Zanzibar Pilau (Rice Pilaf) from “In Bibi’s Kitchen”

This East African pilau is made with sautéed onion, warm spices, and coconut milk for added richness. Serve it as a base for meat stews, vegetables or beans.

Zanzibar Pilau from Hawa Hassan with Julia Turshen in a bowl with a cinnamon stick.

Alison Bickel

The flavors of Zanzibar Pilau, a rice dish, are emblematic of many recipes in Zanzibar by reflecting the influences of the spice trade along the Indian Ocean.

The name Pilau, just like the term pilaf, derives from the Persian term polow, which is rice mixed with things like spices, nuts, and meat.

For this recipe, basmati rice is infused with aromatic spices like cardamom, cinnamon and cloves bloomed in butter then cooked in coconut milk to deliver a comforting and flavorful foundation to pair with vegetables, beans, meat or meat stews.

Tips for Making Zanzibar Pilau

This recipe requires rinsing the rice and the then letting it soak in cold water for at least 10 minutes, but up to 30 minutes. It may seem like a step you want to skip, but I urge you to take the time for it, as it results in foolproof fluffy rice with separate grains.

I use butter or ghee to sauté the onion and bloom the spices, but if you are vegan feel free to substitute coconut oil or olive oil for the butter.

When cooking with whole spices, as I do in this recipe, make sure you find and remove the cardamom pods and cinnamon before serving.

Side view of In Bibi’s Kitchen Zanzibar Pilau Recipe in a bowl.
Alison Bickel

The Best Coconut Milk for Making Zanzibar Pilau

The archipelago of Zanzibar is rich with coconut palms and the coconut in all forms is a star ingredient there. Don’t be tempted to use low or reduced fat coconut milk in this recipe. Full fat coconut milk, even in the small amount used here, adds richness and serves as a creamy base for the variety of warm spices used in this dish. 

A Little Bit About Zanzibar

Zanzibar, a semi-autonomous network of islands off the coast of mainland Tanzania, is home to nearly 1 million people. It is technically part of mainland Tanzania but has its own governance and culture. It was considered a hub for the spice trade and the food reflects that history. Clove, black pepper, nutmeg and cinnamon are all grown here.

About “In BiBi’s Kitchen"

“In Bibi’s Kitchen: The Recipes & Stories of Grandmothers from Eight African Countries That Touch the Indian Ocean,” by Somali chef Hawa Hassan with food writer Julia Turshen invites readers into the homes of women to meet with them, cook with them and learn about their countries and cultures.

It’s one part cookbook and one part travel guide. Learning about each country and some of the women behind the recipes provides a context that makes the food even more enjoyable. If you want more than just a recipe.

Zanzibar Pilau from Hawa Hassan with Julia Turshen in a bowl with a cinnamon stick.
Alison Bickel

More Rice Pilaf Recipes

Zanzibar Pilau (Rice Pilaf) from “In Bibi’s Kitchen”

Prep Time 5 mins
Cook Time 30 mins
Inactive Time 30 mins
Total Time 65 mins
Servings 4 servings

Recipe reprinted with permission from “In Bibi’s Kitchen” by Hawa Hassan with Julia Turshen, copyright © 2020. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.


  • 1 cup long-grained white rice (preferably basmati)

  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter or ghee

  • 1 small yellow onion, finely diced

  • 5 green cardamom pods

  • 1 (2-inch) piece cinnamon stick

  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves

  • 1/2 cup full-fat unsweetened coconut milk

  • 1 cup boiling water

  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt


  1. Rinse the rice, cover with water, and soak:

    Place the rice in a fine-mesh sieve and rinse with cold tap water, stirring the rice gently with your hands, until the water runs clear through it, about 1 minute.

    Place the rinsed rice into a bowl, cover with cold water, and let it soak for at least 10 minutes and up to 30 minutes.

    Rinsing rice to make In Bibi’s Kitchen Zanzibar Pilau Recipe.
    Alison Bickel
    Rice soaking for an East African Pilau Rice Recipe.
    Alison Bickel
  2. Cook the onion:

    Meanwhile, place the butter in a medium saucepan set over medium-high heat. Once the butter has melted, add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until it begins to soften, about 5 minutes. 

    Ingredients in a sauce pan to make an East African Pilau Rice Recipe.
    Alison Bickel
  3. Add the remaining ingredients:

    Add the cardamom pods, cinnamon stick, and ground cloves, and cook, stirring, until the mixture smells very fragrant, about 1 minute. Stir in the coconut milk, boiling water, and salt.

    Cinnamon stick and cardamom pods added to a saucepan for a Rice Pilaf from Zanzibar.
    Alison Bickel
    Cooking Rice Pilaf from Zanzibar in a saucepan.
    Alison Bickel
  4. Add the rice and cook on low:

    Drain the rice and add it to the pot. Reduce the heat to low, cover, and cook until the rice has absorbed the liquid and is tender, about 15 minutes.

    Cooking Rice Pilaf from Zanzibar in a saucepan.
    Alison Bickel
  5. Let the rice sit for 10 minutes, then serve immediately:

    Turn off the heat and let the rice sit, covered, for at least 10 minutes before fluffing with a spoon or a fork. Remove and discard the cinnamon and cardamom (if you can find them, they tend to hide—if you can’t find them, just warn your guests). Serve the rice immediately while it’s hot. 

  6. How to store:

    Leftovers can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator and warmed in a 300°F oven or in a skillet set over low heat.

Nutrition Facts (per serving)
250 Calories
7g Fat
42g Carbs
4g Protein
Show Full Nutrition Label Hide Full Nutrition Label
Nutrition Facts
Servings: 4
Amount per serving
Calories 250
% Daily Value*
Total Fat 7g 9%
Saturated Fat 5g 23%
Cholesterol 16mg 5%
Sodium 321mg 14%
Total Carbohydrate 42g 15%
Dietary Fiber 1g 2%
Total Sugars 1g
Protein 4g
Vitamin C 1mg 4%
Calcium 16mg 1%
Iron 1mg 4%
Potassium 79mg 2%
*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.
Nutrition information is calculated using an ingredient database and should be considered an estimate. In cases where multiple ingredient alternatives are given, the first listed is calculated for nutrition. Garnishes and optional ingredients are not included.