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Paneer Biryani – Indian Aromatic Layered Rice

Biryani is one dish which is almost ubiquitous with India. The aromatic spices, nuts, fresh herbs and saffron mixed with perfectly cooked rice exemplify everything there is love about the royalty of Indian cooking. The base of this paneer biryani is parboiled basmati rice with aromatic whole spices. The marinated paneer is cooked to add both body and protein. And finally, layered between these things is a mix of chopped nuts, creamy saffron milk, rose water, and crispy fried onions.

Although now associate Biryani with India, it’s been theorized that it was originally brought to India from Persia by the Mughals. This is further supported by the fact that the word ‘biryani’ appears to have stemmed from the Persian word ‘birian’, which means ‘fried before cooking’. With a history as ancient as India’s, the cooking methods and dishes themselves has been influenced by many countries, whether that be the Portuguese or the Ancient Persians – but most of the dishes have existed in the continent for centuries, and it’s thought that Biryani was brought to India sometime in the 1300s.

Generally, each state or area within India has it’s own distinctive version of Biryani. There are multiple different cooking methods, for example paaki biryani (cooked biryani) and kachi biryani (raw biryani). In the first method, you cook the curry and protein and then layer it, whereas in the second method you add it to the layers raw and let it do most of the cooking within the rice layers.

About this Paneer Biryani:

The dish which we are making today is not entirely traditional. Although Indian cuisine has some of the greatest variety of vegetarian dishes, Biryanis are primarily meat-based. Making paneer biryani is an uncommon and modern adaption of the recipe which provides a really delicious taste and texture, while still offering a lot of protein.

This paneer biryani really is one of the best recipes you will ever try. Each grain of rice is separated and perfectly infused with the sweet, slightly spicey aroma of the star anise, cardamon, cinnamon and cloves it’s cooked with. The paneer is marinated with yoghurt and our own spice blend which will be freshly ground. It’s cooked with whole black peppercorns, bay leaves, cumin seeds, and even more whole spices, along with the gentle warmth of green chillis and more spicy heat from red chilli powder. Tomatoes contribute a slight tang, and chopped onions melt into the sauce with a sweetness of flavour. When layered with fresh herbs, floral essences, perfectly crisp onions and rich, creamy saffron milk, it’s put to cook for it’s final time and the flavours meld together, neither overpowering the other and combining to make the paneer biryani a beautiful meal.

I wrote an article detailing the uses and flavours of aromatic spices which you can read here. Having the extra knowledge will make you so much more confident in using spices.

This Paneer Biryani is …

  • An amazing showstopper that will impress everyone
  • Full of complex but complimentary flavours
  • Spicy, but not too much so
  • Healthy with lots of spices, protein from paneer and fresh herbs
  • Easy to follow with clear steps

I usually make Biryani on weekends as a special dish. Whenever my partner hears that Paneer Biryani is on the menu he instantly perks up – it’ll have that effect on anyone!

Although biryani has a long list of ingredients, it’s a very manageable dish when split into sections. Cook when you feel relaxed and have some time to spend in the kitchen. It requires love, care and patience, but the end results are completely worth it.

If you’re interested in other authentic Indian main course recipes, then check out my recipe for Spinach Baingan Bharta – Flame Roasted Aubergine with Spinach, or my recipe for Palak Saag – a Punjabi dish of spinach cooked with gentle spicing.

For other recipes including paneer, check out the classic Paneer Tikka Masala or Paneer Bhurji – spicy scrambled paneer, perfect for breakfast.

Paneer Biryani - Aromatic Layered Rice

  • Servings: 4
  • Difficulty: medium
  • Print

An aromatic and spicy rice dish made from layered marinated paneer, soft and fragrant basmati rice, nuts, fresh herbs, saffron-milk, and floral essences.

Ingredients

For the marination

  • 200g Paneer, cubed
  • 60g Green Bell Peppers/Capsicum , cubed
  • 4 tbsp Full Fat Greek Yoghurt
  • 1 1/2 tsp Ginger-Garlic Paste
  • 1 tsp Red Chilli Powder
  • 1/2 tsp Coriander Powder
  • 1/2 tsp Salt
  • 1/4 tsp Turmeric Powder
  • 2 Strands Coriander, chopped (leaves and stalks)

For the birista (crispy onions)

  • 100g White Onion (1 Medium Sized Onion), finely sliced
  • 2 tbsp Sunflower Oil, or Ghee

For the rice

  • 400g Basmati Rice of your choice
  • 400ml Water
  • 1 Star Anise
  • 1 Green Cardamon Pod
  • 6 Cloves
  • 1″ Cinnamon (True Cinnamon)
  • 2 Medium Bay Leaves (Indian Tej Patta)

For the gravy

  • 2 tbsp Ghee
  • 1 1/4 tsp Cumin Seeds
  • 2 Green Cardamon Pods
  • 1 Black Cardamon Pod
  • 1 Small Bay Leaf (Indian Tej Patta)
  • 4 Whole Black Peppercorns
  • 2 Thin Green Chilli, finely chopped
  • 40g White Onion, finely chopped
  • 40g Tomatoes, finely chopped
  • 1/2 tsp Garam Masala
  • 1 tbsp Homemade Masala (see below) *

For the layering

  • 14 Almonds, roughly chopped
  • 10 Cashews, halved
  • Handful Fresh Mint, roughly chopped
  • 10 Strands Coriander, roughly chopped
  • 14 Saffron Strands, soaked in 1tbsp of warm Milk
  • 1 tsp Ghee (optional)
  • 1 tsp Rose Water or Kewra Water

Directions

  1. Begin by washing and soaking the rice. This is very important. Wash the rice thoroughly with cold water until the water runs clear. Then place the rice into a bowl and cover with water. Set aside to soak until we cook it.
  2. Next, to marinate the paneer, add yoghurt, ginger-garlic paste, red chilli powder, salt, turmeric powder, coriander powder and fresh chopped coriander in a bowl. Mix well and add cubed paneer and bell peppers. Cover and set aside until needed.
  3. Next, to make the birista (crispy onions), add sunflower oil to a medium non-stick frying pan or ordinary kadai over low heat. Wait for the oil to heat fully and then add the sliced onion. Cook on low heat, stirring occasionally, until the onions begin to become evenly golden brown. This should take anywhere from 5-10 minutes. Once they have browned, turn off the heat, remove them from pan and spread them on kitchen paper to dry out. When they are dry, they will become crispy.
  4. Now to cook the rice, drain the basmati from the soaking water and add to a medium sized pot with a lid. Along with the basmati add 400ml water and all the spices listed under the rice section of the ingredients. Cook on the smallest ring of the hob on lowest heat with the pot covered. After 8-10 minutes, check on the rice. It should have absorbed all – or almost all of the water. Turn off the heat and recover the pot. Let it steam for 5 more minutes.
  5. To cook the gravy, heat the ghee in the same non-stick frying pan or kadai you used to make the birista over medium heat. Once the ghee has melted, add the whole spices – cumin, green cardamon, black cardamon, bay leaves and black peppercorns. Saute for 30 seconds or until nicely aromatic, then add the chopped green chillis and onions. Continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions and soft and slightly caramelized. Once the onions have cooked add the tomatoes and turn the heat to low. Cook for around 3-5 minutes, or until the tomatoes are extremely soft and mushy. At this stage add the marinated paneer mixture to the curry along with the garam masala and homemade masala. Mix thoroughly and cook for around 2 more minutes, or just until oil is leaving the sides of the gravy. Turn off the heat and cover.
  6. To layer the biryani, begin by uncovering the rice. Fluff it gently with a fork. In a large pot, create your first layer of rice by adding 1/4 of the rice and spreading it across the bottom of the pan. Next add 1/3 of paneer gravy, then rice again. This time, on top of the rice add 1/3 of the nuts, herbs and saffron-milk. Repeat until all the rice and paneer is used. You should end up with a rice layer on top. Garnish with the last 1/3 of nuts, herbs and saffron milk, and additionally add 1tsp of Rose or Kewra water, along with 1tsp of ghee dotted across the top. Cover the pot and cook on the smallest ring at the lowest heat for just 3-5 minutes, or enough to heat the rice through. Check to see if the rice is cooked to your liking and then serve. Top with edible dried rose petals and mint leaves.

    To make the homemade masala, add 1/4 tsp Coriander Seeds, 1/4 tsp Cumin Seeds, 1/4 tsp White Poppy Seeds, 1 Clove, 3 Green Cardamon Seeds (not pods), 1/4 tsp Fennel Seeds, 2 Black Peppercorns, 1/2″ Cinnamon and 3 Dried Red Chillis to a non-stick frying pan. Dry-roast over low heat for 2-3 minutes, or until the spices become aromatic and slightly browned. Add to a spice blender along with 1 tsp Coriander Powder, 1/4 tsp Nutmeg Powder, 1/4 tsp Turmeric Powder, 1/4 tsp Ground Ginger, 1/2 tsp Kashmiri Chilli Powder, 1/4 tsp Chaat Masala, 1/4 tsp Black Salt, 1/2 tsp Red Chilli Powder and 1/4 tsp Garam Masala. Blend to a fine powder and store. Use 1 tbsp for this biryani and store the rest to use in tikka marinades.

Tips: If you crush the saffron slightly between your fingers before adding it to the milk, it will release more colour.

Biryani in the pot before serving, topped with nuts, birista, saffron milk, fresh herbs, and rose petals.

What is the difference between Pulao and Biryani?

This is a question I hear quite often. There is a general misconception that vegetarian biryani is the same another Indian rice dish, pulao (sometimes spelt pilau or pilaf), however on the contrary they are have quite markable differences.

  • The method of cooking pulao is different. For instance, pulao is a one pot dish: all the ingredients are added and then cooked using the absorption method. Sometimes in the case of tawa pulao, the rice is cooked first, then the vegetables are fried and the rice is added. To sum up, the method is different to the biryani, which is layered and cooked.
  • Biryani uses more complex spicing. Biryani is full of aromatic spices, from cloves to black cardamon and star anise. Pulao features whole spices as well, but not to the extent of biryani. Aromatics like saffron milk and rose or kewra water are essential features of a Biryani. On the other hand, they’re never in Pulao.
  • There is a ‘curry’ element to Biryani. Only vegetables, whole spices and nuts are added to Pulao. However, in Biryani there is an element of a ‘curry’ and a moistness in the dish. This is because to make the layers of a biryani, you cook a tadka or ‘curry base’, from onions, tomatoes, whole spices and powdered spices. Further, yoghurt is added to give a moistness to the dish. This is not present in pulao.

How should you serve Paneer Biryani?

In India, Biryani is a main dish. All of the complex spicing that you have introduced deserves to be a stand-alone dish without having to compete with any other flavours. As such, we would usually serve biryani with a simple raita – anything from cucumber raita, boondi raita, or even carrot raita would do. If you like, add some fried padad (poppadoms) on the side and some raw onion.

In the UK it’s very common to see a vegetable curry served alongside Biryani, then mixed together and eaten. In my personal opinion Biryani doesn’t need any side dishes. However, if you do want one then I recommend Navratan Korma (Nine vegetable mild curry) or Shorba (Mildy spiced coconut gravy).

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