Somali Pilau (Barees)

Servings : Serves 4-6

I recall first having this awesome dish as a child and instantly falling in love with the flavours and colours of Somali cuisine. Barees means rice in Somali. Therefore, this is a Somali version of the famous Pilau dish that we all know and adore from many different cultures around the world. It is absolutely one of my topmost favourites amongst our ‘festive/celebratory’ meals at home.

Whilst it does have a few components to prep,  the results are well worth it. The meal, once it all comes together, is magnificent for any sort of occasion. My version here is with chicken, but the same recipe can be recreated using any other type of meat.

Ingredients for Xawaash (Somali spice blend, pronounced Hawaash)

  • 2 tbsp cumin seeds
  • 2 tbsp coriander seeds
  • 6 whole black peppers
  • 1 inch piece cinnamon
  • 2 whole cardamom pods
  • 2 cloves
  • 1 tsp turmeric powder
  • 1/4 tsp grated nutmeg

Ingredients for the Pilau/ Barees

  • 3 cups long grain basmati rice
  • 1 chicken, cut into 8-10 pieces, skin removed or 1 kilo meat of choice
  • 4 tbsp oil
  • 1 tsp whole cumin seeds
  • 3 medium onions, diced
  • 1 tomato, finely grated and skins discarded
  • 1 tsp garlic paste
  • 1 tsp ginger paste
  • 1 tbsp Xawaash (spice mix)
  • 5 cups water or as needed
  • 4 tbsp fresh coriander, finely chopped
  • salt to taste
  • 1 pinch saffron or orange food colouring mixed in 2 tbsp water

Ingredients for Topping

  • 1 large red or green bell pepper, cut into thin strips
  • 1 large onion, cut into thin slices
  • 2 medium potatoes, peeled and sliced then cut into strips
  • 2 carrots carrots, grated or cut into thin strips
  • 1 tbsp butter
  • 1 tbsp oil
  • 1/2 cup raisins
  • 1/4 tsp xawaash spice mix
  • salt to taste


First, prepare the spice mix. Place the cumin, coriander, black peppers, cinnamon, cardamom and cloves in a dry pan. Roast over low heat until warmed through and fragrant. Grind to a very fine powder, then add the turmeric and nutmeg. You can store any leftover spice powder in an airtight container for up to 3 months, or refrigerate for up to 6 months.

Next, prepare the pilau. Wash the rice and then soak for about half an hour. Add oil into a large pan and heat over medium flame. Tip in the whole cumin seeds and allow them to splutter. Next add the diced onions and fry until golden. Then add the grated tomato, ginger and garlic pastes. Add in 1 tbsp of the spice mix (xawaash). Mix everything well, then add chicken (or meat). Stir over high heat for a couple of minutes to ensure the chicken pieces are well coated with the spices. Then add the water and 1 tbsp of salt. Bring to a simmer and then turn the heat down and cover the pan.

Allow the chicken to cook gently for approximately 15 minutes. If you are using meat, you will need to cook for longer and also you may need to adjust the water and top up when needed.

Drain the pre-soaked rice and add it into the simmering stock. Also add the chopped coriander and adjust the salt if need be.

 You will need 1 and a half cups of broth/liquid per cup of rice, so you can measure what is left in the pan before adding the rice if you are unsure of how much you have left.

Cook over medium heat giving an occasional stir until most of the liquid is gone, then turn the heat down to very low. Add the food colouring or saffron water to one side. Cover with a tight lid to seal and let the pilau steam on very low heat for about 15 minutes.

In the meantime, prepare the topping. Deep fry the potato strips like you would french fries or chips. Drain on paper towels. In a pan, add the butter and oil, then add the bell pepper, sliced onions and grated carrots. Saute continuously until the veggies are soft and the onions begin to take some colour. Add the raisins and allow them to plump up. Lastly add the fried potatoes and season with salt and 1 tsp of Xawaash spice. Stir together well and turn the heat off.

Fluff up the pilau and mix in the coloured rice evenly into the rest of the rice. Serve on a platter with the colourful topping. I also like to serve this dish with my spicy tomato chutney. And a Somali dish is incomplete without a banana on the side!


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