Find your recipes and restaurants here

5 things I learnt while making breyani with my mother

Rice jewelled with lentils and packed full of flavour. The fundamentals of breyani everyone should know.

by: Alex Isaacs | 17 Sep 2019

I'm not much of a cook. I grew up with my mom making me breakfast, lunch and dinner almost every day of my life. As I got older and moved out of her house, I started to wish that I had paid more attention to her many dishes. What she was doing, how she was doing it and why. She wasn't that big on sharing her secrets, though, so at the tender age of 31, I eventually managed to convince her to teach me and my girlfriend how to make her famous breyani. After six hours of tears, laughs and lots of food, I'm happy it happened. I learnt a lot – some practical cooking tips, some life advice, interspersed with my mom's nuggets of wisdom. 

Here are the 5 most important things I learned while making breyani with my mother for the first time:

1. Don't listen to mom about washing the chicken

I'm never going to wash chicken. For very valid reasons, but mostly because it's a really easy way to make yourself violently ill. But my mom is old school and asked my girlfriend and I to wash the chicken. (We lied and said we did.)

2. Mise-en-place is incredibly important

The next few stages involved combining yoghurt, ginger, garlic, cardamom pods, coriander seeds, cumin seeds, turmeric, leaf masala, breyani masala, chilli powder, salt and tomato to make the marinade. Next is chopping, peeling and preparing the other ingredients. One thing I now know for sure is that it takes time to make the layers, so make life easier by prepping your onions, garlic, tomato and potatoes ahead of time. When you boil your lentils in water, it's not about sticking to the instructions on the packet – rather watch them until they're just right but not too soft. For each layer to be delicious, you must make sure the onions are perfectly golden and crispy, and that the potatoes are browned in the pan before being putting everything into the pot to soften and absorb the flavours of the rest of the dish. And then there’s the little things, like frying the chicken skin to sprinkle over the top for a crunchy garnish.

3. The rice doesn't have to be a mission

I hate making basmati rice, simply because I find it confusing to keep track of the many methods out there, and it somehow always turns out a bit too mushy or sticky, but my mother taught me the easiest way: Rinse it. Put it in a big bowl. Cover it with an inch of water and stick it in the microwave for 21 minutes. Then when it comes out, throw in the turmeric and little bit of oil and then fluff it with a fork. You want it to still have a bit of a bite when you layer it into the breyani.

4. Layers of patience are important

Waiting is something I hate doing. Especially for something that isn't guaranteed to be ready at a certain time. The first test of this was after we par-cooked the chicken and had to reduce the leftover marinade to a paste to disperse in between layers. The smell of warm spices filled the room, and all I wanted to do was eat the whole pan of it with a piece of bread and call it a day. But after a long wait (at least it felt like it, to me) it reduced and we were left with a dark red oily gold.Next came the layering. The basic rule of breyani (at least in my mother's house) is making sure each layer of rice, lentils, chicken and potato are without gaps and perfectly positioned. No clumps of rice are to be forgotten. No inch left without flavour.

5. Eating together was the most nourishing thing about it

Yes, making breyani is hard for someone like me who hardly cooks. But my mother hugging me when she saw the finished product was worth it. She was the professor who guided me and my girlfriend’s joint thesis and we graduated with distinction. I know I made mistakes, but feeding someone who has fed me most of my adult life made me feel like I had won MasterChef Australia. 


Here's her recipe:


Serves at least 10

1.5 kg chicken pieces

For the marinade:

300ml plain yoghurt

1 Tbsp ginger

6 cloves garlic

5 cardamom pods

2 Tbsp koljana / coriander seeds

2 Tbsp jeera / cumin seeds

2 Tbsp turmeric

1 tbsp paprika

2 Tbsp leaf masala

4 Tbsp breyani masala

2-3 Tbsp chilli powder

1 Tbsp salt

1 tomato

750g basmati rice

1 tsp turmeric

300g lentils

250ml vegetable oil

4 onions, thinly sliced

8 cardamom pods

4 large potatoes, peeled and quartered

2 - 4 green chillies, sliced


1. Prepare the marinade: Place the yoghurt in a large bowl, Combine the ginger, garlic, cardamom pods, coriander and cumin in a mortar and pestle. Mash until it becomes a smooth paste and add it to the yogurt. Add the rest of the ground spices and salt to the yoghurt and mix well. Grate in the flesh of the tomato. Stir to combine all the ingredients together. Remove the skin from the chicken pieces (to save for later) and rub the marinade into the meat so that every piece is coated. Set aside to marinate for at least 1 hour.

2. Make the rice: In a large microwave-safe dish with a lid, combine the rice with a pinch of salt and cover with enough cold water to come 2cm above the rice. Cover and microwave on high for 21 minutes. Fluff with a fork and toss to mix in 1tsp turmeric and a pinch of salt.

3. Make the lentils: Place the lentils in a medium saucepan and cover with a generous amount of water. Bring to the boil, then simmer until the lentils begin to soften, approximately 15 minutes.

4. Fry the onions and potatoes and chicken skins: Heat the oil in a large frying pan with high sides. Fry the onions, in batches so that they fit in one even layer in your pan. Toss in 2 cardamom pods per batch. The onions should be golden and slightly crispy. When the onions are done, fry the potatoes in batches, until they are golden on all sides (they will not be cooked through yet). Cut the chicken skin until bite size pieces and drop them into the hot oil and golden and crispy. Set these aside for garnish.

5. Cook the chicken: In the same frying pan, fit the chicken pieces snugly, cover, and cook on medium heat, turning once, until the chicken is cooked through. (This step is optional – you can put the raw chicken in with all the other ingredients to cook. However, my mom is very wary of germs and prefers to pre-cook the chicken to avoid any cross-contamination).

6. Reduce the leftover marinade: In the same frying pan, spoon in the yoghurt marinade and cook over a high heat until it reduces to a dark, thick paste. You may need to add a bit more oil if your pan is getting dry. Taste – you can add extra spices at this step if you’d like to make your breyani hotter – we added another 2 spoons of breyani masala and chili powder.

7. Layer! : In a (very) large oven-safe dish with a lid (we used one of those metal oval roasters), layer all the ingredients: First make a layer of 1/3 of the lentils, then 1/3 of the rice, then half the potatoes and half the chicken pieces. Sprinkle over half the fried onions. Then layer another 1/3 of the lentils then another 1/3 of the rice, then the rest of the potatoes and chicken pieces. Sprinkle the remaining onions, then the remaining lentils and the remaining rice. When you've finished layering all your ingredients, poke holes throughout and drop in spoonfuls of the reduced curry paste. Cover and put in the oven at 180 until the potatoes have softened and all the flavours have combined, at least 45 minutes.

8. Time to eat!: When the breyani is ready to serve, toss the layers together. Sprinkle the fried chicken skin pieces on top and dish up!

ALSO TRY: Easy prawn breyani


There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.