Chicken Machboos, also known as Kabsa, is a popular rice dish from the Arabian Gulf made with either lamb or chicken. The term 'Machboos' or 'kabsa' actually means pressed in Arabic. It has slight variations from region to region. One thing remains common though: use of whole spices, and cooking the meat in the broth/sauce for the rice in order to get even more flavour.
I first discovered it in Kuwait where I visit quite often since my husband spent a good part of his teenage years there. Every time we would eat out at an authentic Kuwaiti restaurant, we would both always order Machboos. If you haven't tried it and you love Arabic cuisine and middle eastern rice dishes... I have humbly re-created it for you at home and I love my version of it. It's actually pretty easy to make, and it does come together quickly. Also, if you love lamb, you have to try my Lamb Kabsa too!
Now one thing to note. Machboos is different from Chicken Mandi. Both are rice and meat dishes, but they differ in the spices used and the colour of the rice. Mandi has a vibrant yellow colour, while Machboos is reddish brown.
Some people also confused Machboos with Biryani. And while there are some similarities to the Indian or Pakistani version of Biryani, it's not even close to the Arabic / Iraqi version of Biryani which typically has more vegetables mixed into the rice.
Tips for making the best Machboos
Now hear me out: machboos is made in all kinds of ways throughout the Gulf, and I'm sure there are even variations from one family recipe to another. The basic elements are always there though: whole spices, rice, meat. This is my take on it and some of my tips to achieving a great tasting Machboos:
- Lots of onions. This tip actually rings true for me in many many Arabic dishes. Onions are the secret weapon for imparting a depth of flavour in a lot of rice dishes. So don't skimp on the onion and make sure you give them some proper loving and get them nice and soft and caramelized.
- Using good quality whole spices. This one is another major key, because that's where all the fragrance and flavour is coming from. Use fresh whole spices if you can from a good quality source.
- Using dry lime. Dry lime can be hard to find if you don't have an Arabic grocer in the area, but they are a key ingredient in Machboos. They're used a lot in Iraqi cooking as well, and they give a citrusy yet earthy flavour to the broth. If you don't have whole dry lime, you can use dry lime powder. If you really can't find it, you can skip this. It'll still taste great - but do try to get them!
- Cooking the chicken in the sauce. When the chicken is added to the sauce to cook, its picking up the delicious sauce flavour and also making the broth/sauce more flavourful. Bone-in chicken is preferred for extra flavour. Some people also keep the chicken in the pot and cook the rice with it, whereas in my recipe I remove it to broil it in the oven as we like it crispy.
- The right water to rice ratio. I use Basmati rice in this recipe, and although its usually a 1:1.5 rice to water ratio, because we are also using a lot of onions which release liquid, as well as tomato sauce, we need to use slightly less water. I've found the ratio listed in the recipe to be perfect for fluffy rice that isn't mushy. Be sure to measure accurately and keep the rice pot covered for the duration of the cooking time.
How to serve Machboos
To plate the dish, spoon the rice in a large tray or serving dish, removing the whole spices as you go. Then add the broiled chicken on top. Then garnish with the toasted almonds or pine nuts and raisins. Because there's so much flavour in the rice, I actually love to eat it as is. However, its typically also served with either plain yogurt, a yogurt cucumber salad, or with a fresh vegetable salad such as Fattoush.
I really hope you guys give it a try. This dish is super comforting and we make it regularly. Usually there are no leftovers. If you try it, do give me your feedback in the comments, I'd absolutely love to hear what you have to say. Also send me a photo on Instagram!
For more Middle Eastern dishes, check out:
Watch me make it!
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Chicken Machboos (Saudi Arabian Kabsa)
- 4 full chicken legs skin on, bone in (you can also use thighs - add 1-2 pieces per person)
- ½ cup vegetable oil
- 3 medium onions
- 4 medium garlic cloves
- 3 cinnamon sticks
- 3 dry limes substitute 2 teaspoons dry lime powder if unavailable
- 3 bay leaves
- 5 green cardamom pods
- ½ teaspoon allspice
- ½ teaspoon cardamom powder
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- ½ teaspoon black pepper
- 2.5 teaspoons salt
- 1 cup tomato sauce
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 3.5 cups basmati rice long grain
- 4.5 cups water
- ⅓ cup raisins
- ⅓ cup slivered almonds or pine nuts
- Start by preheating the oven to 400F
- Finely dice the onion and crush the garlic
- To a large non-stick pot, add the oil and heat for 1 minute. Then add the onions and cook for 5 minutes until slightly softened
- Add the whole spices (cinnamon, cardamom, dry lime, and bay leaves) along with the crushed garlic and cook for a further 5 minutes
- Add the tomato paste and cook for 2 minutes, using a wooden spoon to smear the paste on the bottom of the pan and caramalize it
- Add the ground spices (salt, black pepper, cinnamon, cardamom and allspice) as well as the tomato sauce and 1 cup of water. Allow to simmer for 3 minutes
- Add the washed chicken legs and cover them in the sauce mixture. Cover the pot and allow to cook for 20 minutes, flipping the chicken halfway through
- Wash and rinse the rice several times until the water runs clear
- Remove the chicken legs, sprinkle with extra salt and pepper (if desired) and place them on a baking sheet lined with foil. To finish cooking them, bake in the oven for 20-25 minutes until juices run clear. Broil for 2 minutes to crisp the skin
- Add the rice to the pot along with the remaining 3.5 cups of water. Mix well but gently to incorporate the rice. Cover and bring to a boil for 1 minute. Once boiling, keep the rice covered, lower the heat to low and simmer for 20 minutes. Do not uncover the rice before the 20 minutes
- Turn off the heat and let the rice stand for 5 minutes
- Toast the pine nuts in a skillet with ½ tablespoon of vegetable oil on medium heat, stirring constantly until golden. This should take no more than 5 minutes
- Remove the nuts and add the raisins using the same pan. Stir on high heat for 1-2 minutes to heat through and slightly caramelize
- Open the pot and fluff the rice with a fork. Serve in a large dish, with the chicken legs on top and garnish with the pine nuts/almonds and raisins
- If you don't have dry limes, you can skip it. It adds a unique depth of flavour that is hard to replace with other ingredients. I encourage you to find it from your local middle eastern shop!
- If you don't have full chicken legs, you can use thighs or drumsticks. I would not use chicken breast, dark meat will yield better results in this recipe