Pilau or Biryani – Food Faceoff in Zanzibar

By Mark Wiens 6 Comments

I’ve never had a completely clear mental picture about the difference between Pilau and Biryani. All I knew was that they were both flavor bursting spiced rice dishes and I liked them…very very much.

One of my favorite things to do in Zanzibar is sample the food.

History of Pilau and Biryani

Both Pilau and Biryani originated somewhere around the Middle East, but due to their high level of deliciousness, the two dishes spread far and wide. The Arab world and the Indian Subcontinent developed their own variations, perfecting their recipes and sharing the good news to the most remote locations of the world.

Arab and Indian trade across the Indian Ocean nurtured yet another market, the island of Zanzibar, just off the coast of East Africa.

The Mission

On Zanzibar, I made it my mission to learn the difference between pilau and biryani, and judge for myself which rice I preferred.  To do this, I walked myself to Lukmaan Zanzibar Cuisine restaurant on the outskirts of Stone Town, Zanzibar. Many had recommended it as one of the premiere destinations of Stone Town to devour pilau and biryani.

I was uncontrollably enthusiastic, not just because I was about to judge which dish was better (in my opinion), but because I didn’t have to decide which to order, I could gobble down two full dishes!

Pilau vs. Biryani 101

Pilau (also known as pilaf, pilaff, pulao, plov)

Rice is cooked within a mixture of spices (garlic, ginger, cumin, cardamon, cloves, cinnamon, herbs), fried onions, broth, and a selected set of meat or vegetables. The ingredients are cooked within the rice, all in the very same merry pot!

Zanzibar Pilau
What is pilau?

Biryani (biriani, beryani)

The rice itself is cooked in similar spices, but in a separate pot from the meat and sauce. After both are finished, the rice and meat sauce are combined, flavoring the rice and bringing the dish together.

If you are familiar with Khao Mok Gai, it is the Thai version of spiced rice.

Zanzibar Biryani
What is biryani?

Difference Between Pilau and Biryani

Pilau rice is cooked all together in a harmonious pot, Biryani rice is cooked separate from the sauce and then combined after cooking.

Note: The reason the two dishes look so similar in the pictures, is because at Lukmaan restaurant they generously applied some extra glorious biryani sauce to the pilau meat!

Lukmaan Restaurant, Zanzibar

I arrived to Lukmaan and ordered 1 beef pilau and 1 beef biryani.

When the food arrived and I began to eat, I was so enthralled and wrapped up with my taste buds that it was almost impossible for me to utilize my brain to contemplate the difference. The pilau was nothing short of celestial, there was an intensity of cumin and cardamon, pungently representing the dish. The rice was slightly dry, but the raw tomato and onion garnish made up for that.

Pilau at Lukmaan

The biryani was equally heaven but in a different special way. The rice was slightly less seasoned, yet the accompanying sauce with a sprinkle of sweet sultans was a strong combination of onions and spices that turned the rice into a flavorful powerhouse.

Rice Biryani
Rice biryani

The Verdict

The Pilau and Biryani were both so exceptionally amazing that I simply couldn’t rationally come up with my final conclusion, forcing me to call it a draw.

But if I had to choose, I would probably go with the biryani for that memorable sauce.

Though I might still be confused as to which dish is more delicious, I did figure out 1 thing: If a restaurant serves pilau and biryani in Zanzibar, I will order both.

How to get to Lukmaan Restaurant

Located in Stone Town, Zanzibar near the Mkunazini Police Station, ask around and people will direct you to the restaurant, maybe even show you the way!

Have you had Biryani or Pilau, which do you prefer?