One of the most beloved chicken and rice dishes - the classic Yemeni Chicken Mandi. What's not to love? Perfectly spiced succulent chicken, layered on top of glistening yellow rice and garnished with fried onions, almonds and raisins. You'll nail it with this perfect recipe!
What is Chicken Mandi?
Chicken Mandi is a popular authentic Yemeni dish that consists of 3 components: chicken (or any other meat), a Yemeni spice mix called "Hawaij", and rice. Sounds like a simple dish, right? Wrong! Because the authenticity is all in the cooking method! Mandi is traditionally slow cooked in an underground "oven", called a Taboon. It's basically like a big hole with lots of coal inside, and the chicken and rice are cooked inside, with the chicken on a rack on top of the rice so all the juices can drip into the pot.
Because it slow cooks on coals, it inherits a delicious smoky flavour. And because it takes a while to make it, its usually only served at special occasions and celebrations. Now I'll admit this: as much as I LOVE Yemeni cuisine, I don't think I've ever had Mandi that has been cooked in the traditional way. At least I think. My favourite is from my local Yemeni restaurant Monasaba, and theirs has been my inspiration!
This recipe is of course not cooked in the traditional way, but rather made for the modern kitchen. The result is super delicious, and its really easy to make. So grab your Hawaij mix and let's get going!
Chicken Mandi vs. Chicken Machboos
To some it might be confusing what the difference is between Chicken Mandi and Chicken Machboos. Meat and rice are the two main components of both dishes, but they differ in a few ingredients and cooking method. Mandi is cooked in a Taboon, while machboos is cooked layered all in one pot. Also, mandi uses saffron and turmeric for that yellow rice, while the colour of machboos rice is brownish/red from the tomato paste used in the cooking sauce. Both are delicious and worth making. Also, sometimes people confuse Arabic biryani with machboos, but that is a totally different flavour and texture!
What is "Hawaij" spice blend?
Firstly, there are so many websites out there that claim "Hawaij" means mixture. It actually does not. The word is Arabic and translates to "necessities" or "basic needs". That's because in Yemeni cuisine, this spice blend is a "go-to" and its like saying its all you need. Which is very true. Its one of my favourite blends, embodying the true middle eastern warm spice flavours.
Here are the typical components of Hawaij:
- Coriander seeds
- Cumin seeds
- Green Cardamom
- Black peppercorns
- Turmeric (not pictured)
I highly recommend buying the spices whole, toasting them and grinding them. It makes a world of a difference and its actually really quick if you have a spice or coffee grinder.
Notes on the Ingredients for Chicken Mandi
Aside from the whole spices (which are very available everywhere), you really don't need much more. Here are some notes on the ingredients:
- Rice; I use long grain basmati for the best results
- Onions; definitely use white onions and slice them evenly. These are key!
- Chicken; I like to use bone-in full chicken legs. Using bone in chicken keeps it really tender and juicy. I don't recommend you use breast for this recipe.
- The Hawaij spice blend
- Bay leaves; these are optional but add a lovely aroma
- Dry lime; find these at your local middle eastern store. If you really can't find them you can skip them but they add a deep earthy citrusy flavour that can't be replicated with any other ingredient
- Saffron; just a small amount will go a long way. They add to the yellow pigment and also give a beautiful taste and aroma. But saffron is expensive so if you don't have it feel free to skip it.
- Almonds and Raisins; for that final touch in the form of garnish!
How to make this recipe, step by step
- Step 1, make the Hawaij spice blend so the chicken can have time to marinate. Place all the spices (except for the turmeric and bay leaves) into a pan and toast them for 2-3 minutes on medium high until you start to smell them. Keep an eye out because they burn quickly (I burned my first batch sadly).
- Place the spices in a spice or coffee grinder and grind until a fine powder forms. You're done!
- Now you can remove two teaspoons of the spice mix and set aside for the rice, then use the remaining for the chicken. Mix it with the turmeric and salt, then add the olive oil to create a paste. Slather it all over the chicken and marinate overnight for maximum flavour. But a few hours is fine too.
- When you are ready to start making the dish, thinly slice the onions ensuring you slice as evenly as possible. You can use a mandolin if you have one. Even sizes help them fry evenly.
- In a pot, add the oil and then drop in the onions while oil is still cold. Fry for 15-20 minutes, stirring them around every few minutes.
- Since we are not deep frying, they won't get extremely crunchy, but that's totally fine. This is the simplest method I found that allows you to use all the onion infused oil in your rice.
- Once the onions are golden brown, remove them with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels, but leave approximately 3 tablespoons in the pot (to be used for the rice). Be sure to spread them out in one layer to give them a chance to crisp up.
- Now its time to make the rice broth. Keep frying up the onions in the oil, in the same pot, and add the hawaij spice blend, and the dried lime. Before you add the dried lime, pierce them a couple of times with a knife (very carefully).
- Once the spices are toasted, add the bay leaves and the water and bring to a boil
- To steam the chicken, place a steaming rack in the pot (or a small stainless steel wire rack if you don't have a steamer rack), place the chicken on the rack, then cover and steam for 50 minutes.
- Once the chicken is really tender, remove it from the pot and place it on a baking sheet to broil for 10 minutes. This steps gives you a deeply golden crust on the chicken.
- While doing that, bloom the saffron by grinding them in a mortar and pestle then allowing to bloom in a bowl with 2 tablespoons of hot water. You will end up with a vibrant yellow liquid.
- Now its time to strain the broth that was used to steam the chicken. Reserve the liquid and measure it out to exactly 1.5 cups of liquid to 1 cup of rice. Add water to the broth if needed.
- Add the strained broth back into the same pot, then add the turmeric, the bloomed saffron and the salt.
- Next add the washed and soaked rice (soaking for only 10 minutes), give it a good mix, then bring the pot to a boil
- Once bubbling for a few minutes and most of the liquid has evaporated, cover with a paper towel and the pot lid to keep it fresh for longer
- Cook the rice for 20 minutes undisturbed. Then turn the heat off, fluff with a fork, then cover and let stand for another 10 minutes.
- While the rice cooks, quickly fry the almonds and the raisins in a bit of olive oil to toast them.
- Remove the beautifully golden chicken from the oven and you are ready to assemble!
- Start by spooning a bed of yellow rice on a large platter, then garnish with the fried onions, almonds and raisins, then add the chicken legs on top.
Smoking the Mandi (optional)
To replicate the smoky coal infused flavours of traditional chicken mandi, lots of people like to smoke the final dish. My husband doesn't like smoked food so I don't do this. But its fairly easy!
Add the chicken to the rice in the same pot once they are both cooked. Place a small bowl on top of the rice and add a bit of oil inside. Take a small piece of coal and light it on fire using a lighter. Then drop the coal in the oil filled bowl, watch the smoke, then quickly close the lid. Smoke for about 4-5 minutes then open the lid and remove the bowl.
Tips for making the best mandi!
Tip #1: Buy whole spices, toast them, and grind them yourself. This will make a huge difference in the flavour of both the chicken and rice. And its easy!
Tip #2: Be patient with the onions while they fry. The onions is what really takes this dish to another level of umami. Just keep an eye on them and plan accordingly.
Tip #3: Don't be scared of using the quantity of oil used in the recipe. Many store bough Mandi uses even more oil than this. The oil will help keep the rice grains soft and luxurious.
What to serve with Mandi:
Traditionally, Mandi and many Yemeni rice based dishes are served with "Zahawig" (sometimes referred to as Zhough) which is a spicy salsa like condiment made from chilis, parsley, coriander, mint, garlic, tomato, vinegar, and cumin. They are blended to create a salsa. You can also serve this rice dish with side salads like Jajik (cucumber yogurt salad), fattoush or tabouli.
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Chicken Mandi (Yemeni Chicken & Yellow Rice)
For the Spice Blend
- 2 teaspoons whole coriander seeds
- 1 teaspoon whole cloves
- 6 green cardamom pods
- 1.5 teaspoons cumin seeds
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
- ½ teaspoon turmeric (ground powder)
For the Chicken
- 4 full chicken legs, skin on, bone in
- 2 tablepsoons olive oil
- 1.5 teaspoons kosher salt use 1 tsp if regular salt
For the Rice
- 3 cups basmati rice
- 3 bay leaves
- 2 teaspoons spice mix (from the spice blend)
- 1.5 teaspoon turmeric
- ½ teaspoon saffron strands plus 2 tablespoons hot water (optional)
- 3 dried limes optional
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 4.5 cups water and broth see instructions
For the Garnish
- 4 small onions
- 1 cup vegetable oil for frying
- ¼ cup slivered almonds
- ¼ cup raisins
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- General note: Its best to prepare the spice blend and marinate the chicken for 24 hours for optimal flavour.
For the Spice Blend:
- Start by placing all of the spices for the blend except for the turmeric in a small skillet and toast on medium heat for 1-2 minutes, moving them around constantly. Be careful as they burn fast! Remove them as soon as they start to become really fragrant.
- Once toasted, remove and place in a spice or coffee grinder and grind until a fine powder forms
- Remove 2 teaspoons from the spice mix and set aside for the rice. Add the turmeric to the remainder of the spice mix and set aside to be used for the chicken
To Marinate The Chicken:
- To the spice blend, add the ½ teaspoon turmeric and the 1.5 teaspoons kosher salt listed under the chicken
- Add 1 tablespoon of the olive oil to the spice mix and create a paste. Lather the paste onto the chicken legs and massage it in really well.
- Place the marinated chicken in an airtight container and marinate overnight in the fridge for optimal results. If you can't do this, you can marinate for 30 mins to 1 hour to save time.
To Fry the Onions:
- Thinly slice all of the onions evenly. I do this by hand but if you want to be precise you can always use a mandolin (even size helps them fry evenly)
- Add the one cup of vegetable oil to the pot (the same pot you will cook rice in) and heat on medium heat
- Add the onions in and fry them, stirring them every 3-4 minutes. This process will take 10-15 minutes, so be patient! But also be careful, towards the end, they will burn fast so keep a watchful eye and remove them quickly.
- Remove the onions when they look golden brown, leaving approximately 3 tablespoons of onions in the pot for the rice. Spread on a paper towel lined plate to absorb the oil. As they cool they will crisp up (see notes). Set aside until ready to garnish.
To Cook the Chicken:
- The chicken will cook by steaming. Start this process after marinating the chicken. To the pot that you fried the onions in (and with the remaining onions and oil inside), add the spice mix that was set aside for the rice
- Carefully pierce the dry limes a couple of times using a sharp knife (be careful because they are round!) and add them to the pot along with the bay leaves
- Cook the spices in the oil on medium heat for a few minutes. Add 2 cups of water.
- Place a steaming rack in the pot (if you don't have a steaming rack, use a small wire rack similar to an instant pot insert). Place the marinated chicken on the steaming rack.
- Close the pot lid and steam the chicken for 50 minutes on medium heat. Check it every 10 minutes to ensure there is enough water and top it up if not.
- Remove the chicken (reserve the broth) when cooked through and place on an oven baking tray (preferably on an over wire rack placed on top of a tray, but you can use a tray too).
- Brush the top with the remaining olive oil and bake for 20 mins at 400F. Broil the top for 5 minutes until golden brown. Remove and keep warm.
To Make the Rice:
- Wash the rice really well multiple times until the water runs clear, then soak for 10 minutes
- In a mortar and pestle, grind the saffron to a fine powder then add 2 tablespoons of hot water (boiled water that has cooled slightly) and bloom for 5 minutes
- Strain the broth that was used to steam the chicken. Using a measuring cup, measure out how much broth you have and add to it some water (if required) to get exactly 4.5 cups of liquid
- Pour the liquid back into the same pot. Add to it the turmeric listed under rice, the salt and the bloomed saffron. Taste and ensure it is visibly salty (like sea water). Allow it to come to a boil.
- Add the rice to the broth and stir a few times to combine. Allow it to come to a boil uncovered for a few minutes on medium heat.
- Once bubbling, place a paper towel on top of the pot and then close the lid. Lower the heat to medium low and allow it to cook for 20 minutes, undisturbed.
- After 20 minutes, turn the heat off and fluff with a fork. Close the lid and allow it to stand for 10 minutes.
For the Garnish:
- The first layer of garnish will be the fried onions
- To prepare the almonds, cook them on medium heat with the olive oil until golden. Stir continuously. Remove and set aside
- Add the raisins in and toast for 2 minutes. Combine with the almonds.
- In a large platter, layer the yellow rice
- Add the fried onions, almonds and raisins
- Add the chicken, then add more onions, raisins and almonds. Garnish with chopped parsley if desired
- Serve with a side of salad, yogurt, or Yemeni Zhoug and enjoy!
- Here is the order I recommend you carry out the recipe steps for optimal efficiency:
- Make the spice blend and marinate the chicken the night before.
- On the day, start by frying the onions, then steam the chicken
- Cook the rice
- Prepare the garnish and assemble
- For this recipe, I don't find that you need super precise onion slices (which is typically required for perfectly crispy fried onions). I don't believe the onions need to be super crispy. Instead of deep frying them perfectly, I prefer to shallow fry them and use the same onion-flavoured oil for the rice.
- I know most people struggle with getting crispy fried onions; don't worry! As long as you fry them per directions, you will get the exact same flavour, even if they are soft. The crunch in this dish comes from the almonds anyways!
- If you don't have dry lime, you can skip it. But it does add a wonderful flavour that can't be replicated with any other ingredient.
- I know saffron is pricey, so if you don't have it, you can also skip it. Again, it adds a delicious flavour but won't make/break your dish.
- If you want to avoid soggy rice, make sure you measure out your broth precisely per the recipe directions
- Yes the rice and this whole recipe requires a whole lot of oil. Trust the process. Enjoy the result.