My recipe for chicken pilau

16.03, Sunday 2 Mar 2014

The following was originally posted on Medium and has since been moved here.


  • Chicken (500g or 1 lb)
  • Onions (2)
  • Tomatoes (2)
  • Potatoes (6 medium-sized)
  • Basmati rice (3 cups)
  • Greek yoghurt (150–170g or 1 cup)
  • Vegetable stock (5 cups)
  • Frozen peas (1 cup)


Green chillies (4), cinnamon bark, black peppercorns, cloves, green cardamon pods, cumin seeds, garlic paste, ginger paste, turmeric, chilli powder, mustard seeds, fresh coriander.


Wash 3 cups of rice and leave to soak.

In a half cup of water, put

  • 1 big tbsp broken-up cinnamon sticks
  • 1 tsp black peppercorns
  • 1 small tsp cloves
  • 1 tsp green cardamon pods
  • 2 big tsp cumin seeds

This is the whole garam masala. Leave it to soak.

A pilau is a spiced rice-based dish where the rice is cooked in the stock and the flavours of the other ingredients, as opposed to a biryani where the rice is pre-cooked. This pilau is made with chicken, rice and potatoes.

This recipe is a combination of two recipes from A taste of our cooking by the Ismaili Women’s Organisation. I’ve added notes of my own, primarily details about cooking spiced food that would be taken for granted by almost everyone reading the book, but that I’ve picked up along the way.

It’s not a particularly complicated recipe. It’s the one I use.

For me, when I think of pilaus I think of family gatherings where dozens of people are eating and there are chapattis and vegetable curries and all kinds of things. I think of one of my aunts cooking.

A pilau is an easy comfort food. This quantity will last a week, tasting better every day.

In a saucepan:

  • 150–175g Greek yoghurt
  • 1 big tbsp garlic paste
  • 1 big tbsp ginger paste
  • 2 fat green chillies, kept whole, stabbed on both sides

Get the yoghurt mixture good and hot, then add 3 large chicken breasts (about 500g or 1 lb) chopped into about 10 pieces.

Cook, boiling, until tender (that is, until the chicken is pretty much done).

Leave in the saucepan, and put to the side.

Peel 6 medium potatoes, cut them into 1 inch cubes. Parboil. Drain and put to the side.

A few years ago I was on the tube to work and I had one of those scent memories that is so strong it’s an interruption. The olfactory bulb, the part of the nose that does the smelling, isn’t separate from the brain like the eyes or the ears: It’s part of the brain itself, wired deep into the ancient vaults that deal with emotion and memory.

And so it was, I was right back in my grandparents’ house in Nairobi, where we’d visit when I was a kid, and there were all the smells and memories, all the family and old stories, all the people, some now gone, and me still on the tube.

I looked around for whoever it was who smelt like that, whatever had triggered the memory, thinking someone nearby smelt like that back room in Nairobi, then realised — I had cooked the chicken pilau on my own, as an adult, for the first time the evening before — the ginger, garlic, and spices were coming out of my skin, and it was me.

A happy connection to my roots.

By this point in the recipe, my house already smells pretty good. It keeps getting better.

Make the following in the pot you’ll be leaving the pilau in for the rest of the week, so all the flavour stays. This should be the largest pot you own.

Toast the following until it all smells great but nowhere near burnt. Toasting means cooking on the dry pan bottom, moving the spices around a little.

  • 1 tbsp coriander powder
  • 1 tbsp cumin powder
  • 1 tsp turmeric
  • Half tsp hot chilli powder
  • Half tsp mustard seeds

Add 2–4 tbsp vegetable oil, make a paste and get it good and hot.

Fry onions until light brown… they should be only just done.

Add the whole garam masala and boil away the water.

Spoon the chicken and chillies out of the yoghurt. Fry until the chicken
is fully coated and done. It should be moist, and coloured but not going brown. Make sure the ingredients are fully mixed and not stuck to the bottom of the pan.

(Drain the rice.)

(Prepare 5 cups of vegetable stock (6 heaped tsp of powder) in boiling water,
and throw in a cup or two frozen peas. Give a minute for the peas to

(Preheat the oven to 160C/320F.)

To the pot: Add the remaining yoghurt from the chicken saucepan, 2 more green chillies (prepared as before), and 2 tomatoes chopped into eighths. Mix and cook briefly.

Add the potatoes and vegetable stock. Stir thoroughly.

Bring to the boil, salt to taste.

Add the drained rice, stir once, bring back to the boil, then cover and simmer for 15–20 minutes or until the rice is cooked.

Uncover, and steam dry by placing in the oven for 30 minutes.

The pilau will be rich with some chilli heat, not too hot. When I eat it, the spices fill me, my skin tingles, I’m full of memories; Suddenly I’m three dimensional and completely solid, the internal ballast of history and family.

Eat with yoghurt and fresh coriander.


I usually make this chicken pilau with fresh curry leaves. I love the taste of curry leaves so I use them liberally: A couple crumpled then dropped in whole whenever chillies are added, and a couple more chopped and cooked up when the spices are toasted.