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How to cook a mouth-watering biryani on the braai

Chef Rivana Kooblal shares her recipe for a chicken biryani and explains why making the dish over coals gets her adrenaline pumping

25 July 2021 - 00:01 By hilary biller
Chef Rivana Kooblal is a biryani connoisseur.
Chef Rivana Kooblal is a biryani connoisseur.
Image: Supplied

A biryani is like a jolly good tonic — comforting layers of wholesome ingredients that won’t break the bank, redolent with a swath of different spices. It’s a satisfying dish offering layers of flavour and texture — soft, chewy, crispy and crunchy — and leftovers, if there are any, are even better the next day.

It has a way of bringing people together and is a customary meal for celebrations, both happy and sad.

Biryani expert chef Rivana Kooblal shares her recipe and explains why making the dish gets her adrenaline pumping.

Is there any difference between a biryani and breyani?

The names are used interchangeably for the same dish, but Cape Malay food expert Cass Abrahams says the differences are in the spices used and the packing of the pot. The different cultures layer their dishes differently and the Cape Malay version is never stirred. The colouring used for the rice can be yellow, as mine is, or green or red.

As a chef who has perfected biryani, who taught you to make it?

I learnt from my mom — she is an excellent cook — but I have to give the most credit to my aunt Sheila. She made me the biryani connoisseur I am today. We have teamed up for all my larger orders over the years and I have learnt a lot from her, especially about outside fire cooking.

There are many convenience items that promise a quick biryani. What makes this comfort food authentic?

Making a good biryani takes time and patience. Many take shortcuts when attempting to make biryani but a proper one is a lengthy process, and so worth it.

Whole spices are very important. Many stores sell ready-mixed biryani spices and powders, which lose their aroma, flavour and potency over time sitting on the spice shelf. Using whole spices such as cinnamon sticks, cardamom, bay leaves, fennel and cumin seeds and star anise are essential.

And believe it or not, fresh herbs. Coriander, mint and thyme are all must-haves when making biryani.

Your catering company, The Creative Kitchen, specialises in biryani, and especially for large crowds. Why do you choose to prepare it over the fire?

Cooking for crowds has always been something I enjoy, and cooking on a fire for a crowd gets my adrenaline pumping.

First, it is much easier when cooking for many as one is able to adjust the fire accordingly to suit the big pots, whereas on a stove or gas top you don’t get the optimum heat needed.

Cooking over a fire produces tastes you can never get on gas or on an electric stove. The flavours infuse beautifully as it steams at the end of the cooking process.

With so many different biryanis, is there a favourite?

Definitely a Hyderabadi biryani. It is  a “raw” style biryani where the raw meat and rice are cooked together. This type of biryani has a unique richness to it because of the style of cooking.

Biryani may be a great crowd and celebration dish but it is also a nourishing comfort food, especially in these times of Covid-19. How do you describe a biryani?

I believe a biryani is a food that unifies people and is the perfect balance of proteins, veggies, rice, spices and fats. It is healthy and nutritious, not to mention delicious.

This is a meal for every age group to enjoy. The subtle, simple flavours tie in so well together, and bring about a sense of joy and fulfilment when eaten.

You go by @chef_rivana on Instagram, where you tease your followers with the mouth-watering pictures you post of the biryanis and other dishes you make.

I love food photography and sharing with my nearly 1,000 followers across the world on Instagram and more than 2,000 on Facebook, where I also share my menus. 

What is the largest event you’ve made biryani for?

For huge crowds we cook in handi or degchi pots. Both are pots used to make biryani. Handi are earthenware whereas degchi are stainless-steel pots with flat lids. The largest event I’ve cooked for is biryani for 500 people, which was made in three huge degchi pots.


A delicious biryani cooked up by chef Rivana Kooblal.
A delicious biryani cooked up by chef Rivana Kooblal.
Image: Rivana Kooblal

Kooblal says: “I like to cook my biryani over the fire and two fires are needed, with lots of coals and extras to restock them [due to the length of cooking time]. It can be made on the stove if preferred. Before starting, make sure you have a stable stand for the pots to sit on.”

The reason two fires are needed is so that you can easily vary the heat while cooking by moving your pot between a hot fire and one of medium heat.

“Good accompaniments to a biryani include pea dhal (a spicy dish made with yellow split peas), raita (a blend of plain yoghurt, cucumber and fresh coriander) and a simple carrot salad.”

Serves: 10


2.5kg chicken portions

375ml (1½ cups) boiled brown lentils or canned lentils, drained and rinsed

3 medium onions, sliced

250ml (1 cup) oil, for cooking the chicken, plus extra to fry the onions

6 potatoes, peeled, quartered and lightly salted

Chopped mint, coriander and thyme, plus extra for garnish

Egg yellow food colouring, powder type

60ml (¼ cup) butter or ghee, cut into cubes


250ml (1 cup) plain yoghurt

30ml (2 tbsp) vegetable or plain oil

15ml (1 tbsp) crushed fresh ginger

15ml (1 tbsp) crushed fresh garlic

15ml (1 tbsp) turmeric powder

45ml (3 tbsp) garam masala

30ml (2 tbsp) ground cumin powder

15ml (1 tbsp) ground coriander powder

2 level curry spoons of mixed masala

3 cinnamon sticks

3 bay leaves

4 star anise

5ml (1 tsp) fennel seeds

5ml (1 tsp) cumin seeds

4 cardamom pods

45ml (3 tbsp) salt

30ml (2 tbsp) fresh coriander, chopped

30ml (2 tbsp) fresh mint, chopped

A small bunch of fresh thyme

4 tomatoes, grated or chopped

2 medium onions, diced


Salt, to taste

3 bay leaves

3 star anise

5 green cardamom pods

15ml (1 tbsp) turmeric powder

1l (4 cups) raw basmati or any long-grain rice


  1. Mix the chicken and all the marinade ingredients in a large dish, making sure to coat the portions well. Leave to marinate for at least 30 minutes, or preferably overnight in the fridge.
  2. Prepare two fires: one hot and one of a medium heat.
  3. For the rice, bring water to a boil in a large pot over the hot fire. Use your discretion to determine how much water to use. Add the salt, spices, turmeric powder and rice. Once the rice is cooked, but not extremely soft, drain immediately. Set aside.
  4. Place the pot back on the fire for a few seconds so excess water burns off. Add the precooked brown lentils, mix and set aside.
  5. Heat some oil in a large pot and fry the sliced onions over a medium heat until golden brown. Take care not to burn them as they won’t taste sweet. Drain on a paper towel and set aside.
  6. Using the same pot and oil used to fry onions, fry the potatoes, alternating the heat as needed by moving the pot between the two fires, until the potatoes are cooked and soft. Remove and drain on a paper towel. Set aside.
  7. Preheat 250ml oil in a large pot. Add the marinated chicken and allow to fry for 5 minutes, then turn and fry for another 5 minutes.
  8. Add in enough water to cover the chicken, and allow to cook over medium heat for about 30 minutes. Test to check the level of doneness and, if cooked, increase the heat and allow the gravy to thicken. Remove from the heat.
  9. Remove half the chicken from the pot. Level the remaining chicken, then add a layer of the cooked potatoes along with some chopped mint, coriander and thyme. Add a layer of the rice, lentils and fried onions. Sprinkle in a little yellow food colouring — rather too little to begin with as you can add more if needed. Repeat the layers until all the ingredients — including the other half of the chicken — have been used.
  10. Add in cubes of butter or ghee and return the pot to the fire, cover and allow to steam for at least 15-20 minutes. Let it cook over the remaining coals as the heat doesn’t need to be intense.
  11. Garnish with chopped coriander and mint. To serve, ensure you get a layer of everything. Use a big spoon or even a saucer to dish up as you need to take deep scoops. Do not stir as the chicken tends to break easily.