Comfort Foods: Chicken biryani is a traditional South Indian dish that can be made in one pot

Life staff writer Subhi Pandiarajan develops a new love for chicken biryani as she ventures off into her first year of college

Comfort Foods: Chicken biryani is a traditional South Indian dish that can be made in one pot

Chicken Biryani: a traditional non-vegetarian dish, including one-pot chicken biryani, spicy shrimp fry, mutton meatballs, raita, and boiled egg, plated on a banana leaf. 

Growing up in America with immigrant parents, food always led to conflict. My brother and I would try everything we could to get our favorite foods — chicken tenders or tacos — but they were specifically what my mom didn’t cook. This constantly led to arguments between my parents since my mom spent so much time in the kitchen just for her kids to not be satisfied. 

When I started to live on my own, I was overjoyed with the freedom that came with it, especially in my choice of food. Growing up, I dreamed of the days when I would eat whatever, wherever and whenever I wanted, though I was always told that I would miss Indian food once I was gone and that going out to eat all the time would make me sick, which I never believed until it actually happened. 

My first few weeks in the city went great — I was going out and trying amazing new food as well as cooking things that I never had at home. Soon into my second month on my own, however, I experienced chronic stomach pain that would last hours on end. I tried making dietary changes and drinking more water, but neither seemed to help. 

My mom knew exactly what would fix my issues: my favorite Indian food, chicken biryani. Though she suggested I cook the meal, I had no ingredients or knowledge on how to do so.

Chicken biryani is a mixed rice dish that takes many different forms throughout India. The spices in the dish change from region to region. Some areas cook it purely with vegetables, while others, such as South India where my family is from, cook it with meat. Growing up, every Sunday meant getting to eat biryani, but I still wasn’t sure how to make the dish on my own. 

Luckily, I had a friend from home driving up to D.C. that week, so my mom cooked boxes of Indian food, froze them and then sent the boxes to me. Along with the chicken biryani, some of the other dishes included were potato poriyal, sambar and shrimp fry. Even with all the spices present in these dishes, I still didn’t believe the food would help with the stomach pain I had been experiencing for days. 

As I reheated the food, the smell of it changed my mood instantly. I was reminded of our Saturday vegetarian lunches and the Sunday non-vegetarian dinners that I used to eat with frustration but was now longing for.

The spices in the chicken biryani instantly made me feel both physically and mentally better. I could remember all the times I watched my mom prepare this dish on Sunday while my dad would get the shrimp cleaned and fried, and the food felt like home. 

The process of cooking chicken biryani takes a very long time because, traditionally, the meat is marinated in plain yogurt and spices, which include grated ginger, minced garlic, chili powder, ground turmeric, mint leaves, lemon juice and cilantro. The chicken is then layered between cooked basmati rice and crispy spiced onions, which are placed and sealed tight to steam in the oven. This recipe can take nearly two hours to prepare and cook, which isn’t always feasible for college students, so my mom taught me how to make the dish in an Instant Pot as well. 

Essentially, all the ingredients for this recipe are the same, but first you sauté the onions in an Instant Pot for about 10 minutes and then add boneless chicken to cook for two to three minutes. If you want to cook with bone-in chicken, you will have to pressure cook the chicken instead of sauteing for about four minutes. The rice needs to be soaked for 20 minutes before being added to the pot, which is then poured in with the chicken to cook on high-pressure mode for six minutes followed by a quick release. This recipe allows for easy cleanup, takes almost half the time and can be made right in your dorm room. 

Looking back on the experience now, I can see how my body was yearning for the spices and flavors that I had grown up with. While I was eating, I started to remember all our family meals that I had been so angry about when I should have been appreciating the flavors. I had no idea that my body would need chicken biryani in the way it does now. 

Chicken biryani became a comfort food for me when I left home. I began eating it when I would miss home or just felt like I needed a pick-me-up. After all the frozen food my mom had sent me was finished, I began to cook chicken biryani in the apartment when I felt homesick or even when I would just crave the flavor. My roommate and friends even began to form a love for this dish that they previously wouldn’t have even tried. 

My whole life I assumed my comfort foods were just macaroni and cheese or chicken tenders, but I was wrong. At the end of the day, chicken biryani is what truly brings me comfort the most. 

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