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Indonesian-Inspired Chicken Biryani

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Introduction

Without getting into the vexed complexities of colonial history, there is a reason why Indonesian — or, more correctly, Dutch-Indonesian — food plays such an important part in the cultural life of Amsterdam. Dutch traders went to what is now Indonesia at the end of the 16th century — and stayed on, and from 1816 to 1941 it became a colony of the Netherlands government — the Dutch East Indies.

It was when I first went to Amsterdam in my twenties, that I encountered (and ate a lot of) Rijstaffel, perhaps the most famous of all Dutch-Indonesian food, from the point of view of the hungry tourist at any rate, and which features rice with a staggering array of little dishes — up to 40, sometimes — which does not make it exactly cut out for a stress-free Christmas feast. But then I remembered a gorgeous Indonesian Biryani by Sri Owen (from her magisterial Rice Book) and thus inspired, I settled on a simplified version that is nonetheless a real party piece.

I know a biryani sounds like a daunting undertaking, but it really doesn’t have to be. For one thing, you cook the chicken a day (or up to a couple of days) in advance, which breaks up the process into manageable tasks. Furthermore, not only will the flavours deepen and mellow overnight, but the chicken will be gorgeously tender. On top of which, it leaves you to do no more on the day itself than cook the rice — and for just two minutes! — then layer it up in a pan with the gently reheated chicken and steam it. And the marinade you start the chicken off with is an easy affair that relies predominantly on the punchy Indonesian chilli sauce Sambal Oelek and treacly Kecap Manis (see Additional Information, below).

Sorry if I sound stern, but the chicken thighs absolutely must be on the bone, even if you plan to debone them before layering up them up with the rice: if you use thigh fillets the texture will be disappointingly dry and stringy. You have been warned! On a sunnier note, I absolutely urge you to make the Pineapple-Plus Salad with Rujak Dressing as an accompaniment. Its tangy freshness is the perfect complement to the sumptuous biryani.

And should you want a vegan version, I have one for you in the form of my beautiful Butternut Biryani!

But back to meat-eaters, I do have plans to make a leftover-turkey biryani. My proposed MO here is to mix up the marinade ingredients in a jug, cook the onions as below, and then add the spicy yogurt mixture to the cooked onions, and simmer for 15 minutes until the sauce you have in your pan is darkened and reduced, and beginning to separate. Then add your cold, cut up turkey, stir well together and layer up with the cooked aromatic rice. I shall report back!

Please read the Additional Information section at the end of the recipe before proceeding.

For US cup measures, use the toggle at the top of the ingredients list.

Without getting into the vexed complexities of colonial history, there is a reason why Indonesian — or, more correctly, Dutch-Indonesian — food plays such an important part in the cultural life of Amsterdam. Dutch traders went to what is now Indonesia at the end of the 16th century — and stayed on, and from 1816 to 1941 it became a colony of the Netherlands government — the Dutch East Indies.

It was when I first went to Amsterdam in my twenties, that I encountered (and ate a lot of) Rijstaffel, perhaps the most famous of all Dutch-Indonesian food, from the point of view of the hungry tourist at any rate, and which features rice with a staggering array of little dishes — up to 40, sometimes — which does not make it exactly cut out for a stress-free Christmas feast. But then I remembered a gorgeous Indonesian Biryani by Sri Owen (from her magisterial Rice Book) and thus inspired, I settled on a simplified version that is nonetheless a real party piece.

I know a biryani sounds like a daunting undertaking, but it really doesn’t have to be. For one thing, you cook the chicken a day (or up to a couple of days) in advance, which breaks up the process into manageable tasks. Furthermore, not only will the flavours deepen and mellow overnight, but the chicken will be gorgeously tender. On top of which, it leaves you to do no more on the day itself than cook the rice — and for just two minutes! — then layer it up in a pan with the gently reheated chicken and steam it. And the marinade you start the chicken off with is an easy affair that relies predominantly on the punchy Indonesian chilli sauce Sambal Oelek and treacly Kecap Manis (see Additional Information, below).

Sorry if I sound stern, but the chicken thighs absolutely must be on the bone, even if you plan to debone them before layering up them up with the rice: if you use thigh fillets the texture will be disappointingly dry and stringy. You have been warned! On a sunnier note, I absolutely urge you to make the Pineapple-Plus Salad with Rujak Dressing as an accompaniment. Its tangy freshness is the perfect complement to the sumptuous biryani.

And should you want a vegan version, I have one for you in the form of my beautiful Butternut Biryani!

But back to meat-eaters, I do have plans to make a leftover-turkey biryani. My proposed MO here is to mix up the marinade ingredients in a jug, cook the onions as below, and then add the spicy yogurt mixture to the cooked onions, and simmer for 15 minutes until the sauce you have in your pan is darkened and reduced, and beginning to separate. Then add your cold, cut up turkey, stir well together and layer up with the cooked aromatic rice. I shall report back!

Please read the Additional Information section at the end of the recipe before proceeding.

For US cup measures, use the toggle at the top of the ingredients list.

Ingredients

Serves: 8

Metric Cups

FOR THE MARINADE

  • 150 grams plain yoghurt
  • 4 tablespoons sambal oelek
  • 2 tablespoons kecap manis
  • 1 tablespoon tamarind paste
  • 1 tablespoon freshly grated ginger
  • 2 fat cloves of garlic (peeled and grated)
  • 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon ground cardamom
  • 1 teaspoon ground turmeric
  • ½ teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil

FOR THE CHICKEN

  • 10 decent-sized chicken thighs bone in, and skin removed and reserved (use 12 chicken thighs if using smaller-sized supermarket ones) approx. 1.2kg/2¾lb total weight
  • 500 grams onions (approx. 3 medium) peeled and cut into fine half-moons
  • 4 tablespoons vegetable oil

FOR THE RICE

  • 4 bruised cardamom pods
  • 1 long or 2 short cinnamon sticks
  • 2 cloves
  • 3 star anise
  • 25 grams desiccated coconut
  • 2 teaspoons pink peppercorns
  • 2 litres of cold water
  • 2 tablespoons fine sea salt
  • 2 teaspoons sesame oil
  • 1 teaspoon lime juice
  • 600 grams basmati rice

FOR LAYERING UP

  • 1 teaspoon sesame oil
  • 2 teaspoons cumin seeds (toasted)
  • 25 grams desiccated coconut
  • 50 grams dried cranberries

TO SERVE

  • the reserved chicken skin
  • fresh coriander

FOR THE MARINADE

  • ⅔ cup plain yogurt
  • 4 tablespoons sambal oelek
  • 2 tablespoons kecap manis
  • 1 tablespoon tamarind paste
  • 1 tablespoon freshly grated ginger
  • 2 fat cloves of garlic (peeled and grated)
  • 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon ground cardamom
  • 1 teaspoon ground turmeric
  • ½ teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil

FOR THE CHICKEN

  • 10 decent-sized chicken thighs bone in, and skin removed and reserved (use 12 chicken thighs if using smaller-sized supermarket ones) approx. 1.2kg/2¾lb total weight
  • 1¼ pounds onions (approx. 3 medium) peeled and cut into fine half-moons
  • ¼ cup vegetable oil

FOR THE RICE

  • 4 bruised cardamom pods
  • 1 long or 2 short cinnamon sticks
  • 2 cloves
  • 3 star anise
  • ⅓ cup unsweetened shredded coconut
  • 2 teaspoons pink peppercorns
  • 8⅓ cups of cold water
  • 2 tablespoons fine sea salt
  • 2 teaspoons asian sesame oil
  • 1 teaspoon lime juice
  • 3 cups basmati rice

FOR LAYERING UP

  • 1 teaspoon asian sesame oil
  • 2 teaspoons cumin seeds (toasted)
  • ⅓ cup unsweetened shredded coconut
  • ⅓ cup dried cranberries

TO SERVE

  • the reserved chicken skin
  • cilantro

Method

  1. Pour or scrape out the yogurt into a dish in which the chicken pieces can fit in a single layer; I use a rectangular Pyrex dish measuring 32cm x 24cm / 9 x 13 inches. Add 4 tablespoons of Sambal Oelek, 2 tablespoons of Kecap Manis, 1 tablespoon of tamarind paste, 1 tablespoon of grated ginger and mince or grate in 2 fat cloves of garlic, followed by 2 teaspoons of cinnamon, 1 teaspoon of peppery, piney cardamom, 1 teaspoon of ground turmeric, half a teaspoon of salt and, finally, a tablespoon of vegetable oil, and gently whisk or stir to mix until you have a uniformly vibrant gloop!
  2. Now add the skinless, bone-in chicken thighs to the marinade, swiping them in the mixture so that they’re all coated by it, and leave to marinate while you prepare and cook the onions.
  3. Peel the onions, halve them, and cut them into half-moons. Heat the oil in a large (and, importantly, wide) pan or casserole, that’s non-stick, sturdy and comes with a lid, and that can take the chicken in a single layer; I use a pan that’s a whisper under 32cm in diameter, but if you haven’t got a pan big enough it might be better to cook the chicken in two batches. Cook the onions on high for the first 5 minutes, then continue to cook — stirring frequently — for another 20-30 minutes, turning down the heat if they look as if they’re colouring or crisping up: you want these soft, but pale.
  4. Once the onions are ready, take the chicken pieces out of the marinade with a pair of tongs or a couple of forks, and arrange them bone-side down in the pan, pushing the onions over them as you go. Once all the chicken is in the pan, scrape out any marinade remaining in the dish over the chicken, turn the heat to high, clamp on the lid, and cook for 15 minutes at a fast simmer.
  5. Take the lid off the pan and turn the chicken pieces over, mixing them in the sauce as you do so. Let simmer away robustly for a further 30 minutes, this time uncovered, keeping an eye on the pan, and spooning some of the sauce over the chicken pieces every now and again, until the chicken’s cooked through, and the sauce richly coloured, reduced and thickened, just cleaving to the chicken. You may need to remove the chicken thighs and give the sauce a bit of bubbling on its own if it’s still runny; so much depends on the size of the pan you’re using.
  6. Put the chicken and its scant sauce back in the (now washed up!) dish it marinaded in earlier to cool, then cover and refrigerate overnight or for a couple of days. While you can serve the biryani with the chicken thighs whole, it will go a lot further (and be easier to eat) if you debone them at this stage, tearing them into chunks when you reheat them later.
  7. When you’re ready to proceed with the biryani, whether it’s a day later or two days later, you can make a start on the rice. I begin with scenting the water it’s going to cook in to make the rice gorgeously aromatic. So, drop the cardamom pods into a large pan with a good sturdy base and a tightly fitting lid (I use one of 26cm/10in diameter, with a capacity of 5.3 litres) followed by the cinnamon stick or sticks, 2 cloves, 3 star anise, 25g desiccated coconut and 2 teaspoons of pink peppercorns — which looks beautifully christmassy. Pour over the 2 litres/8⅓ cups of water, add 2 tablespoons of fine salt, a teaspoon of lime juice and 2 teaspoons of sesame oil and bring to a boil with the lid on. Once it comes to the boil, you can switch the heat off, and leave it on the warm hob, covered, to let the water gloriously infuse.
  8. Meanwhile, rinse the rice and leave it in a bowl covered with cold water to soak for 30 minutes, and no longer. Towards the end of its soaking time, put the chicken thighs back in the pan you cooked them in to reheat gently, and bring the aromatic water back to the boil again. And do read Step 13 now as you might want to get started on it at this stage, too.
  9. When the rice has had its 30 minutes’ soaking, drain it well, and use a slotted spoon to add the rice gradually to the boiling scented water; if you dump it in all at once, it’ll make the temperature of the water drop too much. Put the lid on to let it come back to a boil faster (though keep checking it has come back to a proper boil), and once it has, boil for 2 minutes with the lid on. Test the rice is cooked enough by rubbing a grain of rice between your fingers to see if it breaks into 2 or 3 bits, before draining well.
  10. Wipe the pan out well, and brush the bottom with a teaspoon of sesame oil, then spoon in half of the rice. Scatter over half of the toasted cumin seeds, half of the desiccated coconut, and half of the cranberries — not remotely Indonesian, but it is Christmas! — and arrange the re-heated chicken thighs in an even layer on top of the rice, scraping over any sauce that remains in their pan. Cover with the rest of the rice, and scatter again with the remaining cumin, coconut and cranberries.
  11. Make a tight seal on top of the pot with foil and then put the lid on. Place over medium heat for 4-5 minutes, to let the steam build up — you should be able to hear when it starts bubbling — and then turn down for a further 15-16 minutes more on low, to give it 20 minutes in total. And if you didn’t check out Step 13 when the rice was soaking, lose no time in doing so now!
  12. Turn off the flame (or take the pan off the heat) and carefully remove the foil — you should be greeted with a gentle puff of steam — and replace it with a clean tea towel, then clamp the lid back on, and leave for a further 20 minutes off the heat, though more wouldn’t matter.
  13. I did ask you to make sure you kept the skin from the chicken thighs, and here’s why! While the biryani steams, you magically turn the chicken skin into crisp sheets and shards of crackling. You could fry these in a pan (and see Additional Info below), but if you have an air fryer all you do is cook them at the hottest it will go (after preheating at max temp for 5 minutes) for 12–18 minutes (depending on the model you’re using) in batches as needed, then leave to cool. Do keep the golden chicken fat — the schmalz that the skins give off — for later delicious use.
  14. When the biryani’s completed its steaming, spoon it out tenderly onto a platter or a large dish, arranging the chicken and meat to their best advantage. Scrape out the bottom of the pot well, making sure to add any crispy bits on top. Crumble over the chicken crackling and scatter with freshly chopped coriander.
  1. Pour or scrape out the yogurt into a dish in which the chicken pieces can fit in a single layer; I use a rectangular Pyrex dish measuring 32cm x 24cm / 9 x 13 inches. Add 4 tablespoons of Sambal Oelek, 2 tablespoons of Kecap Manis, 1 tablespoon of tamarind paste, 1 tablespoon of grated ginger and mince or grate in 2 fat cloves of garlic, followed by 2 teaspoons of cinnamon, 1 teaspoon of peppery, piney cardamom, 1 teaspoon of ground turmeric, half a teaspoon of salt and, finally, a tablespoon of vegetable oil, and gently whisk or stir to mix until you have a uniformly vibrant gloop!
  2. Now add the skinless, bone-in chicken thighs to the marinade, swiping them in the mixture so that they’re all coated by it, and leave to marinate while you prepare and cook the onions.
  3. Peel the onions, halve them, and cut them into half-moons. Heat the oil in a large (and, importantly, wide) pan or casserole, that’s non-stick, sturdy and comes with a lid, and that can take the chicken in a single layer; I use a pan that’s a whisper under 32cm in diameter, but if you haven’t got a pan big enough it might be better to cook the chicken in two batches. Cook the onions on high for the first 5 minutes, then continue to cook — stirring frequently — for another 20-30 minutes, turning down the heat if they look as if they’re colouring or crisping up: you want these soft, but pale.
  4. Once the onions are ready, take the chicken pieces out of the marinade with a pair of tongs or a couple of forks, and arrange them bone-side down in the pan, pushing the onions over them as you go. Once all the chicken is in the pan, scrape out any marinade remaining in the dish over the chicken, turn the heat to high, clamp on the lid, and cook for 15 minutes at a fast simmer.
  5. Take the lid off the pan and turn the chicken pieces over, mixing them in the sauce as you do so. Let simmer away robustly for a further 30 minutes, this time uncovered, keeping an eye on the pan, and spooning some of the sauce over the chicken pieces every now and again, until the chicken’s cooked through, and the sauce richly coloured, reduced and thickened, just cleaving to the chicken. You may need to remove the chicken thighs and give the sauce a bit of bubbling on its own if it’s still runny; so much depends on the size of the pan you’re using.
  6. Put the chicken and its scant sauce back in the (now washed up!) dish it marinaded in earlier to cool, then cover and refrigerate overnight or for a couple of days. While you can serve the biryani with the chicken thighs whole, it will go a lot further (and be easier to eat) if you debone them at this stage, tearing them into chunks when you reheat them later.
  7. When you’re ready to proceed with the biryani, whether it’s a day later or two days later, you can make a start on the rice. I begin with scenting the water it’s going to cook in to make the rice gorgeously aromatic. So, drop the cardamom pods into a large pan with a good sturdy base and a tightly fitting lid (I use one of 26cm/10in diameter, with a capacity of 5.3 litres) followed by the cinnamon stick or sticks, 2 cloves, 3 star anise, 25g unsweetened shredded coconut and 2 teaspoons of pink peppercorns — which looks beautifully christmassy. Pour over the 2 litres/8⅓ cups of water, add 2 tablespoons of fine salt, a teaspoon of lime juice and 2 teaspoons of asian sesame oil and bring to a boil with the lid on. Once it comes to the boil, you can switch the heat off, and leave it on the warm hob, covered, to let the water gloriously infuse.
  8. Meanwhile, rinse the rice and leave it in a bowl covered with cold water to soak for 30 minutes, and no longer. Towards the end of its soaking time, put the chicken thighs back in the pan you cooked them in to reheat gently, and bring the aromatic water back to the boil again. And do read Step 13 now as you might want to get started on it at this stage, too.
  9. When the rice has had its 30 minutes’ soaking, drain it well, and use a slotted spoon to add the rice gradually to the boiling scented water; if you dump it in all at once, it’ll make the temperature of the water drop too much. Put the lid on to let it come back to a boil faster (though keep checking it has come back to a proper boil), and once it has, boil for 2 minutes with the lid on. Test the rice is cooked enough by rubbing a grain of rice between your fingers to see if it breaks into 2 or 3 bits, before draining well.
  10. Wipe the pan out well, and brush the bottom with a teaspoon of asian sesame oil, then spoon in half of the rice. Scatter over half of the toasted cumin seeds, half of the unsweetened shredded coconut, and half of the cranberries — not remotely Indonesian, but it is Christmas! — and arrange the re-heated chicken thighs in an even layer on top of the rice, scraping over any sauce that remains in their pan. Cover with the rest of the rice, and scatter again with the remaining cumin, coconut and cranberries.
  11. Make a tight seal on top of the pot with foil and then put the lid on. Place over medium heat for 4-5 minutes, to let the steam build up — you should be able to hear when it starts bubbling — and then turn down for a further 15-16 minutes more on low, to give it 20 minutes in total. And if you didn’t check out Step 13 when the rice was soaking, lose no time in doing so now!
  12. Turn off the flame (or take the pan off the heat) and carefully remove the foil — you should be greeted with a gentle puff of steam — and replace it with a clean tea towel, then clamp the lid back on, and leave for a further 20 minutes off the heat, though more wouldn’t matter.
  13. I did ask you to make sure you kept the skin from the chicken thighs, and here’s why! While the biryani steams, you magically turn the chicken skin into crisp sheets and shards of crackling. You could fry these in a pan (and see Additional Info below), but if you have an air fryer all you do is cook them at the hottest it will go (after preheating at max temp for 5 minutes) for 12–18 minutes (depending on the model you’re using) in batches as needed, then leave to cool. Do keep the golden chicken fat — the schmalz that the skins give off — for later delicious use.
  14. When the biryani’s completed its steaming, spoon it out tenderly onto a platter or a large dish, arranging the chicken and meat to their best advantage. Scrape out the bottom of the pot well, making sure to add any crispy bits on top. Crumble over the chicken crackling and scatter with freshly chopped coriander.

Additional Information

If you can’t find the punchy Indonesian chilli sauce Sambal Oelek and treacly Kecap Manis, you could subsitute another chilli sauce, though it's hard to be sure of relative strengths. And you can make your own Kecap Manis following the instructions Lara Lee gives in her lovely book, Coconut & Sambal, namely combine 60ml light soy sauce or gluten-free tamari and 90g palm sugar or brown sugar in a small saucepan, place over a medium heat and bring to a simmer. Turn the heat down to low and simmer gently to reduce and thicken to a sauce with the consistency of maple syrup, which should take no longer than 5 minutes. Leave to cool before using.

If you don't have an air fryer, you can make the crispy chicken skin in a frying pan. Fry it in a little oil in 2 or 3 batches for about 5 minutes each side, pressing down on it regularly, until it's a dark gold, has rendered its fat (keep this schmaltz for eating on toast at another time) and is crisping up. Remove to a plate lined with kitchen roll: it will become completely crisp as it cools.

MAKE AHEAD:
The chicken can be cooked a day ahead. Cover and refrigerate as soon as cool and within 2 hours of cooking. The chicken can be marinated overnight in the fridge.

LEFTOVERS:
It is not advisable to reheat leftovers as the chicken has already been reheated once in the byriani and so should not be reheated again. Any leftovers must be refrigerated as soon as cool or within 2 hours, and should be eaten cold, within 48 hours.

If you can’t find the punchy Indonesian chilli sauce Sambal Oelek and treacly Kecap Manis, you could subsitute another chilli sauce, though it's hard to be sure of relative strengths. And you can make your own Kecap Manis following the instructions Lara Lee gives in her lovely book, Coconut & Sambal, namely combine 60ml light soy sauce or gluten-free tamari and 90g palm sugar or brown sugar in a small saucepan, place over a medium heat and bring to a simmer. Turn the heat down to low and simmer gently to reduce and thicken to a sauce with the consistency of maple syrup, which should take no longer than 5 minutes. Leave to cool before using.

If you don't have an air fryer, you can make the crispy chicken skin in a frying pan. Fry it in a little oil in 2 or 3 batches for about 5 minutes each side, pressing down on it regularly, until it's a dark gold, has rendered its fat (keep this schmaltz for eating on toast at another time) and is crisping up. Remove to a plate lined with kitchen roll: it will become completely crisp as it cools.

MAKE AHEAD:
The chicken can be cooked a day ahead. Cover and refrigerate as soon as cool and within 2 hours of cooking. The chicken can be marinated overnight in the fridge.

LEFTOVERS:
It is not advisable to reheat leftovers as the chicken has already been reheated once in the byriani and so should not be reheated again. Any leftovers must be refrigerated as soon as cool or within 2 hours, and should be eaten cold, within 48 hours.

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What 2 Others have said

  • Just back from Indonesia so I had to make this. It was a labour of love, but OH MY GOODNESS, it was amazing. I’ll definitely be making it again. Couldn’t get the pink peppercorns so left them out. The flavours in the rice are exceptional. A great, great recipe, thanks Nigella x

    Posted by NicIBZ on 3rd February 2024
  • This took a long time to do over two days but wow the taste was really worth the effort

    Posted by Bluefox42 on 8th January 2024
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