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Zanzibari biryani

The legendary biryani from India travelled with spices along the ancient trade route through Oman down to its one-time port stronghold of Zanzibar. Along the way it evolved picking up nuances and in this case complexity and flavours. This is a dish that brings together true Afro-Indian cooking at its best, complex, distinct and so delicious.

Zanzibar has held a very critical role in world history due to its defensible port, Unguja, which had a deep harbour. It was also well located for trade between India and later the Europeans. It was held successively by the Omanis, Yemenis, Portuguese, Omanis, and English before becoming independent. The trade was spices, ivory during a time when the elephant herds were decimated, and the dark history of the slave trade. This place has seen suffering and darkness over the centuries, but today has a thriving tourist population and beautiful culture. This deep history brings to the island a wonderful and distinct cuisine seen nowhere else in Africa.

Admittedly this is a complex biryani to cook, there are lots of steps and the spices are complex and diverse, but the end results of the biryani are worth all the effort. The rose-scented rice is layered with both Indian chillies and softer African spices giving a complex biryani. the chicken is fall-off-the-bone tender and coated in soft spices. The biryani is about elegance, the flavours soft and beautiful. I served it with a preserved lemon raita that complimented the biryani well.

Felicia Campbell is an award-winning, writer, editor and producer. Her cookbook is more of a historical memoir of the region, its food, its culture and its deep history. This could be one of those cookbooks that you can read as a novel, but I love to rush into my kitchen and cook the dishes knowing their deep history

For more recipes from this fabulous cookbook, click here.

Thank you Zohra Jamal for the love;y photograph.


For the spice blend:

1 teaspoon ground cumin seeds

1 teaspoon ground coriander seeds

1/4 teaspoon turmeric

1/2 teaspoon chilli powder

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

A pinch of ground cloves

1/2 teaspoon ground green cardamom

For the chicken:

1 large chicken, 1bout 2 lbs, cut into 8 pieces

3 cloves garlic, sliced

1 teaspoon ginger paste

Salt, to taste

1/3 teaspoon ground cumin seeds

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

6 cups water

For the rice:

3 cups basmati rice

1 green chilli, serrano, slit in half lengthwise

3 green cardamom pods

1 1-inch piece cinnamon stick

A handful of fresh mint, minced

For the onion garnish:

2 tablespoons oil

2 onions, thinly sliced

For the sauce:

2 plum tomatoes, chopped

1-2 green chillies, serrano, chopped

1 small onion, chopped

1/3 cup cilantro leaves

1/2 teaspoon pepper

1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom

1 teaspoon ground cumin seeds

3 tablespoon oil

1 onion, finely diced

1/2 green bell pepper, finely diced

6 cloves garlic, finely diced

1 1/2 tablespoons of ginger paste

2 tablespoons ground coriander seeds

1 teaspoon chilli flakes

1/2 teaspoon turmeric

6 tablespoons tomato paste

Salt, to taste

To assemble:

1-2 teaspoons rose water

2-3 teaspoons of ghee

For the raita:

1 cup yoghurt

1/2 preserved lemon, deseeded and finely chopped

Make the raita by mixing the yoghurt and preserved lemon. taste for tartness, the raita should be bold.

To make the spice blend mix all the ingredients and set aside.

Add the chicken, water and all ingredients to a pot and bring to a boil. Simmer for 45-50 minutes till the chicken is very soft and fall off-the-bone tender. Set the chicken aside with the stock.

Cook the rice with all the ingredients, except mint, in a rice cooker or on the stove. After the rice is cooked fluff it with fresh mint. Set aside.

Make the sauce by adding the tomatoes, chillies, onion, cilantro, pepper, cloves, cardamom and cumin and purèe to a smooth sauce. Set aside. You can add a few tablespoons of water as needed.

Make the onion garnish by sautèing the onions in the oil on low heat in a large pot till well browned. Drain on paper towels and set aside.

Heat the oil in the same large pot and add the onions and sautè on low heat till well browned. Add the green pepper, garlic and ginger and fry till the peppers are soft. Stir frequently so the onions do not burn.

Add the tomato purèe and cook till you have a sauce, about 5 minutes. Add the spice blend and cook mixing the spices into the sauce. be careful not to burn the spices.

You can now choose to fry the cooked chicken to crisp it, However, I tend to leave out this step.

Add the chicken and stock to the pot to form a gravy. Mix in well and simmer gently for 15 minutes. The final chicken must be coated with a thick sauce. Taste for salt. Pour the curry out of the pot.

No need to wipe down the pot. Add a layer of rice, about half, to the bottom of the pot. layer on top with the chicken and gravy smoothing out the layers. Top with the fried onions and then the last half of the rice. Pat down gently. Drizzle the rose water over the biryani. and dot with the ghee You can store the biryani like this for up to 1 day.

To cook the bit=ryani, bring it up to room temperature if chilled. Preheat the oven to 375° F.

Bake the biryani for 35-40 minutes till very hot and the ghee on the top has melted into the biryani. Serve immediately.

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