Make the best Swahili-style Kenyan pilau! Fragrant, easy-to-make, and delicious, this recipe is a must-try! Serve it with some Kachumbari for a complete meal!
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the best East African recipe
Eating plain rice can be boring, and making pilau rice is one of the best ways to transform plain rice. This Swahili pilau rice recipe makes for single-grained, and delicious rice that everyone will love. It can be made ahead, which makes it the perfect dish when pressed for time.
what is Pilau?
Pilau is a popular East African rice dish (especially in Kenya and Tanzania), made by cooking rice with beef, chicken, or vegetables, in broth and spices. It goes by many names such as pilaf (US) and pilau (UK). The earliest documented recipe goes back to the 20th Century scholar Abu Ali Sina.
Kenyan pilau has Indian and Arab origins but tends more towards the Arab version. It differs from the Indian one due to its brown color, obtained from browning meat and frying onions. Indian pilaf, on the other hand, is yellow in color (the yellow color comes from the use of either saffron or turmeric, sometimes both).
Growing up in Kenya, pilau was such an exceptional dish and was only served during special occasions such as weddings. While it is more commonly consumed nowadays, it remains one of the meals that have to be present, whenever there is a celebration of some sort.
This is a simple summary, see the recipe card below for the full instructions.
- long-grain basmati rice - basmati is the preferred choice when making Swahili-style Kenyan pilau rice, due to its fluffy nature. It is also naturally fragrant and absorbs the flavor from spices and broth more easily. You can use other types of rice but I highly recommend using long grain basmati rice.
- ground pilau masala spice - I find that homemade pilau spice mix tastes way better than the ones I buy in the stores, but the choice is yours, simply buy your spice if you prefer.
- diced stewing beef – while this recipe uses beef, you can also use chicken, lamb, and goat meat or make it vegetarian by leaving them out altogether.
- crushed garlic and ginger - you will use a tablespoon of this to boil the meat, and another tablespoon to cook the pilau rice.
- bay leaves (optional).
- stock cube (optional).
- whole spices - in addition to the ground pilau masala, I like to use half of a teaspoon of each of the whole spices namely: cumin seeds, green cardamom pods, black peppercorns, cloves, and two cinnamon sticks. (double this portion of whole spices, if making your own spice, and use one-half whole or unground, as described in the recipe card below). Blend the other half to make the pilau masala seasoning (I show you how to make your own pilau masala spice here). Most Swahili homes actually only use whole spices, but I find combining both to be the best.
- cooking oil – ghee, butter, olive, or sunflower oil are just a few examples that you can use, but when it comes to the cooking oil, there are no restrictions, simply use what you have.
- beef broth and hot water - While water alone is good to use, I like to combine water and broth by reserving some beef broth, once I have boiled the meat. I then use this to cook the pilau rice.
- potatoes – this is an optional ingredient that some people swear by. Others, on the other hand, claim it does not belong to the authentic recipe. You can also use half a cup of green peas.
- onion – these are key in giving the pilau rice a wonderful brown color. Red or yellow onions are fine to use, I do not recommend using spring onions (scallions).
- tomato paste – this gives the Kenyan pilau a beautiful color, but be careful as too much will turn your pilau sour or make it go bad quickly.
- salt to taste.
How to make East African Swahili Pilau
This is a summary of how to make East-African Swahili pilau. The detailed instructions, as well as a step-by-step video has been provided in the printable recipe card below.
- If not using store-bought seasoning, prepare the ground pilau masala spice by roasting the whole spices (cumin seeds, green cardamom pods, cinnamon sticks, black peppercorn, and cloves). Use a food processor or coffee grinder to process it into powder.
- Next, clean the rice by rinsing it in a bowl until the water is no longer cloudy. Once clean, soak the rice using cold water.
- Soak the whole spices in a cup or a small ramekin.
- Boil the meat using water, salt, and the stock cube until tender. This could be goat, beef, lamb or poultry meat, it all depends on what you like. Sieve any excess broth and set it aside, for use when cooking the pilau rice.
- Fry the meat and onions until brown, then add the garlic, ginger, and tomato paste. Add the soaked whole spices plus any liquid leftover from soaking the spices, the pilau masala powder, and the potatoes.
- Next, add hot water (plus any reserved broth), followed by the rice.
- Finally, cook until the rice is tender and all the liquid has evaporated and then serve.
- Double the portion of whole spices, and use one half to make ground pilau masala. Soak the other half whole, in water.
- As a general rule, each cup of rice will require two cups of liquid (water, broth, or both) but this will also depend on the type of rice you are using.
- I used 1 ½ tablespoons ground pilau spice but use 2-3 tablespoons if you prefer your pilau more fragrant.
- Start at high heat and then reduce the heat later. This is a beneficial tip that will help make your Kenyan pilau fluffy and single-grained.
- Covering the pilau rice with aluminum foil or a lid towards the end of cooking is a step that I highly recommend as it will have the pilau cooking in its own steam, to give you fluffy single-grained pilau rice.
- The cooking time will also vary, depending on the rice variety, as some take longer to cook than others. If unsure, always start with a rice to liquid ratio of 1:2 and increase the liquid if needed, a little at a time.
- Rice dried out before it is cooked through? Then simply boil a cup of water, stir in a quarter of a teaspoon of salt, and slowly (a quarter of a cup at a time), add this to the cooking rice. Use a wooden spoon or a fork to poke holes on the surface, so the water seeps to the bottom of the pot faster. When adding water, do not add too much at the same time, as it may end up soggy.
frequently asked questions
To cook plain pilau, add some cooking oil to a pan then fry onions at medium heat, until brown and fragrant. Next stir in two tablespoons of pilau masala and a teaspoon of salt (this amount is for two cups of rice). Add five cups of water or a combination of broth and water to the pot and allow this to boil. Next, stir in cleaned rice and allow to cook until all of the water has been absorbed.
Pilau gets its brown color from frying meat (chicken, beef, lamb), pilau spice, and onions at low heat. The spices, caramelizing onions, and the fried meat brown up, giving it its brown color. Some people also like to enhance the color by using 1-2 tablespoons of dark soy sauce. To brown pilau without meat, simply use a lot of onions ( about 2-3 diced large onions) and slowly fry this with spices at medium to low heat, until brown.
Cooked pilau rice can be kept in the fridge for up to 4-5 days when stored in suitable airtight containers or resealable plastic bags.
more tasty African dishes
Interested in learning more about what the continent has to offer? Start with this article about the benefits of Mouloukhieh leaves (Saluyot, as well as the health benefits of omena fish. Also try out some Kenyan Samosas or Nigerian Jollof Rice.
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East African Swahili Pilau
- 2 cups long-grain basmati rice
- 1½ tablespoon pilau masala spice ground
- 1 lb stewing beef diced
- 2 tablespoon garlic crushed
- 2 tablespoon ginger crushed or minced
- 4 bay leaves
- 1 stock cube (optional)
- ⅓ cup cooking oil
- 5 cups beef broth and water (a combination of both)
- 4 potatoes peeled and cubed (optional)
- 2 medium-sized onions chopped
- 1 tablespoon tomato paste
- ¾ teaspoon salt
Whole Spices (*See Recipe Notes Below)
- ½ teaspoon cumin seeds *
- ½ teaspoon green cardamom pods *
- 2 cinnamon sticks *
- ½ teaspoon black peppercorns *
- ½ teaspoon cloves *
- If not using store-bought seasoning, double the portion of whole spices and use one half to prepare the pilau masala spice by roasting the whole spices namely, (cumin seeds, green cardamom pods, cinnamon sticks, black peppercorn, and cloves). Use a food processor or coffee grinder to grind this into pilau masala powder. Use the other half whole or unground, as described in the steps below.
- Next, transfer the rice to a bowl and clean it. Essentially, you want to fill the bowl about three-quarters way with water, run your hand through to stir, then drain. This is the initial rinse. Repeat this process about three times or until clean. The water should be translucent and not too cloudy. Fill the bowl with water again and allow the rice to soak.
- While the rice is soaking, transfer the whole spices to a cup filled with a third of a cup of water and also soak.
- In a medium-sized pot, add the cubed stewing beef, salt, stock cube (optional) crushed garlic and ginger, two bay leaves, and enough water to cover the meat. Cover and allow to cook under medium heat for about 30 minutes, until the meat is tender. Use a sieve to sieve the meat then set the broth aside, to be used in cooking the pilau.
- Using the same pot, heat the cooking oil and add the beef and onions. Reduce the heat to low and fry for about 5 minutes, or until the onions are brown, stirring continuously so it does not burn. The meat will also brown up during this process.
- Stir in the minced garlic and ginger, tomato paste soaked whole spices plus the liquid from soaking. Also, stir in the ground pilau masala and potatoes, then fry for two minutes.
- Measure hot water and the broth previously retained from boiling the meat, using a measuring cup. The reserved broth and water should total five cups.
- Add the measured hot water and broth to the pot. Next, add the rice then increase the heat to a high, and cook uncovered for 7-8 minutes, until much but not all of the water has been absorbed. Check and add more salt if necessary.
- Reduce the heat to low, cover the pot with aluminum foil or a lid and cook for a further 5 minutes, until all the liquid has been absorbed and the pilau rice is cooked through.
- Allow it to sit for 5 minutes, before serving. Serve Swahili Kenyan pilau hot, with kachumbari and enjoy!
- Double the portion of whole spices, and use one half to make ground pilau masala. Soak the other half whole, in water.
- As a general rule, each cup of rice will require two cups of liquid (water, broth, or both) but this will also depend on the rice type being used.
- Rice dried out before it is cooked through? Then simply boil a cup of water, stir in a quarter of a teaspoon of salt, and slowly add this to the cooking rice (a quarter of a cup at a time). Use a fork to poke holes on the surface, so the water seeps to the bottom of the pot faster. Do not add too much at the same time, as it may end up soggy.
- If too soggy, then rinse rice using cold water to remove starch and place it in the oven to dry. If you are using a jiko (charcoal stove), cover it with an aluminum lid or foil and place some hot coals on top to allow it to dry.
- Covering your pilau with aluminum foil or a lid towards the end of cooking is a step that I highly recommend as it will have the pilau rice cooking in its own steam, to give you fluffy single-grained pilau rice.
- The cooking time will also vary, depending on the variety of rice being used. If unsure, always start with a rice to liquid ratio of 1:2 and increase the liquid if needed, a little at a time.
- To get fluffy single-grained pilau, set the heat at a high during the initial 7 minutes of cooking, then reduce towards the end.