Tin Fish Biryani Recipe

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Although our main source of sustenance came from Amma’s back garden (which contained every vegetable imaginable) – canned foods-like baked beans and tin fish (pilchards in tomato sauce) were also staples in our monthly shopping. Amma favoured having at least  four or five cans of each for what she called ‘rainy days’. Amma had one method for cooking baked beans – we usually ate baked beans for lunch on Saturdays after a trip to the local town where we shopped. We would have fresh bread, sausages and baked beans braised with green chillies and onions. Amma had four methods of cooking tin fish. The first was braised tin fish-my favourite. Amma made the yummiest braised tin fish samoosas and whenever we made a trip to Durban she would make braised tin fish sandwiches for our stop along the way- at a place which my younger sister and I referred to as ‘the table and chairs’. The second method (my sisters favourite) was tin fish in a gravy with peas and potato wedges. The third method was tin fish chutney which Amma made whenever she cooked yellow cabbage dumpling. The fourth method was this recipe- Tin Fish Biryani.

Tin Fish Biryani was one of Amma’s specialties. Since none of my cousins (Amma’s family) had ever heard of Tin Fish Biryani -while growing up I assumed it was something only we ate- but judging by the many requests for this recipe from readers of this blog I now know that this was not the case. Tin Fish Biryani in our home was Amma’s method of creating something special out of an ordinary can of pilchards. Unlike Chicken or Mutton Biryani , Amma’s Tin Fish Biryani was cooked using a one pot method rather than baked in the oven. Other variations from traditional Biryani is the addition of boiled eggs rather than roasted potatoes and the use of thyme instead of coriander. The latter was mostly because we had a large thyme plant in our back garden which seemed to be fruitful all year round unlike Amma’s dhania patch which took quite a beating in the frosty winter months.

For this recipe I have used approx. 1.5 cups (90g) rice for a 150g tin fish. The result was a fairly moist biryani which could be even be eaten without any dahl. To make larger quantities you can use up to 3 cups rice  for every 280g can of tin fish. This recipe also features a my new method for making ‘heart friendly’ Indian food…i.e. cooking with minimal oil…for this recipe I have used 1 tablespoon olive oil. Similarly you can use one tablespoon vegetable oil or a leveled tablespoon ghee. In order to get the optimum results from the use of less oil prepare as instructed in this recipe. If you braise the spices with the onion like you would in a normal curry the spices become dry and clumpy- it is best in this instance to cook the spices in the tomato.

Instead of using ‘Biryani Mix’ I have used cardamom, star annaise, cinnamon, bay leaves and mustard seeds -which seem to compliment fish quite well. Conventional Biryani mix usually contains all of the ingredients mentioned with the exception of mustard seeds and but also contains fennel seeds. To make your own briyani mix simply combine these ingredients. For this recipe I have kept the spices whole but for Chicken and Mutton Biryani  I prefer to grind the spice into a powder.

Tin Fish Biryani Recipe

Recipe by Georgia

Prep time: 10
Cook time: 30
Total time: 40 minutes
Yield: Serves 3 people 


  • 1.5 cups (90g) basmati or long grain rice (to be pre cooked)
  • 155g Tin Fish (canned pilchards in tomato sauce)
  • 1 medium sized onion
  • 1 teaspoon garam masala
  • 1 tablespoon masala or chilli powder of your choice
  • 1 leveled teaspoon turmeric powder
  • 1 cup biryani dhal
  • 1 cup peas or other vegetables of your choice
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil or vegetable oil or 1 level tablespoon ghee
  • desired limit salt (I use half teaspoon)
  • 4 tomatoes or 1 can chopped tomatoes
  • Biryani mix or …
  • (3 bay leaves
  • 2 sticks cinnamon
  • 5 cardamom (elachi) pods
  • half teaspoon mustard seeds
  • 3 star annaise)
  • 6 sprigs of thyme
  • 3 boiled eggs 
  • 185ml water 
  •     Cooking Directions

1. Pre- cook the rice. To make the rice yellow- add a teaspoon of turmeric powder while cooking. The rice should be semi cooked so that it can fully cook together with the other ingredients. Cook for 15 minutes then remove from stove. Strain and set aside until needed.
2. Chop the onions fine. Heat a heavy based pot on medium heat. Add the oil. Add the chopped onion. Add the briyani spices i.e. cardamom, star annaise, bay leaves, cinnamon and mustard seeds. Cover then allow to simmer until the onions softened.

    3. Add the tomatoes. If you are using fresh tomatoes prepare them as instructed in the How to cook Chutney Recipe i.e soak in hot water then remove the peel then grate the tomatoes.

     4. Add the powdered spices i.e garam masala, tumeric and chilli powder. Mix. Add the thyme. Cover and allow to simmer.

    5.To clean Tin Fish- remove the excess waste parts from the tin fish by removing the loose parts along the sides. I prefer to keep the bone intact-you may discard if you prefer.

    5. Add the Biryani dhal and peas or any other vegetables of your choice. Add 125ml water. Add salt. Stir then cover and allow to simmer while you prepare the Tin Fish. Allow to simmer for 5 minutes then add the cleaned Tin fish.

    6. Add the rice then add another 60ml water over the rice. Cover and allow to simmer for another 20 minutes until the water has evaporated. Gently fold the rice to combine with the Tin Fish sauce.

    5.Top with boiled eggs and sprigs of thyme. Tin Fish Biryani is served best with braised Dhal.


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    One Comment

    1. Thank you for this recipe. I've made it a few times and it was a hit every single time.

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