Kenyan Chicken Pilau (East African Pilau with Chicken)

February 9, 2015 (Last Updated: March 24, 2020)

Featuring a delicious East African pilau made with chicken, this Kenyan Chicken Pilau recipe is an elevated chicken and Kenyan Pilau dish that is very easy to make!

Kenyan Chicken Pilaf: Easy Chicken Pilau Recipe

While I might call this a Kenyan Chicken Pilau, pilau is honestly a staple dish eaten all over East Africa. Pilau rice is as beloved and synonymous with East Africans as Jollof rice is with West Africans; however, with regards to popularity, global associations of jollof rice with the Nigerian version mirror the same associations of pilau rice with the Kenyan version. A google search will reveal that the Kenyan pilau has become the more celebrated version of the East African Pilau.  Kenyan Pilau is usually served during special occasions like public holidays, weddings  and religious celebrations like Eid or Christmas. While I customized this East African Pilau with chicken, pilau can generally be adapted towards vegan or vegetarian diets and meat eaters alike. The choice of meat used can also be adapted to your preference.

Pilau Origins in East Africa

Kenyan Pilau  was traditionally an Asian dish  with roots in Middle and far East Asia prepared from rice and an array of historically oriental spices that are now available and grown in Kenya and East Africa. Many of the ingredients used in Kenyan and East African pilau like mdalasini (cinnamon), iliki (garlic), karafu (cloves), pilipili kali (hot pepper), pilipili hoho (mild pepper) and dania (coriander) were imports from Far Eastern countries, which due to coastal trade and commerce, introduced Arab and Persian influences into Kenyan and East African culture almost a thousand years ago. Pilau is suspected to have arrived in Kenya through the Swahili coast as early as or even before 1492 due to the heavy presence of Arab and Persian traders.  The Swahili coast is a coastal stretch of land bordering Kenya, Tanzania, Southern Somalia and Northern Mozambique and has been the site of  cultural and commercial exchanges between East Africa and the outside world – particularly the Middle East, Asia, and Europe – since as far back as or even before the 8th century A.D. The pilau recipe most likely spread from Kenya into the landlocked regions of East Africa through Arab and Swahili trade caravans that established contact with elites from the interior from as early as the Fifteenth Century. Since then Pilau has joined the ranks not only as one of Kenya’s national food staples… but as a favorite staple in many homes as well, including mine!

Preparing the Spice Mix

What makes a Kenyan Pilau special are the spices used in making it. Each cook tends to have a slight variation in the quantity of the different spices in their Pilau spice mix, so even though I do not have an exact ratio, I use these basic rules to guide me in mixing the spices :

  1. Don’t use more than one stick of cinnamon for 3 cups of rice or less to avoid a cinnamon heavy rice.
  2. Don’t use more than 1 tablespoon of cumin for 3 cups of rice or less to avoid down playing the other spices. You still want to taste the spice medley in this recipe, and if you use too much cumin, it tends to over power the flavor.
  3. For 3 cup of rice or less do not use more than 6-8 cloves. Cloves tend to numb your mouth if you add too much to this dish.

Other popular spices used in East African pilau but not included in this recipe are ginger and turmeric powder.

How to Make Kenyan Pilau with Chicken

Toast the Spices

Start by toasting the spices on a pan over a medium flame. Toast the cinnamon stick, cardamom pods, and cloves until fragrant (takes about 2-3 minutes), then toast the cumin seeds, black peppercorns, and coriander seeds on medium heat until fragrant (for 1-2 minutes).

tasting East African pilau spices in a frying pan

Grind the Spices

With a mortar and pestle, or in a spice grinder, coarsely grind all the spices except the cinnamon stick, and set aside.I love using a mortar and pestle to grind a lot of my spices, and the spices in this recipe are no exception. Typically, Pilau spices are ground coarsely in a mortar and pestle, but a spice grinder could also do the job as well. Its is always better to  grind your spices yourself as opposed to purchasing a Pilau spice mix; freshly toasted and ground spices make for a better tasting Pilau as opposed to an already ground Pilau mix that can be bought at some stores. I cannot rave enough about the benefits of grinding your own spices with a mortar and pestle for this recipe, so I won’t talk too much about it.toasted East African pilau spices ground coarsely in mortar with pestle

Cook the Chicken Pilau

Heat the oil in a pot over medium heat, then add in the sliced red onions. Allow to cook until lightly brown, then add the chicken, crushed garlic, ground spiced, and bouillon cube.

Cooking chicken in pot with spice and onions.

2-step photo: first showing pot with sliced red onions in oil and second showing the chicken, crushed garlic, ground spiced, and bouillon cube.

Stir and allow the chicken to brown slightly. This should take about 5 minutes.

Once the chicken is browned, stir in the rice for another two minutes, then add the coconut milk and water.

At this stage, adjust the salt if necessary (I added an extra tsp or so of salt), and add the cinnamon stick.

Cover the pot, and allow the Pilau to cook on low heat for 20 minutes. To make sure the pot is extra airtight, I used foil to seal the pot first before putting the lid on the pot.chicken cooked in pot with foil paper cover

After 20 minutes, turn off the flame, and set the pot aside covered for 5 minutes. After 5 minutes, uncover the pot, fluff the rice, and serve.East African Pilau cooked with chicken in pot

I enjoy my Chicken Pilau with a side of Kenyan salsa, Kachumbari (let me know if you want a recipe for that), and some ginger beer.  Close up shot of Kenyan Chicken Pilau Rice

Enjoy My chicken pilau recipe and don’t forget to let me know how it turned out!

A Few Thoughts on Bouillon Cubes

So just to let you in one some of my culinary musings,  I recently went on a brief reflective journey, and as part of my reflection, I thought about food… A lot!! Don’t laugh at me, but as part of my food reflections, I found myself thinking a lot about bouillon cubes (yeah, you know, that and mysteries of life and the universe… the usual stuff..Lol!). There were a lot of thoughts about my evolving bouillon philosophy that I’d like to share. Now at this point some of you might be thinking there’s nothing wrong with regular use of bouillon cubes, while others might brush it off as the bane of all things natural and unprocessed. Well since I am weird, I fall between these two opinions. I typically try to omit bouillon cubes as much as I can in most of my recipes because I constantly challenge myself to let the natural taste of ingredients shine through rather than having flavors be masked by the sameness of that familiar bouillon umami flavor. I must confess to a great sense of personal accomplishment, whenever a dish I prepared tasted even better or sometimes indistinguishable from the bouillon flavored equivalent, without the need for bouillon cubes in my African cooking (specifically since it is such a critical element in African cuisine). There is  some tension in wrestling with both extremes, but I enjoy the challenge because it motivates me as a cook and aspiring recipe developer.

What I’m trying to say is that, while that tension usually pushes me to the no-bouillon side of the spectrum, this East African pilau recipe is easily one of the exceptions! I enjoy using bouillon cubes (just one…lol) in my Kenyan chicken pilau and it tastes exceptional specifically because the Kenyan pilau is one of those unique ethnic dishes where the mix of local spices possesses enough presence and flavor authority to work side by side with the bouillon flavor (instead of being overcome by it as is quite often the case). Maybe my bias for bouillon in my Kenyan Chicken Pilau is born out of protective nostalgia because of how I learned it or maybe I simply have not explored  any non-bouillon alternatives. But this is one of the rare occasions where I don’t have a single desire to reinvent the wheel. This remains my favorite way to cook this Kenyan pilau and it turns out great each time!

Please be sure to rate this recipe and leave a comment below if you tried it! Also while you’re here why not take a quick second and subscribe to my newsletter to get email notifications on new recipes, click the links to FOLLOW ME ON PINTEREST or INSTAGRAM? You can catch some behind the scenes action, my shopping hauls, personalized tips and friend-only recipes with videos on my Instagram. Also pin this recipe for later and explore some of my favorite recipes on Pinterest and if you love it as much as I know you will, SHARE with some friends! 

Kenyan Chicken Pilaf: Easy Chicken Pilau Recipe
Print Recipe
5 from 1 vote

Kenyan Chicken Pilau Recipe

Featuring a delicious East African pilau made with chicken, this Kenyan Chicken Pilau recipe is an elevated chicken and Kenyan Pilau dish that is very easy to make!
Cook Time35 mins
Total Time35 mins
Course: Main Course
Cuisine: East African, Kenyan
Servings: 6 -8
Calories: 549kcal
Author: Yummy Medley

Ingredients

  • 2 pounds of chopped bone-in chicken
  • 3 cups of long grain basmati rice
  • 2 cups of coconut milk + 2 cups of water
  • 4 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 1 large red onion sliced
  • 4 cloves of garlic crushed
  • 10 green cardamon pods
  • 8 cloves
  • 1 tbsp cumin seeds
  • 1 tsp black pepper corns
  • 1 tsp coriander seeds
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 1 bouillon cube
  • Salt to taste

Instructions

  • Start by toasting the spices on a pan over a medium flame. Toast the cinnamon stick, cardamon pods, and cloves until fragrant (takes about 2-3 minutes), then toast the cumin seeds, black pepper corns, and coriander seeds on medium heat until fragrant (for 1-2 minutes).
  • With a mortar and pestle, or in a spice grinder, coarsely grind all the spices except the cinnamon stick, and set aside.
  • Heat the oil in a pot over medium heat, then add in the sliced red onions. Allow to cook until lightly brown, then add the chicken, crushed garlic, ground spiced, and bouillon cube.
  • Stir and allow the chicken to brown slightly. This should take about 5 minutes.
  • Once the chicken is browned, stir in the rice for another two minutes, then add the coconut milk and water.
  • At this stage, adjust the salt if necessary (I added an extra tsp or so of salt), and add the cinnamon stick.
  • Cover the pot, and allow the Pilau to cook on low heat for 20 minutes. To make sure the pot is extra airtight, I used foil to seal the pot first before putting the lid on the pot.
  • After 20 minutes, turn off the flame, and set the pot aside covered for 5 minutes. After 5 minutes, uncover the pot, fluff the rice, and serve.

Notes

Chicken Pilau Nutrition

The estimated calorie count and nutritional information for one serving (meaning a plate) of chicken pilau is shown below. Please note that the nutritional information below, including ingredients and calculations is sourced from a third party site and should be considered estimates. Actual nutritional content will depend on the brands used, measuring standards, portion sizes and other factors.

14 Comments

  • Reply
    ChiO
    February 12, 2015 at 2:17 pm

    Looks good! I should try this – Not everytime TPO based rice and sauces. Waiting patiently for the mortar and pestle giveaway 🙂

    • Reply
      Ms. Yum
      February 12, 2015 at 3:25 pm

      Awesome ChiO! Let me know how it comes out once you try the recipe. Basmati rice used to make me nervous, but this recipe comes out good every time.

  • Reply
    Kez
    April 3, 2016 at 7:51 am

    I make a mean pilau too … but I include ginger, tumeric, saffron, raisins/sultanas or cranberries, caramelised julliened carrots & orange zest.

    • Reply
      Christine Karamagi
      June 18, 2017 at 8:32 pm

      What basmati rice did you use?
      Also, after 20 minutes, I still had a ton of liquid. It’s now going 20 minutes in and there’s still liquid.
      What do you think is going on?

      • Reply
        Ms. Yum
        June 18, 2017 at 11:33 pm

        Hi Christine,
        I used a store brand of Basmati rice. I think the issue might be with the type of basmati rice you used. I measured the amount of liquid used in this recipe based on the amount of water called for on the back of the package of the basmati. If the basmati you are using is parboiled, you may need to use less liquid to cook the rice. Most basmati brands call for 1 cup of rice to 1 1/2 to 1 3/4 cups of water. Read the packaging of your basmati to see if you require less liquid. Also, you might need to turn up the heat as well especially if the liquid is not absorbing quickly enough. I hope this helps.

  • Reply
    Christi
    January 1, 2018 at 8:45 pm

    5 stars
    Yum! This was wonderful! Cooked it following almost exactly to the recipe (had all of the spices already ground so I didn’t roast and grind my own…though I want to try that someday). It was a great adventure to start 2018 full of flavor!

    • Reply
      Lois
      January 2, 2018 at 12:16 pm

      That is awesome to hear Christi! I am glad you like it!

  • Reply
    Ani
    January 30, 2018 at 3:37 pm

    Followed the instructions and it was perfect – so easy to cook! A very fragrant and tasty dish that will feed a family. I also added in some potatoes (like they do in Zanzibar) which bulks out the dish when you’ve got a lot of mouths to feed. Sultanas or peas might be a nice addition too. Thanks Lois can’t wait to try your next recipe!

    • Reply
      Lois
      February 5, 2018 at 9:41 am

      I am so glad the recipe worked for you Ani. It usually comes with potatoes in Kenya as well (I learnt from a Kenyan friend of mine), but I skipped it in this recipe. I have never tried it with sultanas or peas, but it is something I will have to consider for the next time I make it.

  • Reply
    Connie
    February 24, 2018 at 9:09 pm

    This is the authentic taste!

    • Reply
      Lois
      March 15, 2018 at 2:18 pm

      I’m glad you liked it!

  • Reply
    Tina
    March 29, 2018 at 9:40 am

    Yummylicious I can’t wait to try this thank you

    • Reply
      Lois. O
      March 29, 2018 at 12:08 pm

      Let me know if you like it once you try it Tina. Looking forward to hearing back from you.

  • Reply
    Ayesha
    May 24, 2019 at 8:11 pm

    i love pilao…. my add star anise and fennels aswell while making the broth.. andshe used to strain stir fry the meat after its is cooked in broth with some youghrt then she add the broth and rice for further cooking…i mixed your recipe with her and it turned out yummlicious…

  • Leave a Reply

    This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.