Emirati Recipe: Chicken Biryani (Biryani de-jaj)

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Emirati Chicken Biryani
Emirati Chicken Biryani

I can’t help but think of biryani as the Indian equivalent of Chinese fried rice. Both dishes are made of, well, rice, and both are ingrained into their respective cultures.

Not surprisingly, biryani is quite a popular dish in Dubai and besides the obvious joints, can also be found in many buffet stations of hotels and restaurants. Unfortunately, this also means that it’s mass produced and often comes out dry at the end so I’ve never been a big fan.

Which is why I was looking forward to making my first ever biryani for this week’s Emirati cooking project because home-made (should) always tastes better. I’ve never made an Indian version either and have no idea if the preparation and cooking process is the same. Someone enlighten me, please?

If you would like to attempt Emirati chicken biryani as well, please visit this link for the recipe.

About this dish, Celia writes:

Although a dish of Indian origin, biryani is also considered a traditional UAE meal. It was originally brought to the country in the early part of this century by Indian traders and has since become popular in every household. It is a particular favourite for parties, weddings, eids, condolence meetings after a death and on special prayer days when many people visit.

While spices vary according to the individual, it is always served with sliced onion, radishes, watercress, green lemon herb, sliced limes and fresh or stored dates, and eaten in the Gulf home with the right hand.

The original recipe called for 4 cups of basmati rice and normally 1 cup of rice at my house can last for days so I halved the recipe and prepared it with 2 cups of basmati rice.

I served this dish at a luncheon for 5 and still had leftovers for Scotch and I for a further 2 nights. That would mean that 2 cups of rice made about 10 servings! After all that biryani, I wasn’t sure I wanted to see another rice dish for a very long time.

chicken in marinade
chicken in marinade

What makes this chicken biryani Emirati in nature is of course the use of bezar. I started off by preparing the marinade ingredients (bezar, onions, ginger, garlic, fresh coriander, green chilies, yogurt, salt) in a mini food processor and then added the chicken.

I left the chicken in the marinade overnight. Because I was serving this dish for a luncheon, I decided to debone the chicken and cut it into small pieces. That wasn’t the best decision when it came time for frying the chicken but initially it seemed like a good idea.

I loved the smell of the marinade mix – coriander is just so…refreshing. (Note to self: Must think of new synonym for coriander other than refreshing.)

onions and nuts
Left: onions being browned.  Right: mixing the nuts in with the onions

Next I fried the onions in ghee. Then added the spices which turned the onions a pretty yellow. When the onions had wilted and were slightly browned at the edges, I threw in the nuts and cooked them for about 5 minutes. This onion and nut mixture was then set aside to be later used as garnish for the biryani.

Meanwhile, I also boiled and peeled 3 hard boiled eggs. At least that’s something I know how to do well – whew!

I was supposed to only simmer the rice until it was “nearly cooked” but not knowing exactly how long that was in terms of minutes, I ended up overcooking the rice. By the time I removed it from the stovetop and drained it, it was already soft and clumpy and the grains were breaking apart. This didn’t bode well.

Since I always cook rice for 20 minutes whether it’s basmati, jasmine or Uncle Ben’s, I figured “nearly cooked” would be 10 minutes. But later, when reading the instructions on the packaging (I used India Gate basmati rice), it said to boil for 10 minutes. WHOOPS.

So 10 minutes wasn’t nearly cooked at all but fully cooked. No wonder the rice came out the way it did.

I wasn’t sure what to do with the spices (cinnamon bark, curry leaves, peppercorns and cloves) that were in the rice after I had drained it. The instructions didn’t say leave them in nor take them out. I ended up taking the spices out before layering the rice with the meat and the onions. In hindsight, it probably should have stayed in to give the dish more flavor, huh?

browning the chicken
futile attempt at browning the chicken

Now remember that I had deboned and cubed the chicken? Well, trying to “seal them on both sides” was nearly impossible as all the marinade liquid also went into the hot oil and it essentially became a chicken steam bath. Ah well.

So with clumpy, dry-ish, and breaking apart basmati rice plus the steamed chicken pieces, I began to layer the biryani as directed: rice then chicken then rice then chicken and finally more rice. I’m not sure if I was supposed to end with rice as the top layer but that’s what I did.

Layering the biryani
Layering the biryani

I didn’t have a respectably clean cloth to cover the pot with, as instructed, so I dampened some paper towels and used those instead.

After simmering for 25 minutes, I removed the pot from the heat and allowed it to rest while my friends arrived and I prepared the salad inspired by Anja’s Mango Arugula Salad with Feta and Orange Ginger Dressing. I would like to say that thanks to Anja, I gave Feta cheese a try and found that I actually enjoyed it. Although I did use Saudi Feta which is more acidic and not as overpowering in flavor as the Greek kind.

Finally, once everyone was seated at the dining table, it was time to serve the Emirati biryani. I kept my fingers crossed and hoped that it would taste halfway decent and you know what? It did!

Hip Hip!


Emirati Chicken Biryani
Emirati Chicken Biryani

The chicken was tender and moist – I didn’t taste any spiciness from the chillis though. And I loved the garnish of the fried onions with the nuts which brought the biryani to a whole new level. The bezar really lent a nice spice-taste to them.

I must confess a few more goofs. When I first served the dish, I forgot about the onions and didn’t remember to bring them to the table until we were all having our second serving of biryani (yay for seconds!).

And I totally forgot about the sliced, boiled eggs until everyone had left and I found then neglected by the stove. Not so sure about the point of the eggs though. Extra protein?

So I was very happy and relieved that this recipe came out successful even though I had a rocky start.

Wee Scotch stacking eggs

Wee Scotch was more interested in stacking eggs than eating biryani. I had laid newspaper under his chair in case he knocked the biryani over.

And you know what? He did knock that bowl over. But he managed to miss every single sheet of newspaper and so rice and chicken ended up all over the the tile and carpet.

Little tyke.

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Previous Emirati recipe: Fried Fish (Sa-mak ma-ga-lee)

Up nextLamb biryani (La-ham biryani)

Note: This post is part of my Cooking Local project.

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  1. HI,
    any one can help me where i can find roll and samoosa wrapers in dubai,if its any specific name?kindly help

  2. A lot of a entree's appeal is in the presentation. And though I've never tried this one before, it certainly looks appetizing…

  3. Interesting post! 🙂
    In Emarati we say Baryani Deyaay 🙂
    If you needed any translations with Emarati names, I can help!

  4. Love how creative you are when it comes to Emirati cooking! The toppings got me drooling for some 🙂

    1. The topping didn't seem like it would be any good when I was frying it up (not a big nut fan) but it was so tasty with the spices and the ghee that it became my favorite part of the dish!

  5. Despite the mishaps, that plate of biryani topped with nuts and fried onions looks fabulous! Agree with Mishti that this comes very close to Indian biryani…we usually do ours with mutton, and pressure cook it a bit so that it's super tender before layering with parboiled rice.

    Really admire how much you're experimenting with Emirati food, it's commendable!

    1. Thanks Arva. I couldn't have done it without Celia's book (out of print) and Fahad .com for putting it all on-line. Really need to hunt down a print version for posterity sake.

  6. I'm following your Emirati cooking journey avidly. Like you I always think biryani is dry and never order it if I can help it. This does look really inviting especially with that fragant marinade.

  7. Yup, this comes pretty close to the Indian Biryani. Although Indian biryani is almost never cooked with boneless biryani (except the contemporary invention of chicken tikka biryani). Apparently when chicken is cooked while on the bone, it is juicier; and since biryani is mostly dry, this helps counter that in a mild way.

    You were right in taking out the whole spices, we always do this.

    There are two ways of making it the Indian way. The "kachchi" biryani where chicken and rice are cooked together and "pakki" biryani (like the Emirati one) where the rice is almost cooked, chicken is also done and then they are layered and put on "dum" meaning pressure. The latter is much more common. For this, we seal the utensil in which the biryani is cooking with a flour dough. The vapour causes the dough to become like a chappati and it smells great 🙂 In India, biryani is always served with raita, a yogurt based salad.

    I think I was once told that Biryani originated in Persia and travelled to India with the Mughal empire. Also an interesting snippet was that Mumtaz Mahal (wife of Shah Jahan who built the Taj Mahal in her honor) served biryani to the Mughal army since it was "complete nutrition" and the eggs were thrown in as extra protein for the soldiers. Who knows? 😀

    1. Mishti – this is such great information – many thanks! and I love historical references. I will be sure to make it with the bone in next time.

      unfortunately the lamb biryani I made the week after suffered from dryness and a few other goofs…

  8. Loved reading through your post. I found myself smiling because I can relate so much when I try making something completely new for the first time. I usually end up making a lot of goofy mistakes but from the looks of it, you pulled it off really well! It looks delicious, would love to have a plate of that biryani.

    1. it was scary going when I threw the chicken in to be "sealed" and it resembled chicken stew…but I tried to drain the liquid and I think that helped.