This Swahili Kenyan pilau rice is a must-try! Rice is cooked with beef, potatoes, and spices to give you the most delicious, fluffy, and fragrant dish! This recipe is naturally gluten-free, making it perfect for those with gluten sensitivities, and it can be made ahead, which is great for meal prep.
Growing up in Kenya, it was so special and only served during special occasions such as weddings. Each village had its own group of aunties who specialized in making Kenyan pilau and who would be called on during such events because of their culinary expertise. To date, the queues to the pilau and chapati serving dishes are always the longest, and you will understand why once you make your own!
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).
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, 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 a teaspoon each of whole spices namely: cumin seeds, green cardamon 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 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 pila 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
The first step in making East African Swahili pilau basically involves boiling the beef so it is tender enough. Again, this could be some lamb or poultry meat, it all depends on what you like. Once the meat is tender, the next step is to cook the meat with rice (you can also skip meat or poultry altogether, and make it vegetarian).
Step by Step Instructions
If not using store-bought seasoning, prepare the ground 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 into powder.
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 it to soak.
While the rice soaks, transfer the whole spices to a cup filled with a third cup of water, and soak.
In a medium-sized pot, add the cubed stewing beef, salt, stock cube (optional), the minced 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, or till the meat is tender. Use a sieve to sieve the meat then set the broth aside, to be used for cooking the pilau rice.
Using the same pot, heat the cooking oil at medium heat. Add the beef, bay leaf, and sliced onions.
Lower the heat to a low and fry for about 5 minutes, or till the onions are brown, stirring continuously so it does not burn. The meat will also brown up during this process. Stir in the crushed garlic and ginger, and the tomato paste.
Next, add the soaked whole spices plus any liquid leftover from soaking the spices. Also, stir in the ground pilau masala seasoning and potatoes then fry for 2 minutes.
Measure hot water and the broth retained from boiling the meat using a measuring cup. I recommend having the reserved broth and hot water totaling 5 cups, but this is subject to the variety of rice being used (see the useful recipe tips below).
Add the measured hot water and broth to the pot, stir briefly using a wooden spoon or a fork. 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. You basically want to start at high heat then reduce the heat later. This is a beneficial tip that I learned from my sister-in-law about 10 years ago and it is what will make your Kenyan pilau so fluffy and single-grained.
Finally, lower the heat, cover the pot with a lid or an aluminum foil and cook for a further 5 minutes until all the liquid has been absorbed and it is cooked through. Allow your Kenyan pilau rice to sit for 5 minutes, before serving.
Useful Tips from my Kitchen
- 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.
- Covering the pilau rice with aluminium 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 quarter of a teaspoon of salt and slowly (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.
Common Questions Related to this Recipe
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 Kenyan Dishes and Useful Articles
- East African Kuku Paka.
- Tasty Ugali.
- Mouth-watering Nigerian Jollof Rice
- Kenyan samosas
- A hot cup of ginger tea with milk - Tangawizi Chai.
- Easy and flavorful Samaki wa Kupaka.
- Chips Mayai.
- Benefits of Mouloukhieh (Saluyot)
Printable Recipe Card
East African Swahili Pilau
- 1 medium-sized pot
- 1 Bowl
- 1 cup or mug
- 1 (wooden) spoon or fork
- a medium-sized cooking pot or pan
- 2 cups long-grain basmati rice
- 1½ Tbsp pilau masala spice ground
- 1 lb stewing beef diced
- 2 Tbsp garlic crushed
- 2 Tbsp 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 Tbsp tomato paste
- ¾ tsp salt
Whole Spices (*See Recipe Notes Below)
- ½ tsp cumin seeds *
- ½ tsp green cardamom pods *
- 2 cinnamon sticks *
- ½ tsp black peppercorns *
- ½ tsp 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 it 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.
- 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!
- 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.