Saffron and Rosewater Chicken Biryani

I bought a bottle of rosewater a few months ago to make a rose-flavoured cake and rose cookies for my friend Eleni. Lets just say that I still have a lot of rosewater left over, and I needed to make something that doesn’t involve sugar and sweets.

I saw a trailer for Jon Stewart’s new movie, aptly titled ‘Rosewater‘, based on a book written by Maziar Bahari titled ‘Then They Came For Me’. All I can say is go and watch the movie; buy and read the book. It is very relevant to today’s world, with many journalists jailed or in court for writing something that the authorities disagree with, as in Turkey and unfortunately in Malaysia. It is a slippery slope from being a citizen, activist, academician to an enemy of the state.

A lot of biryani recipes out there that uses boneless chicken thighs or chicken breasts. I used whole chicken legs because I noticed that when I make chicken curries, they taste better when it is on the bone. It does take longer to cook, but the gravy flavours nicely this way. So I have decided to make it with chicken legs but if you want to use boneless chicken, please do so.


Chicken Marinade:
500g of chicken thighs, boneless (or 750g of whole chicken legs – drumsticks and thighs)
4 tbsps of Greek yoghurt
3 garlic cloves, chopped fine
1 thumb sized ginger, grated
1 chilli, de-seeded and chopped fine
1 tsp of chilli powder
1 tsp of ground coriander
1/2 tsp of ground turmeric (or 1/2 thumb-sized of turmeric root, grated)

2 tbsp of olive oil
1 piece of cinnamon bark
3 cardamom pods, bashed slightly
1 tsp of cumin seeds
1 can of chopped tomatoes
1 tsp of salt

2 cups of Basmati rice, soaked in cold water for at least an hour.
1 tsp of salt
4 tbsp of whole milk, warm
A small pinch of saffron, soaked in the milk mentioned above for at least 15 minutes.
Rosewater (about 2 tsps, or more according to how fragrant you want it)
3-4 tbsp of melted butter (or ghee if you have any)

Garnish (as much as you want)

Crisp fried onions
Toasted sliced almonds
Roasted cashew nuts


1. Marinade the chicken in all the marinade ingredients. Toss and coat thoroughly and chill in the fridge for at least an hour and no more than 4 hours. For the last 30 minutes you can have it at room temperature.
2. In a deep pan/wok, heat the oil. Fry the spices until fragrant.
3. Add in the chicken pieces to brown all over. Once its nice and browned add in the leftover marinade and continue cooking for another 3-4 minutes. Add the tomatoes and stir. Lower the heat to medium low and leave to simmer for 30 minutes or until the chicken is cooked. The sauce should start getting thick and almost dry, but make sure that it doesn’t burn at the bottom of the pan. Add water to stop this from happening, but not too much – you do not want too much gravy or this will make the biryani soggy. Once the chicken is cooked and the sauce is ready, take it off the heat and set aside. Cover to keep it warm while you make the rice. (This is when I usually remove all the spices that I can see like the cinnamon bark and the cardamom and cloves – this is so that I don’t accidentally bite on it when I eat the rice.)
4. Wash the soaked rice until the water is clear. Cook the rice in 2 cups of water and 1 tsp of salt and when you see ‘craters’ at the top of the rice, take it off the heat and cover. Let it steam for no more than 5 minutes. The rice is not fully cooked, its part-boiled and this will make the rice fluffy when you cook it again later. It is best to assemble the biryani while the rice is still hot.
1. In a deep pot or casserole pot, add 3 tbsps of water and 2 tbsps of melted butter/ghee at the bottom of the pan. Spoon in 1/2 of the part-cooked rice.
2. Sprinkle the rice with half of the milk and saffron mix. Sprinkle 1 tsp of the rosewater (or more) onto the rice. My rosewater came in a spray bottle, so I sprayed 3-4 times onto the rice. I love the smell of roses, so I may have used more than 2 tsps here.
3. Pour and spread the chicken mixture onto the rice. Cover with the leftover rice.
4. Sprinkle the rice with the rest of the milk and saffron and rosewater. Garnish the top of the rice with 2/3 of the crisp fried onions, almonds and cashews.
5. Drizzle the rest of the butter on the edges of the rice so it drips down the inside of the pot.
6. Cover with a lid. Cook on high heat for about 2-3 minutes or until you can see some steam rising. (Uncover to check after 3 minutes)
7. When you see steam, cover tight. Lower the heat to its lowest setting and cook on low for about 30 minutes. (tip: if you have a ceramic hob cooker, like me, what I do is to cook it on the lowest setting for 10 minutes, and switch it off. Leave the pot on the hob. The residual heat will help to continue to steam the rice in the pot after that.)
8. Spoon out onto a plate and garnish with more crisp fried onions and nuts.
9. Serve! This dish goes really well with Pomegranate and Cucumber Mint Raita.

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