Sayyadieh (Arabic Fish Pilau)

Servings : Serves 4-5

The word Sayyadieh is derived from ‘Sayyaadh’ which means Fisherman. So the name of the dish roughly translates to ‘Fisherman’s Meal’. My family originates from the seaport city of Aden in Yemen, and having grown up on the coastal island of Mombasa, Kenya, fish has always been an integral part of my cooking. This simple yet incredibly flavourful fish pilau is one that evokes some of my best childhood memories. The secret behind a good Sayyadieh is plenty of aromatic spices, fried/caramelised onions and good fresh fish. There are so many different ways of preparing this dish, some cook the pilau with the fish inside it, but I prefer cooking the pilau separately and serve the crispy fried fish over it.

Ingredients for Pilau

  • 500 gm fish fillet, cut into pieces (marinate the fish for at least 30 minutes with a paste made from 2 tsp red chilli powder, 1 tsp salt, quarter tsp garlic paste, quarter tsp turmeric powder and enough lemon juice to form a paste)
  • 3 cups basmati rice (washed 2-3 times then soaked for half an hour)
  • 4 cups fish broth (recipe below)
  • 2 tbsp. butter/margarine
  • oil as needed
  • 3 onions, roughly sliced then fried in 2 tbsp oil until dark brown and crushed/blended with the oil into a paste
  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • a pinch of saffron, crushed and soaked in 1 tbsp hot water
  • 1 tbsp. whole jeera/cumin
  • 1/2 tsp. whole black pepper
  • 2 sticks cinnamon
  • 2 cloves
  • 2 cardamom
  • 1/2 tsp. turmeric powder
  • 1 tsp. cumin powder
  • 1/2 tsp. coriander powder
  • salt to taste
  • 1/4 cup almonds and/or pine nuts for garnishing
  • lemon slices, for serving
  • soft caramelised onion slices, for garnishing

Ingredients for Fish Broth

  • 1 fish head (cleaned and washed thoroughly, and if possible split in half across)
  • 1 heaped tbsp. fried onion paste (from the paste made in the Pilau ingredients above)
  • 4 cups water
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1/2 tsp. garlic paste
  • 1/2 tsp. ginger paste
  • 1 tomato, chopped
  • juice of half a lemon
  • some coriander stems
  • 1 tsp. crushed coriander seeds
  • 1 tsp. crushed cumin seeds
  • 2 cloves
  • 1 cardamom
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 1 green chilli
  • 1 tsp. whole black pepper


First prepare the fish broth.

This can be done the day before and refrigerated or up to 2 weeks ahead and frozen until needed.

Put the water in a pan, add all the ingredients except for the fish head. Bring to a rolling boil. Then add the fish heads and lower the heat, allow this to simmer for 30 minutes on low heat. Check and skim off froth if any rises to the surface. Once done, allow to cool then remove the fish head and strain out the broth. Discard the spices and save the broth for the fish pilau. It needs to be a dark rich and aromatic broth from the onion paste.

You can now start preparing the pilau.

In a large pan, heat 2 tbsp oil and 2 tbsp butter. Then add the whole spices, cumin, cardamom, cinnamon, pepper, cloves. Once they splutter in the oil, add the chopped onion. Fry until golden brown and caramelised, stirring with a wooden spoon. Then add the fried onion paste, turmeric and cumin/coriander powders.

Let these fry for a couple of minutes, then add the garlic paste. Stir for another minute then add the stock, the soaked saffron and some salt.

I normally use 1 and a quarter cups of stock for every cup of rice. You know your own rice best, so if you usually use more liquid then by all means use as much as you would normally for a pilau dish. Measure out the stock and if it is less than what you require, compensate the difference with water.

Let the stock simmer and taste for the salt. You should be able to feel the saltiness. If it feels just right, it means you have too little. Remember that the rice will need some salt too, so let the salt be enough that you can taste it to be a bit more than you would want. Not too much of course!

As soon as the the water starts boiling, drain your rice (which should have been pre-soaked for about half an hour) and add this rice to the stock. Sprinkle a bit of chopped coriander on this, and stir a little. Let this cook on high heat for 2-3 minutes, stirring now and then, then reduce the heat to medium and keep cooking it whilst covered until the water diminishes, giving it a stir every now and then to make sure all the rice is cooked evenly and perfectly.

When you find there is very little water left in the rice, reduce the heat to the lowest point possible. Seal your pan by using a tight lid or wetting a kitchen towel and placing it over the pan then placing a lid on top of it. Leave the rice to continue steaming on very low heat for a good 10-15 mins. (or put the sealed pan in a preheated 180 C oven for about the same time).

Whilst the pilau is steaming, you can fry the fish.

Heat some oil in a pan (preferably non-stick) and fry the fish fillets or pieces until golden on both sides. Remove onto kitchen towels to drain excess oil and set aside

When frying fish, make sure the oil is hot before placing them in it, and do not try to turn them over too early as they will stick and break apart. Allow the fish to fry on medium heat until it releases itself from the pan, then turn the pieces over.

Lastly, fry the almonds/pine nuts in a little butter until toasted and golden (I am allergic to pine nuts so I always use just blanched almonds). When ready to serve, fluff up the pilau and serve it on a plate, top with the crispy fried fish and garnish with lemon wedges, chopped coriander and some soft fried/caramelised onions. Sprinkle the nuts over everything and serve with a chutney like my salata hara or tomato chutney. And of course, if you love potatoes as much as I do, sneak some fried/baked potato cubes onto your plate. This dish is normally served without potatoes but I won’t tell anyone if you won’t! 😉




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