Throwback Thursday: Chicken Akhni

Throwback Thursday: Chicken Akhni
Tony Jackman’s chicken akhni. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

It always amazes me that there are so few ‘Cape Malay’ restaurants in the Mother City. There are probably more Thai, Greek and Mexican restaurants – it’s quite absurd. Chicken Akhni is my favourite dish of the cuisine, and it ought to be on restaurant menus all over the place.


I adore the cuisine known as Cape Malay. It sings of the origins of the old Spice Route and I imagine the aromas of akhni and breyani, koesisters and boeber to be redolent of the old Cape kitchens. Dhania and borrie, koljander and jeera, that’s what the house must have smelt like when the cook who, despite being a slave or a descendant of slaves (until the abolition of slavery in 1834), held a certain power over their “masters” and “mistresses” by dint of their prowess in the kitchen. The cuisine that came our way on the great and evil ships gave us humanity and also a Cape Malay cooking tradition that continued to sail right through the greater nation’s cuisine and is a mainstay of it to this day. It is a cuisine not to be underestimated and it is remarkable that it has remained largely intact over the centuries since. 

Chicken Akhni is my favourite dish of the cuisine. Mutton breyani is a close second. I am in awe of home cooks, never mind chefs, who run up a five-star chicken akhni between getting home from work and supper time. In my newsroom days, a colleague would bring in a pot of akhni on her birthday to share with us. That is my benchmark in trying to pull it off myself with this recipe. The taste, but also the texture of it, the way the rice melds with the sauce, the way everything is a part of the whole. I hope I have succeeded. It tasted right to me. And if chicken akhni is new to you, if you’ve never thought of making it, turn a corner now and make this part of your family supper repertoire. Add a few chutneys and sambals, a basket of samoosas and chilli bites as a starter and a bowl of boeber for dessert, and you have a dinner party. (If you use more sago, boeber transforms from a spicy, milky drink into a pudding.)

The predominant flavour of an akhni spice mix has always struck me as being turmeric (borrie), and I’m talking about my senses and palate taking in the flavour and aroma of the akhnis I have eaten over the years. But most recipes I have found use an equal quantity of turmeric with other spices such as barishap (fennel), jeera (cumin), koljander (coriander), cardamom, “stick cinnamon” (usually cassia bark but can be cinnamon), chilli powder and of course ginger and garlic. At the risk of taking my cooking life into my own hands, I doubled the quantity of turmeric in my recipe, and I also used a smidgen of saffron. If my Cape Malay cooking guru in Cape Town is reading this (you know who you are), please feel free to put me right. (I know you will.)

I’m not really a fan of potatoes in a curry, but they are a traditi0nal part of an akhni along with rice that is cooked into the dish, rather than being served separately, so I did use them.


4 chicken breast fillets, sliced about 1 cm thick (or use 6 to 8 whole chicken thighs, skin removed – most akhnis I have eaten in Cape Town have used thighs)

2 medium onions, sliced

1 Tbsp canola oil

1 Tbsp ghee (clarified butter)

2 small cinnamon sticks or 3 or 4 pieces of cassia bark

3 whole cloves

3 allspice (or ¼ tsp ground)

2 tsp chilli powder

1 tsp ground turmeric (borrie)

1 tsp barishap (ground fennel)

1 tsp ground cumin/jeera

2 tsp ground coriander (koljander)

6 cardamom pods/elachi

1 bay leaf

2 garlic cloves, minced

3 cm fresh ginger, finely grated

2 large tomatoes, blitzed in a food processor

1 green chilli, chopped

3 medium potatoes, parboiled for 10 minutes and cut into bite sized chunks

500 ml/ 2 cups cooked basmati rice, drained

A few strands of saffron

A few sprigs of curry leaves

A few sprigs dhania/ coriander leaves, chopped


Salt to taste


Cook the rice in salted water until tender and drain.

Sauté the onions until caramelised, on a gentle heat.

Add the chicken pieces, stir to coat with the 0nion, and cook for 5 minutes, stirring so all sides of the meat are lightly browned.

Add all the spices, cover, and simmer gently on a low heat for 30 minutes. Stir now and then so it doesn’t catch.

Add the potato chunks, tomato, and cover with water. Bring to a boil and then reduce heat to a simmer and cook for about 15 minutes. Avoid too much stirring as you don’t want the potatoes to disintegrate.

Fold in the cooked rice. Don’t overwork it or the akhni will become a mess.

Stir in the saffron and curry leaves, cover and let the pot steam on a very low heat for 20 minutes.

Garnish with chopped coriander. DM/TGIFood 

To enquire about Tony Jackman’s book, foodSTUFF (Human & Rousseau) please email him at [email protected] 

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  • Stephen Gardiner says:

    Looking at the timings in this recipe, it appears that sliced chicken breast, which I would normally give 10 minutes or less to avoid making it dry and tough, is cooked for 1 hour, 10 minutes. Is this intentional?

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