Thalassery Biryani – North of Kerala, South of the Deccan


An image of the biryani against a water colour painting of Thalassery from the island of Darmapattam, by an unknown artist, c.1790 (source:

LONG BEFORE THE PORTUGESE, Dutch, French and British established their bases in this strategic port town, Thalaserry enjoyed local regard. It served as the assembly point for surrounding kingdoms, as trade destination for Arab merchants, and as crucible of distinguished traditions of performance art and ritual. In the early 20th Century it gave rise to novel attractions (the country’s most influential circus institute and Kerala’s first bakery). In much the same way these latter-day novelties would capture the heart of schoolkids, centuries earlier, the town’s warehouses of bewitching spices were pulling ships across the seas, and delegations arrived with curiosity and ambition for a good slice of the lucrative global trade in spices.

Today one dish in particular invokes these influences and more. The Thalaserry biryani conjures notes Malabari, Arab, Mughal and something very original. The rice for instance isn’t the long grained Basmati rice, nor even the stout short grained, but a slim, small, aromatic variety called Jeerakasala. The chicken is prepared with a special masala. Spices are also used in readying the rice. This dish is a fixture at weddings feasts in Thalaserry. Another version of this biryani, referred to as the Telicherry Biryani, gives a Continental spin to the proceedings.
The recipe here simplifies the original and hopes to put it within reach.
Work with measures suitable to your preference. You may use ground black pepper in addition to or in place of the chilli powder. Do comment on your thoughts.

Serves: 4

Main Ingredients
Jeerakasala / Kaima rice                   700 gm
Boneless pieces of one chicken          1 kg (10-12 pcs)
Large onions                                    200 gm (2 large)
Tomatoes                                        150 gm (2-3 large pieces)
Green chillies                                   2
Chilli powder                                   1 tsp
Grated ginger and garlic                   2 tbsp
Turmeric                                         1 tsp
Garam masala                                 1 tsp
Cinnamon                                       2 pieces (1 inch)
Cardamom                                      4-5 (broken open)
Bay leaves                                      2
Curry leaves                                   1 stalk (12-15 leaves)
Saunf                                             1 tsp
Yoghurt                                          1 cup
Lemon juice                                   (of 1 lemon)
Salt                                               To taste
Marinade Ingredients (roughly enough to cover the chicken pieces)
Chilli powder                                  2 tbsp
Turmeric                                        2 tbsp
Lemon juice                                   (of 1 lemon)
Salt To taste                                  (2 tbsp)

1. Marinate chicken in above marinade for an hour.
2. Shallow fry the marinated chicken and set aside.
3. Wash rice, soak it for 10 minutes, drain, set aside.
4. Heat ghee in pan; add bay leaves, cloves, cinnamon, saunf and cardamom.
5. Once they crackle, add sliced onions, followed by soaked rice and water.
6. Cook till rice is almost done.
7. Heat ghee in pan; add sliced onions and slit green chillies, ginger garlic paste and after a while, chopped tomatoes.
8. When the tomatoes are cooked, add the fried chicken pieces, stir them around, then cover the pan and allow the chicken to cook.
9. Once ready, place the chicken and gravy in a heavy bottomed pan.
10. Add some of the rice over it along with a sprinkling of lemon juice and coriander leaves. Over this, add another layer of rice, fried onions, raisins and cashew. It is now ready to serve.

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