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I've had chicken biryani in restaurants and their biryanis taste extremely different from what we prepare at home. I'm not sure how to describe it except that it's an "onion flavor".

We've got loads of biryani recipes and they're all more or less the same.

After a lot of pondering over the difference, I've begun to suspect that the restaurants are doing either of these things (or a combination of them):

  • They're somehow adding an onion flavor. Either that or they're adding something else that has a strong pungent, sour flavor.

  • They're adding an ingredient that gives a slight sweet taste. It's not tomato sauce, tomato puree, or sugar. There's something else. I've tried all of these methods.

  • Perhaps it's milk in some way.

How can I give a strong "onion flavor" or something similar to it to my biryani? How are the restaurants doing it?

Edit: I ordered chicken biryani from the restaurant again and have added some pics. Please take a look at these pics to get an idea about this recipe/onion flavor. So far, no answer talks about creating the lump of onion shown in the pics. Those lumps of onions are the key to creating this flavor:

Pic of an "onion glob". This is the strangest thing in the recipe. There are globs of onions between the rice. These are basically lumps of onions that stick together. They resemble a pigeon's egg (size and shape-wise). I've crushed open an onion glob to show what it looks like. Note: There are NO onions in the rice. Only the onion globs + chicken pieces (which contain very small pieces of onions). How the onions look

Inferences: They are clearly not deep frying the onions. I believe deep frying them leads to crispyness. These onions aren't crisp.

2) Pic of the chicken pieces: Another surprising thing about the taste is that the chicken pieces taste almost the same as the onion globs, except they're sweeter. Chicken pieces

Inferences: I'm guessing that they've mixed tomato sauce with the chicken but can't say for sure.

3) Pic of the rice: The rice seems to have very little oil. It sticks to my fingers. I can see that half of it looks like plain rice. All of it has a very very strong onion-like smell.

Rice

Inferences: I suspect that the rice was cooked separately entirely. Then it was mixed with the onion globs, and steamed a little bit to catch that aroma.

  • 6
    If you post your recipe, particularly the type, amount of, and process for incorporating your onion, you would likely get a more useful response. – moscafj Feb 20 at 12:02
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    @moscafj Sure thing. Here's the one that I'm following: indianhealthyrecipes.com/chicken-biryani-in-pressure-cooker I'm hoping that a cook who's experienced in making Biryani (vegan or chicken), would see my post and instinctively know what I'm referring to. – Mugen Feb 20 at 12:08
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    @moscafj I'm just using onions normally in the recipe (as suggested in the link that I've provided). If I get into particular details of my use of onion then I'll end up hijacking the discussion particularly for onions. There is a reason why I've put onion flavor in quotes. I've also mentioned this clearly in the first line "I'm not sure how to describe it except that it's an "onion flavor". In other words, I'm not saying that it HAS to do with the onions. It could be something else that gives off that sweet, pungent aroma. – Mugen Feb 20 at 12:11
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    @Tetsujin I'm cooking the ordinary onions that we get in the markets. I don't think that it's to do with a particular brand of onion because the restaurants aren't going to use an imported variety. They're also using the same ordinary onions that we have in the market. I've tried cooking them on a high flame (to make them crispier) as well slow cooking them (sauteing) them. In both the cases the final flavor/aroma depends on the spices that I've used (as outlined in the link that I've provided). – Mugen Feb 20 at 12:13
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    There's a colloquial saying, if you know how to make rotis and birista, you can cook anything. Birista is the crisp fried onion that goes on biryani, and both rotis and birista are tough to get right without practice. – Pranab Feb 20 at 17:17

10 Answers 10

54

The restaurants may be adding asafoetida, a ground root product that adds a savory, onion-y flavor to food. It's very concentrated stuff and smells awful, but once you cook it for awhile it's absolute magic.

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    If you're shopping at Indian grocers you'll also often see it labelled as "Hing". – J... Feb 20 at 21:58
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    Add very very very little of it. If you find a powder, it's likely already diluted significantly by mixing with some kind of flour, but even then, use very little. The taste is very bad in larger quantities. Source: Am Indian. – Mahesh Feb 21 at 16:29
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    @Mahesh Yes - just a small amount, definitely. And it burns easily. It should gently fry in a bit of oil, but not too hot and not too long before letting the temperature come down. Burnt hing is not tasty at all. – J... Feb 21 at 16:51
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    I am definintely in agreement here -- there is little that substitutes, in any way, the exact contribution that hing/asafoetida gives a dish. Most dishes I have made to serve 4-6 call for ~1/8 to 1/4 tsp at most, and that is plenty enough to flavor the dish. – PB Supports Monica Feb 21 at 17:52
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    Fun fact: The real concentrated stuff is a solid, and is hard enough to dent mixer blades. It is used by friction grinding it manually on a not so smooth rock, by adding a few drops of water. 1/4 tsp of that easily serves a small banquet. It is very hard to get these days, even within India. Only traditional families in few areas use it, almost everyone switched over to powdered variant which is comparitively diluted – Mahesh Feb 22 at 3:23
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I make biryani frequently. The recipe I follow differs from your link in a couple of areas. Specifically, in terms of your concern about onion flavor, my recipe uses much more oil, and twice as much onion. I slowly fry two, very thinly sliced, large onions (the variety doesn't seem to matter so much), in 3/4 cup of oil. The onions are cooked until they take on a golden hue. This can take 10 to 15 minutes. The onions are then removed from the pot. I leave about 1/4 cup of oil in the pot, which is the vessel that I will use to layer the rice, chicken, onions and herbs.

This is significant for a couple of reasons. First, oil transports flavor. So, in addition to the onions themselves, there is a base of onion flavored oil. In addition, once the layers are complete, another 1/4 cup of the leftover onion flavored oil (from draining onions) is drizzled over the top. Secondly, the slowly cooked onions are layered throughout the biryani. (This also helps to create an excellent browned crust of rice and chicken when the final product is turned out of the pot).

In my version, the spices are mixed with the chicken and yogurt, as part of a marinade. They are not added to the onion. However, I am sure there is much variation in how biryani is made. I am not suggesting a correct version, just some possible insight in how to enhance your onion flavor and sweetness (which comes from the caramelized onion).

I would also add, that if you are indeed following the recipe to the letter, and using a pressure cooker, that pressure cooking tends to drastically mute onion flavor. I found this to be true when making stocks using my pressure cooker. I would try cooking this in the traditional way (not the pressure cooker) to see if that helps.

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    "3/4 cup of oil" is this a typo? Because that's a lot of oil. I don't think it counts as sauteing anymore unless you're cooking in a tilt skillet. – MikeTheLiar Feb 20 at 15:06
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    ...not a typo...ok, technically frying. I use an enameled cast iron pot. – moscafj Feb 20 at 15:54
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    @MikeTheLiar that's fairly typical in my experience – Pureferret Feb 20 at 15:57
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    @MikeTheLiar For this type of recipe, yes. Different dishes call for different means of preparation... and Indian food tends to use a LOT of fat. – Apologize and reinstate Monica Feb 20 at 17:23
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    @Mugen...2 cups of rice before precooking...it is a lot of oil, but the onions are lifted out and all but 1/4 cup is left in the pan to construct the biryani. The onions drain (of course oil clings to them), and 1/4 cup of the leftover oil is drizzled on top once the dish has been layered. There is usually about 1/4 cup of oil left unused. – moscafj Feb 21 at 14:16
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I'm not sure if this gets at exactly what I'd call an "onion" flavour, but otherwise your experience sounds very similar to mine. I was pretty good at many different Indian recipes, but for the longest time, biryani eluded me. I tried all kinds of different things and ingredients and combinations, but could never seem to quite nail down a recipe that made my biryani taste "biryani-ey."

Until finally I hit on the magic ingredient: methi (fenugreek)!

Specifically, the powdered methi (I tend to prefer Shan brand, but MDH and National are good too). About 1/8 tsp methi per portion of biryani, and it completely transforms the dish, giving it a real biryani taste. (So in the recipe you posted, about 1/2 tsp methi.)

I notice you don't have any methi in that recipe, so maybe give it a try and you'll discover that's what's missing? Can't hurt!

  • Good first answer here! I have often found that dishes don't taste right unless they have one or two unusual key ingredients. – Todd Wilcox Feb 21 at 14:27
  • I've added a few pics of this biryani. There are "onion globs" - it's like an egg-sized block of onions that stick together and retain their shapes. The surprising thing is that the rice contains zero onions except for these globs. Any guesses about how we're making these globs? That's the key to the onion flavor. – Mugen Feb 24 at 16:39
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The biryani recipe which I use calls for kewra (screw pine extract). This may be the slightly sweet taste which you are missing.

  • Thanks for replying to me! I've not heard of screw pine extract. Nevertheless, let me try it out and see how it goes. I'll come back and update it here after I try this out. – Mugen Feb 21 at 14:04
  • Would it be possible for you to share your recipe? – Mugen Feb 21 at 16:18
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  • I've added a few pics of this biryani. There are "onion globs" - it's like an egg-sized block of onions that stick together and retain their shapes. The surprising thing is that the rice contains zero onions except for these globs. Any guesses about how we're making these globs? That's the key to the onion flavor. – Mugen Feb 24 at 16:39
5

Biryani is more of a style rather than a particular dish, and no two chefs make it the same. I cook vegetarian dishes only, but here is my tip:

Sautee some ginger garlic paste and add it to the chicken. The taste changes a lot between raw and sauteed ginger garlic paste. People react either very well or very badly to the smell when sauteeing this, it's okay even if the smell feels off. This will change both perceived sweetness and pungency. Raw paste is used relatively rarely in my experience.

If you use asafodetia as suggested in another answer, use very little of it. Just a pinch in a biryani for 2 or 3 people. It adds additional flavor, but is probably not what you're looking for. It is not a common ingredient.

The slower you cook the biryani, the better.

Here are a few other suggestions you can try to alter the sweet undertones:

  1. Use coconut milk. It adds creamy and sweet flavor. If you can't find coconut milk, but can find a coconut, break it open, grind the white part into a paste using a mixer and squeeze it. You may also sprinkle the remaining cake separately before adding rice.
  2. A small potato, cooked and mashed before mixing in the lower layer can shift the flavour subtly to the sweet side. Some consider it a crime to mix potato in chicken biryani.
  • I've added a few pics of this biryani. There are "onion globs" - it's like an egg-sized block of onions that stick together and retain their shapes. The surprising thing is that the rice contains zero onions except for these globs. Any guesses about how we're making these globs? That's the key to the onion flavor. – Mugen Feb 24 at 16:39
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    Looks like lightly fried onion pakoda, except that stuff doesn't go with biryani afaik. You can try a variation of it maybe. Fry a mixture of onions, salt and chick pea flour, it gives you the same consistency. Chick pea flour (besan) has a very distinctive taste that's noticeable even with onions. And my sister says it tastes similar to cooked chicken, not enough to think of them together but confident enough to say yes after I prompted her. Add these pakoda to the biryani base. Maybe even lightly fry chicken coated in the flour before using it. – Mahesh Feb 24 at 19:34
  • @mugen can you feel that the chicken is coated in a flour? Or if you've tasted pakoda, did you feel any similarities in taste with these onion globs? If you want to confirm, take just a spoon of chick pea flour, a pinch of salt, a pinch of chilli powder, few drops water, make into thick paste, mix with a few onion pieces and fry a glob of it in hot oil for about 30 seconds or until light brown. Let it cool and taste it. If it feels similar enough, rest of the taste might be due to additional spices and steam in pressure cooker. Try it on a larger scale with your biryani. – Mahesh Feb 24 at 19:40
2

You could try grating the onion rather than finely dicing it. Grating ruptures more of the cells and contributes a much stronger flavour throughout the dish.

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    I've tried that too. All recipes call for pan-frying the onion at the start and adding a bunch of Indian spices. The problem with grinding onions into very small pieces is that on pan-frying it becomes a lump that sticks together. For some odd reason it tastes even less like onions and more like "toast crumbs". – Mugen Feb 20 at 9:56
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    @Mugen : grate the onion and save the liquid (not necessarily the pulp ... you might need to squeeze it)... after you've cooked down the other vegetables, add the onion juice with the other liquids. I'd add this in addition to the diced onions, so you still have the original texture. – Joe Feb 20 at 18:32
  • @pyro I've added a few pics of this biryani. There are "onion globs" - it's like an egg-sized block of onions that stick together and retain their shapes. The surprising thing is that the rice contains zero onions except for these globs. Any guesses about how we're making these globs? That's the key to the onion flavor. – Mugen Feb 24 at 16:40
2

They may be adding tamarind paste. It's a somewhat sweet/tangy flavor and is common in indian cuisine.

  • Is Tamarind common in a Biryani recipe? – elbrant Feb 21 at 2:22
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    @elbrant : there are a wide range of biryani. It's more a style of preparation and not a specific dish. See cooking.stackexchange.com/q/93688/67 – Joe Feb 21 at 3:05
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    Tamarind does not go into Indian pulav or biryani. There are other rice dishes made with tamarind, but please do not put tamarind in biryani. – user61034 Feb 21 at 16:18
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    @user61034 It goes in my biryani. I'll prepare the meat which may or may not include tamarind paste and then make biryani with the leftovers. – jayce Feb 21 at 20:21
  • I've added a few pics of this biryani. There are "onion globs" - it's like an egg-sized block of onions that stick together and retain their shapes. The surprising thing is that the rice contains zero onions except for these globs. Any guesses about how we're making these globs? That's the key to the onion flavor. – Mugen Feb 24 at 16:40
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One of the “hidden” ingredients to boost onion flavor is shallots. Many restaurants actually use it in different ratios and that’s why the onion taste so great in those restaurants.

  • I like this guess. Perhaps that's what they're using. Let me try finding shallots in the market and see. – Mugen Feb 25 at 2:38
1

I finally found the missing ingredient! It was commercial onion powder!

Jonathan Moore's + pyro's answers came close to the real answers but both of them don't bring out the onion flavor any more than ordinary onions do.

However, I came across commercially available "onion powder" (they basically mix some chemicals with the onions before drying them and grinding it, not into a paste but into a powder form).

Onion powder tastes way more "onioney" than the actual onions itself. There's a pretty strong flavor of onions.

I tried cooking biryani by adding onion powder to onions (just after adding the marinated chicken). It not only adds the strong onion aroma but gives a pretty good pungent, onioney taste.

Off topic: I also found a bonus trick. Tomato puree! When this is mixed with the onion powder just before adding the chickens, it makes for a pretty strong pugent, sweet biryani flavor.

0

If you search for 'indian base sauce' you might get some good hints. I've heard that usually in Indian restaurants, the curries are based on a 'base' sauce which is prepared separately. It has lots of onions, as well as some other veg and spices, and after the frying, the sauce is pureed. It might be that the process of pureeing releases more of the onioniness that you are looking for.

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    I thank you for your effort but the puree-like thing that you mention is used to make gravy-like Indian dishes. Grinding the sauteed onions into a paste has the opposite effect of extracting an onion flavor. It rather takes on the flavor of the vegetables/spices that are added to it. Not positive here but I'm guessing that the onion juice evaporates or something. Whatever the explanation, that method is used to make thick gravy recipes. It can't be used for biryani. – Mugen Feb 21 at 14:02

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