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 :
- Don’t use more than one stick of cinnamon for 3 cups of rice or less to avoid a cinnamon heavy rice.
- 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.
- 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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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Kenyan Chicken Pilau Recipe
- 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
- 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.