven, giving you time to prepare salads and other accompaniments, so it’s a good dish for a dinner party.
Here boneless chicken is chopped into large bite-size pieces and marinated in a blend of yogurt and flavorings. Flavors include a little cayenne, just enough to give a mild heat, as well as coriander seed, garlic, and ginger. Traditionally the garlic and ginger are ground in a mortar to make a paste. If you have a mortar, do use it; otherwise, mince the ginger and garlic, then place them in a small bowl and use the back of a spoon to mash them a little.
The chicken is layered with almost-cooked basmati and some cooked onions, then baked in a tightly sealed casserole. This technique is called dum (also used for Cauliflower Dum), a shortening of the Farsi word dampunkt, meaning “air (or steam) cooked.” We use a very heavy cast-iron pot, with a heavy lid that seals well. Traditional dum cooking requires that the lid and pot be sealed together with a strip of dough; instructions for the classic method are included here. It’s simple and ingenious, very like the technique traditionally used to seal the top and bottom of the couscoussiere together tightly when making couscous. You can instead cover the pot tightly with aluminum foil before putting the lid on, so no steam can escape while the biryani is cooking.