Just say the word ‘biryani’ in a room full of South Africans, and the nostalgia is palpable.

It’s the meal that takes you back to granny’s kitchen, to mom’s Tupperware full of padkos, to weddings, family reunions, and occasions which aren’t even occasions, they’re just ‘because Aunty said so’.

It’s a meal that’s not just a meal. It’s history, it’s culture, it’s family, it’s art, and it’s love.

Every Aunty has her method; the way her mom made it, and her grandmother, and her great grandmother before that.

Of course, there are some tweaks along the way. A little extra ginger? Butter or ghee? Vegetables instead of lentils? Freshly ground, homemade spices, or prepacked? Chicken, mutton, or veg?

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Like a painter delicately mixing her palette for the perfect colour, mastering the Biryani takes years of practise, and meticulous attention to detail. The onions must be fried ‘just so’, and each spice and ingredient expertly layered to create the ultimate masterpiece.

(Image by claire Warneke)

In South Africa, an Indian wedding isn’t a wedding unless there’s biryani

But woe betide the man who dares to offer his opinion on who makes it best – his mother or his new bride. It will not end well!

For many Indian women, the go-to resource (besides mum) for recipes is Zuleikha Mayat’s “Indian Delights”. First published in 1964, the book was a project by Mayat’s influential Women’s Cultural Group (WCG). They put the book together based on recipe contributions from the community and it has now become an institution and best-seller in South Africa. Almost every Indian bride receives a copy for her wedding, the proceeds of which (from the very first publication) have been used to uplift the poor and needy.

According to an excerpt from Indian Delights, “Biryani is the royal dish amongst all the exotic rice dishes of India, and remains ‘the dish’ to serve on all best and auspicious occasions.”

(Image by claire Warneke)

Why Biryani?

“When Indians entertain, we do it in numbers,” explains Aunty Punji Naidoo from Port Elizabeth. “We’re very inclusive, not exclusive.”

Biryani is the meal that incorporates all the best flavours, and “goes far”. Aunty Punji says she had a wedding of ‘just’ 500 people. “There can be up to 1000 people at weddings, so the meal needs to stretch.” The dinner would usually include a starter of veda or baja, biryani as a main, and sambals and pickles, plus a sweet treat at the end.

Whether you’re using chicken, mutton, veg, or adding potatoes, eggs, lentils or gadra (borlotti) beans, the key ingredient in biryani is love. This is the view of Aunty Muligar Reddy from Durban. The first time she cooked Biryani on mass was for an end of year celebration at her children’s school. She made enough to feed around 450 learners! While she believes the spices and the methods are important, “the main ingredient is love.”

“Cooking is a pleasure for me,” says Aunty Muligar. “Before I start cooking, I always pray, ‘God let this be delicious!’”

South African flair

While the exact origins of Biryani are not entirely clear, typical South African Biryani differs to the traditional Indian version with the addition of lentils, potatoes, and boiled eggs. The type of rice, ratio of spices, and meat is at the discretion of the Biryani cook. “Some will also leave out the lentils as they can make you a bit gassy,” says Aunty Punji.

Ask any Aunty for her Biryani recipe, and you’ll get a long list of very specific instructions, with very imprecise measurements! Biryani is made with a pinch of this and a “spoon or two” of that. But it’s the method that makes all the difference. Each Aunty has perfected ‘her’ way.

“I like to roast my spices gently in the oven before grinding them,” says Aunty Zaida Jamal from Port Elizabeth. She balances out her flavours expertly – her years of practise have taught her to measure by sight, smell, and taste. “Every woman’s Biryani will be slightly different,” she explains. “Even the spices will differ in strength and flavour, depending on the batch.”

(Image by claire Warneke)

I was invited to Aunty Zaida’s family home to taste my first biryani

Spices roasted and ground, lentils cooked, chicken marinated overnight, the prep done, Aunty Zaida melted a healthy portion of ghee in a pot on the stove. She gently lowered in the marinated chicken pieces.

“Make sure you spread them out and keep the pieces whole,” she instructed. Next, she layered in large quarters of fried and spiced potato, two separately flavoured layers of rice, peas, and finally, some hard-boiled eggs.

The grand finale included a drizzle of saffron and colouring which turned the rice a soft golden colour.

A lid was added, and 30 minutes later, as it was lifted, the most fragrant, spicy and more-ish steam filled the kitchen. “Good for the skin and the stomach!” laughed Aunty Zaida.

Mouths watering, we tucked into the multi-layered, multi-flavoured love-filled goodness.

So THIS is Biryani.

It’s a meal that’s not just a meal. It’s history, it’s culture, it’s family, it’s art, and it’s love.


(Image by claire Warneke)

Aunty Zaida’s Chicken Biryani Recipe:


  • 1kg whole chicken, skinned, cut into 9 pieces, washed and drained.

For the chicken marinade:

  • 1 tbspn crushed ginger paste
  • 1 tbspn crushed garlic paste
  • 1 tbpsn fine salt
  • 1 tbspn red wet masala (chilli paste)
  • 1 tbspn chilli powder
  • 1 tbspn coriander powder
  • 1 tbspn cumin powder
  • 1 tbspn turmeric
  • ½ tspn egg yellow food colouring
  • 1 tspn whole cumin
  • I tspn cinnamon powder
  • ¼ cup lemon juice
  • ¼ cup tomato puree
  • 250ml buttermilk or amasi


Mix spices with lemon juice, buttermilk and tomato puree to make marinade, add chicken and set aside to marinate for a minimum of an hour. For best flavour infusion, allow to marinate overnight.

Thereafter, add the parboiled brown lentils and ½ of the crispy fried onions to the marinated chicken.

(Image by claire Warneke)

For the Biryani:

  • 1 cup brown lentils, parboiled, drained and set aside
  • 6 onions finely sliced, fried until crispy, drained and set aside
  • 3 cups basmati rice, parboiled, rinsed, drained and set aside
  • 6 medium potatoes, quartered, fried and set aside.
  • 6 egg, boiled, peeled and set aside.
  • 1 cup peas boiled, drained and set aside
  • ¼ cup oil
  • 250g and 2 tbspn ghee
  • 1 tbspn saffron essence
  • Saffron strands
  • 4 cardamom pods
  • 3 cinnamon sticks
  • ¼ tspn egg yellow food colouring


In a wide flat based pot, heat ¼ cup oil, 250g ghee and add 1 tbspn saffron essence, a few Saffron strands, 4 cardamom pods,  3 cinnamon sticks and ¼ tspn egg yellow food colouring and braise.

(Image by Claire Warneke)

Then carefully layer the marinated chicken in the pot (leaving excess marinade in the bowl) and cook for approximately 20 minutes thereafter layer the fried potatoes.

Now add half the parboiled rice into the bowl of leftover marinade and mix well and then layer onto the potatoes.

Mix the remaining half of the rice with ¼ of the crispy fried onions and layer onto of the ‘masala rice’.

Layer boiled peas, the remaining crispy fried onions and boiled eggs on top.

In a pan heat 2 tbspn ghee, 1 tbspn saffron essence, a few Saffron strands, 4 cardamom pods, 3 cinnamon sticks and ¼ tspn egg yellow food colouring and pour over biryani.

Cover the pot with foil, close with lid and allow to cook for approximately 30 min on medium heat. Alternatively preheat oven to 200°C for 30 – 45 minutes.


  • 500ml yoghurt
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 3 green chillies
  • 2 tspn mayo
  • 1 tsp salt
  • ½ cup dhania (coriander)

Liquidise everything together, optionally add cubed cucumber. Drizzle on top of Biryani.

(Image by claire Warneke)