Like many memorable New York City adventures, my first foray into the city’s famous street food, chicken and rice, ensued very early in the morning, a 2 AM stop after a night out visiting my friend at Columbia.
The radiant glow of an unpretentious street cart on an otherwise dark street drew us in. Our stomachs famished from a night of dancing, we devoured the plate of saucy chicken and golden rice.
After leaving New York, I was eager to create a recipe to enjoy the iconic flavors at home. And while many of us may have relished it as a late-night snack, it’s equally as delicious to enjoy throughout the week.
A City Full of Street Carts
Between the 1980s and the early 1990s, halal carts began popping up around New York City. Now, 40+ years later, they’re a cultural icon.
Street carts have been part of the city’s culture since well before the ’80s, but food historians believe an influx of immigrants, mainly Muslim immigrants from Egypt and Bangladesh, likely kicked off the demand for the first halal dishes.
Origins of Halal-Cart Style Chicken Over Rice
Though the Halal Guys are arguably the most well-known purveyor of chicken and rice, the exact origins of the dish are more murky. As an Eater deep-dive argues, “There’s no clear ‘first’ in halal cart history (though many have staked the claim for themselves).”
However, a Grub Street oral history found several sources pointing to Trini Paki Boys as the first to enter the competition. Fatima Khan, Co-Owner of Trini Paki Boys, noted, “My husband and I both grew up eating chicken and rice, and both of us love spicy food. He is from Pakistan and I am from Trinidad. We knew the cuisines would go together, his rice with my curry chicken. When my husband and I came to the city, there were no halal carts. We decided to do our own.”
Whatever the origins, the resulting dish is intensely flavorful and deeply satisfying.
Note: After some deeper research, it appears that Trini Paki Boys has closed.
Components of Chicken Over Rice
I consulted several sources to develop this recipe, including various food publications, food blogs, and the Halal Guys. The result is a deliciously spiced chicken, seared until golden brown, served alongside buttery turmeric rice, with lots of sauce and fresh vegetables.
- Spiced chicken: The chicken marinates in a flavorful combination of ground spices, garlic, and lemon juice. And if you’re missing a spice or two, it just so happens to be very forgiving.
- Yellow rice: Instead of plain steamed rice, halal carts opt for a golden (and sometimes orangey) version. Turmeric provides the coloring, and shallots and butter offer additional flavor.
- White sauce: According to Halal Guys, there is no yogurt in their classic white sauce. That said, I like the combination of yogurt and mayonnaise as a creamy-tangy hybrid.
- Red hot sauce: The hot sauce is usually quite spicy, so I recommend harissa, Sriracha, or Tabasco. You’ll only need a few drops to do the job.
More American City Favorites
- Chicago-Style Deep Dish Pizza
- Chopped Cheese
- Nashville Hot Chicken
- Joe’s Special
Marinate the chicken:
In a large bowl, whisk lemon juice, oil, garlic, salt, oregano, coriander, allspice, cumin, and black pepper until combined. Add the chicken and toss to coat. Cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for 1-4 hours.
Soak the rice:
Meanwhile, prepare the rice. Rinse the rice in a fine-mesh sieve, combing through the grains with your fingers, until water appears almost clear, about 1 minute.
Transfer rice to a medium bowl, and add enough cold water to submerge the grains completely. Soak for at least 30 minutes up to 4 hours.
Make the white sauce:
In a medium bowl, whisk yogurt, mayonnaise, lemon juice, sugar, garlic, and black pepper until smooth. Add 1-3 tablespoons of water, as needed, until the sauce is drizzleable but not watery.
Taste, and adjust for salt as needed.
The sauce should taste creamy, slightly tangy, and well-seasoned. Optionally, add in sugar if necessary to balance the flavors.
Cook the rice:
Drain the rice through a sieve and set aside until ready to cook.
Set a large sauce pot over medium heat and melt butter with cardamom. Saute the diced shallots for 5-6 minutes until mostly softened. Stir in turmeric and saute for 1 minute until the mixture turns bright yellow.
Add the rice, chicken stock, and salt, and bring to a boil. Cover the pot, reduce heat to low, and cook for 20 minutes. Turn the heat off, then let the rice sit, covered, for 10 minutes before fluffing with a fork.
Cook the chicken thighs
Add 1 tablespoon oil to a large cast-iron skillet or saute pan set over medium heat.
Cooking in batches, carefully add chicken to the skillet with tongs and cook on one side for 5-6 minutes until nicely browned. Flip the chicken, and cook on the other side for 5-6 minutes until fully cooked. A thermometer inserted into the thickest part of a thigh should register at least 165°F (I prefer a temperature of 175°F to 180°F for a more tender texture).
Transfer to a plate or cutting board and let rest for 5 minutes. Repeat with the remaining batches. Once rested, cut the chicken into 1/3-inch to 1/2-inch strips.
To assemble, divide rice amongst serving bowls and top with chicken, tomato, lettuce, a generous white sauce drizzle and a squeeze of red sauce. Serve with warm pita.
Storage Instructions: Leftover chicken and white sauce can be stored in separate airtight containers in the fridge for 2-3 days. Leftover rice can be stored in an airtight container in the fridge for 3-4 days.
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