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Pilau rice on a plate, served with some kachumbari salad.

East African Swahili Pilau

Swahili Kenyan Pilau is an East African fragrant rice dish made by cooking rice with some type of meat or vegetables, garlic, ginger, and spices. It is usually served with Kachumbari (a tomato and onion salad).
Course Dinner, Lunch, Main Course
Cuisine African, East African, Kenyan, Swahili
Diet Gluten Free
Prep Time 15 minutes
Cook Time 20 minutes
Resting time 5 minutes
Total Time 40 minutes
Servings 6
Calories 590kcal


  • 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
  • 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)
  • 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.
    Pilau masala spice in a spice container
  • 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.
    boiling meat in a pot
  • 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.
    Frying beef, onion, garlic, ginger, and spice in a pot.
  • 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.
    Pilau rice and beef cooking in a pot.
  • 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!
    Pilau rice on a plate, served with some kachumbari salad.



Double the portion of whole spices, and use one half to make ground pilau masala. Soak the other half whole, in water.
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 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.
Serving Suggestions
This Kenyan Swahili Pilau is best served with kachumbari or nyama choma. You can also serve it with some beef stew, on the side.


Calories: 590kcal | Carbohydrates: 82g | Protein: 26g | Fat: 17g | Saturated Fat: 3g | Polyunsaturated Fat: 2g | Monounsaturated Fat: 11g | Cholesterol: 47mg | Sodium: 539mg | Potassium: 1046mg | Fiber: 6g | Sugar: 3g | Vitamin A: 56IU | Vitamin C: 32mg | Calcium: 86mg | Iron: 4mg