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Chicken Biryani With Saffron, Yogurt, & Caramelized Onions

Chicken biryani is a flavorful and aromatic dish that boasts a rich blend of tastes. This tasty one-pot meal is made from marinated chicken infused with spices and fluffy basmati rice. If you haven’t tried Chicken Swahili Biryani yet, I highly recommend giving it a go.

Chicken Biryani served in a tray and garnished with onions and cilantro

History: A Culinary Journey to the East African Coast

Chicken biryani is a dish with layers of fragrant spices and herbs, flavors, and textures. With a name like Biryani, you can’t be surprised that this dish has a fascinating history to it.

The origins of chicken biryani can be traced back to the Indian subcontinent, particularly the region of South Asia. It was originally known as “biryan” and was introduced to the Indian subcontinent by Persian and Arab traders and merchants. As it gained popularity, it spread to different regions of South Asia, each region putting its own spin on the dish by incorporating local ingredients, flavors, and cooking techniques.

Swahili Biyani

East African coast is a melting pot of these cultures, and its cuisine reflects the diverse influences that have shaped the region over the centuries Arab, Indian, and European traders and settlers have all left their mark on Swahili cuisine, resulting in a unique blend of flavors and techniques that sets it apart from other African culinary traditions.

One of the most popular dishes from this region is Chicken Biryani, a fragrant and flavorful one-pot meal that combines tender marinated chicken with perfectly cooked spiced rice. While it shares similarities with Indian Biryani, the Swahili version boasts its own distinct character, thanks to the unique combination of spices and local ingredients.

Easy and Mouth-Watering Chicken Biryani Recipe

Chicken biryani is a popular, flavorful, and savory meal made from spiced and marinated chicken, fluffy basmati rice, and aromatic herbs and spices. Usually, this meal is prepared in a one-pot style, allowing the rice and chicken flavors to blend together properly. 

Like the celebratory rice dishes of Nigerian jollof rice and East African pilau, chicken biryani is a popular meal enjoyed during special occasions and festivities. These dishes, among many others, highlight the rich diversity and delectable flavors of rice dishes across Africa.

Another plus to this meal is its versatility. It can be enjoyed on its own or with varied side dishes such as salads, for contrast in texture and taste or pickles, and chutneys for added flavor and crunch. 

Building Flavors in Biryani

Yogurt marinade: One of the key components of Biryani is the yogurt marinade. This mixture of yogurt, spices, and herbs is used to marinate the chicken or meat in the dish. The yogurt helps to tenderize the meat while the spices infuse it with flavor. This marinade is crucial to building the layers of flavor in Biryani.

Fried crispy onions for making biryani

Fried onions are another essential ingredient in Biryani. Finely sliced onions are deep-fried in oil until they become golden and crispy. They add a savory crunch to the meal.

Color is also an important consideration when building flavors in Biryani. The dish should have a vibrant and appetizing appearance, with each ingredient contributing to the overall color scheme, especially the yellow hue from saffron. 

While saffron is best for this recipe, it can be a bit expensive, so you can use alternatives like turmeric or food color.

Basmati rice color tinted with saffron

Layering is also an important aspect of building flavors in Biryani. The dish is typically assembled in layers, with the rice, meat, and other ingredients being added one on top of the other. This allows the flavors to blend together and develop over time.

Finally, the dish is finished with a final steaming process, which helps to meld the flavors together and create a cohesive dish. Once the Biryani is cooked, it is typically served with fresh cilantro or mint, adding freshness and flavor.

Swahili Biryani layered and garnished with fried onions and cilantro

What does chicken biryani taste like?

 Chicken biryani is a symphony of well-balanced flavors, textures, and aromas. The tender and juicy marinated chicken is infused with spices such as cumin, coriander, turmeric, cardamom, and cinnamon, providing a warm, earthy, and slightly sweet flavor profile. 

The fragrant Basmati rice complements the spiced chicken and absorbs the flavors from the stew. The dish also features a tangy note from yogurt, a mild sweetness from caramelized onions, and a hint of heat from cayenne pepper (if used).   

Ingredients for making Chicken biryani 

Each ingredient in chicken biryani plays a crucial role in creating the rich, complex flavors and textures that make this dish a beloved staple.

  • Chicken: The star of the dish, chicken provides a tender and juicy source of protein. Using bone-in and skinless pieces ensures optimum flavor and moisture retention during the cooking process.
  • Yogurt: Plain yogurt is used as a marinade base for the chicken, which not only adds a tangy flavor but also tenderizes the meat and helps it absorb the spices more effectively.
  • Basmati rice: This long-grain rice variety is known for its fragrant aroma and delicate, fluffy texture, making it the perfect choice for Biryani. Soaking the rice before cooking helps in reducing the starch content and achieving the desired consistency.
  • Onions: Thinly sliced onions are fried until golden brown, adding a sweet, caramelized flavor and a delightful crunch to the dish.
  • Garlic: Minced garlic imparts a robust and slightly pungent taste that complements the spices and other ingredients.
  • Ginger: Freshly minced ginger adds a warm, peppery kick to the dish, enhancing the overall flavor profile.
  • Vegetable oil: Used for frying the onions and cooking the chicken. Vegetable oil is a versatile and neutral cooking medium.
  • Salt: Enhances the flavors of the dish and balances the taste of the spices.
  • Others – garam masala, turmeric, chili powder, cardamom pods, cumin, anise, bay leaf

How to make chicken biryani 

  • Chicken Marinade: Mix chicken with spices in a large bowl, cover, and refrigerate for at least an hour or overnight.
  • Onion: Fry sliced onion in oil until golden, stirring constantly. Drain and set aside.
  • Potatoes: Fry quartered potatoes in the same oil until golden brown, then remove and set aside.
  • Stew: Melt ghee in a saucepan, cook onions until softened, and add tomato paste, diced tomatoes, and bay leaves. Cook for 10-15 minutes. Add marinated chicken and cook for 15 minutes. Stir in fried onions and potatoes, adjust the seasoning, and cook until potatoes are tender.
  • Rice: Cook rice with spices, butter, and salt in a covered pot until tender. Let sit for 5 minutes, then fluff with a fork.
  • Layering and Steaming: Layer fried onion, coriander, rice, and saffron water over the stew. Steam on low heat for 10-15 minutes
  • Serve: Remove from heat, garnish with more coriander leaves, and enjoy.

What does saffron do in biryani?

Saffron is often used in Biryani for its unique flavor, aroma, and vibrant golden color. Saffron adds a distinct floral and slightly bitter taste to the Biryani, along with a pleasant aroma that enhances the overall sensory experience of the dish. 

Saffron threads in water


What can I serve with Chicken Biryani

Serve with accompaniments like raita (a yogurt-based side dish with vegetables or fruits), boiled eggs, kachumbari, and fried onions. You can also serve condiments like pickles or chutneys on the side. You can also enjoy with chapati, naan, roti, Kebab, Salads, and so on.

What is the difference between biryani and pulao?

While both biryani and pulao are flavorful rice-based dishes, they differ in their cooking methods, layering, spices, ingredients, texture, and complexity. Biryani is typically more elaborate and time-consuming, while pulao is simpler and quicker to prepare.

How do I marinate chicken for chicken biryani?

To marinate chicken for chicken biryani, begin by combining your spices, oil, and yogurt in a large mixing bowl. Stir the mixture until it is well combined. Add the chicken to the bowl and ensure that the pieces are thoroughly coated with the marinade. Cover the mixing bowl with cling film or a lid, and refrigerate for a minimum of 2 hours or, ideally, overnight.

What is the best rice to use for Chicken biryani?

The best rice to use for Biryani is Basmati rice, with long and slender grains that separate easily. The flavor and texture of Basmati rice pair well with the spices used in making Chicken biryani. The most important thing to note is to use a good quality and trustworthy Basmati rice brand for the best taste and texture.

How do I fix dry chicken biryani?

To prevent dryness in chicken biryani, make sure there is enough liquid in the meat and rice by adding sufficient water or yogurt during cooking. Additionally, make sure to check the Biryani regularly and add more liquid if necessary.

Can I make chicken Biryani ahead?

Yes, you can make chicken biryani ahead of time. The best part of making Chicken biryani ahead of time is that the flavors mix together well, resulting in a more complex and flavorful dish. 

You can marinate the chicken overnight so that the chicken can soak up the spices and seasonings well! 

Furthermore, you can cook chicken biryani for about 24 hours before serving, and store it in the refrigerator until you’re ready to heat and serve it. 

Is Final steaming important for Chicken Biryani?

‌Final steaming is a crucial step in the preparation of Chicken Biryani. It involves sealing the Biryani pot with a tight-fitting lid and allowing it to cook on low heat for a specific time. This final steaming helps to cook further and meld the flavors of the rice, meat, and spices, resulting in a harmonious and aromatic dish with perfectly cooked rice and tender, flavorful chicken.

Swahili Chicken Biryani served in a tray garnished with cilantro and onions


You may encounter some issues while making Chicken Biryani. Here are some troubleshooting tips to help you overcome common challenges:

  • Rice is too sticky: This happens when the rice is overcooked, or you didn’t rinse the rice thoroughly before cooking. To fix this, rinse the rice under cold water until the water runs clear before cooking. 
  • Chicken is not cooked through: Before layering with rice, marinate the chicken for a sufficient amount of time, preferably overnight, and make sure it’s properly cooked through. Check for doneness by cutting into the thickest section of the chicken pieces to verify they are thoroughly cooked with no pinkness.
  • Biryani is too dry: Use enough yogurt or other liquid ingredients to keep the chicken moist during marination. You can add a little extra chicken broth or water if needed, and seal the pot tightly to trap steam and retain moisture.
  • Biryani is burnt at the bottom: Use a heavy-bottomed pot and cook on low heat to prevent burning. Also, layer the ingredients evenly and avoid pressing down on the Biryani while cooking, as it can cause it to stick to the bottom and burn.
  • Saffron color is not uniform: If the saffron color in your Biryani is not uniform, it may be due to uneven mixing or distribution. You can dissolve saffron strands in warm water to achieve a uniform color before drizzling it over the rice.

Storage and Reheating Tips

How can I store chicken biryani?

Transfer your cooled chicken biryani into an airtight container and keep in the refrigerator. We recommend that you eat the chicken biryani within 2 days of preparation if stored in the refrigerator.

Can I keep Chicken Biryani in the freezer?

You can store chicken biryani for a longer period of time, 2 months maximum in the freezer. What you need to do is store it in airtight containers or freezer bags. It is important to store it in portions so that you won’t have to defrost all of it when it is time to reheat. This is because chicken biryani doesn’t refreeze well. 

Tips to note

  • Use the right type of rice: Pilau is traditionally made with long-grain rice, such as Basmati. This type of rice has a firm texture and distinct flavor that complements the spices used in pilau.
  • Allow the chicken to marinate for at least two hours to get the best flavors out of it.

Other Delicious Rice recipes to explore:

Swahili Chicken Biryani served in a tray garnished with cilantro and onions

Chicken Biryani With Saffron, Yogurt, & Caramelized Onions

Treat yourself to the ultimate comfort food – Chicken Biryani, a delightful fusion of tender chicken, aromatic rice, and exotic spices!
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Course: Main
Cuisine: African
Prep Time: 20 minutes
Cook Time: 1 hour
Marinating time: 1 hour
Servings: 8
Calories: 424kcal


Chicken Marinade

  • 8 to 10 chicken drumsticks or 1 whole Chicken cut into 8 pieces or use any chicken part of your choice
  • 1 cup plain unsweetened yogurt or buttermilk (mala) or sour cream
  • 2 teaspoons ginger minced
  • 2 teaspoons garlic minced
  • 1 teaspoon turmeric
  • 1/4 tsp cloves
  • 1/2 teaspoon cardamom
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • salt and black pepper to taste
  • 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper or add to taste

Fried onions

  • 3 medium onions sliced into half-moon or rings
  • Enough oil for deep frying

Fried Potatoes

  • 3 medium russet potatoes peeled and quartered
  • Enough oil for deep frying

The stew

  • 2 tablespoons ghee oil or butter
  • 1 medium onion diced
  • 3 tbsp tomato paste
  • 5 large tomatoes chopped
  • 2 bay leaves
  • Fried potatoes
  • Fried onion
  • 1/2 to 1 cup chicken stock or water optional


  • 2-1/2 cups Basmati rice washed and drained
  • 4 to 4-1/2 cups water
  • 5 cardamom pods
  • 5 whole cloves
  • 3 tablespoons ghee oil or butter
  • salt to taste
  • 20 strands saffron subst. with turmeric, or food color
  • cooked basmati rice
  • 3 tablespoon coriander roughly chopped
  • Fried onion


Chicken marinade

  • Place the chicken in a large bowl, and add the mala, ginger, garlic, turmeric powder, cloves, cardamom, cinnamon, cayenne pepper, salt, and black pepper. Mix well to ensure all the chicken pieces are covered in the marinade.
  • Cover the bowl and place it in the refrigerator to marinate for at least an hour. You can as well leave overnight. The longer, the better.

Fried Onion

  • Add enough oil to a deep pan on medium-high heat. Add the sliced onion and fry till golden—about 5 to 8 minutes. Stir constantly to prevent burning.
  • Remove from the oil and drain on a paper towel. Set aside.

Fried Potatoes:

  • Place the quartered potatoes in the same oil used for frying the onions and fry them until they become golden brown. They necessarily don't have to cook on the inside.
  • Once browned on all sides, remove from the oil and set aside.

The Stew

  • Melt the ghee over medium heat in a large saucepan. Add the onion and cook for about 3 minutes or until softened. Add the tomato paste and cook for about a minute, stirring constantly.
  • Stir in the diced tomatoes and bay leaves. Cover to let the tomatoes break down for about 10 to 15 minutes stirring occasionally.
  • Add the marinated chicken with all the marinade, stir gently, cover, and cook for about 15 minutes.
  • Stir in the fried onions (save some for serving) and potatoes. Adjust the salt and pepper and add some water if needed. Leave to cook further until the potatoes become tender.


  • Prepare the rice while the stew cooks – In a medium pot, bring the rice, water, cardamom, cloves, butter, and salt to a boil. Cover the pot with a tight-fitting lid, then turn the heat down to a simmer and cook for 15 to 20 minutes, until all the water is absorbed and the rice is tender.
  • If the rice is too firm, add a few more tablespoons of water and continue cooking for a few more minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and allow it to sit covered for 5 minutes. Fluff the rice with a fork and serve.

Layering and steaming

  • Sprinkle some fried onion over the cooked biryani stew, followed by the chopped coriander, then add the rice, then add the saffron water. Leave to steam on low heat for 10 to 15 minutes.
  • Remove from heat. Sprinkle with more coriander leaves.
  • Serve and enjoy


Calories: 424kcal | Carbohydrates: 48.6g | Protein: 19.7g | Fat: 17.7g | Saturated Fat: 7.9g | Polyunsaturated Fat: 2.2g | Monounsaturated Fat: 6g | Trans Fat: 0.03g | Cholesterol: 94.1mg | Sodium: 459.8mg | Potassium: 1053.5mg | Fiber: 5.4g | Sugar: 6.9g | Vitamin A: 1143.7IU | Vitamin C: 28.7mg | Calcium: 78.9mg | Iron: 2.9mg

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