Pilau or Biryani – Food Faceoff in Zanzibar

By Mark Wiens 42 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?

42 comments. I'd love to hear from you!

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  • Sana

    5 years ago

    Hello friend.

    You are spot on with your description of pilau (also called akne in some parts of the world) however, as an indian and arab i have never had Biryani with rice and sauce cooked seperately. That sounds like a curry 🤔 biryani is usually plain white rice that’s parboiled and layered ontop of marinated meat, potatoes and sometimes boiled eggs. Its then covered and steamed for a good hour and a half. The taste and flavours and smells are worlds apart from pilau. If you’re ever in South Africa come and try both by me!

  • CathyMock

    8 years ago

    Am glad you go to taste our food. I cook them all the time for my kids and they love it.

  • Faith

    9 years ago

    In Zanzibar right now & so glad i stumbled on this blog while here.

    • Mark Wiens

      9 years ago

      Hey Faith, good to hear that, hope you have a wonderful time in Zanzibar.

  • Jams

    11 years ago

    Hilarious post! Loved it loads… Good food is such a joy.

  • Abbas

    13 years ago

    Love the post again, I think I definitely love the Pilau the best. My mom grew up in Znz, and it was always my favourite dish of hers that she made.

    • Mark Wiens

      13 years ago

      Awesome, I bet your mom’s homemade version is incredible!

  • Mark Wiens

    13 years ago

    @Andrea: Yes, the spices really add an incredible touch to the rice!

    @Sofia: I think choosing Biryani is a wise decision…the accompanying sauce is simply unbelievable!

  • Sofia – As We Travel

    13 years ago

    I love raisins in rice meals, it looks delicious!

    I like both styles, but if I had to choose I think I would pick the Briyani.

  • Andrea

    13 years ago

    What a fun experiment! I’m not a huge fan of white rice but I love these two types. The spices make the dishes!

  • Mark Wiens

    13 years ago

    @Robin: Thanks so much!

    @Dina: Yes, I think I enjoyed some in Dubai as well (many years ago, before I really knew what it was). Do you have any version of biryani in Indonesia?

    @Christy: I’m glad rice is your staple too. I grew up eating rice at least once per day and if I go more than too long without eating rice, I don’t really feel fulfilled.

    @Cam: Thanks!

  • Cam

    13 years ago

    YUM! 😉

  • Christy @ Technosyncratic

    13 years ago

    I love all food, but rice is my staple – I could eat rice every day of the week and not get tired of it. So I think I’d follow your example and just order both dishes and say to hell with choosing a winner. 😛

  • Dina

    13 years ago

    i LOVE biryani! The first time I ate it was in Dubai, and that was heavenly. I haven’t seen biryani for quite a while though, too bad!

  • robin

    13 years ago

    Great food shots!

  • Mark Wiens

    13 years ago

    @Iamthewitch: Yah, definitely around SE Asia biryani is the more popular and widely cooked form. Thanks for the comment.

    @Priyank: Thanks! It would be interesting to taste the complete original recipe of each dish, and compare the way they have been modified and adapted in all areas of the world.

  • Priyank

    13 years ago

    Hi Mark, I loved the faceoff analysis! Both these dishes must have traveled and have been reinvented infinite times by now. So much that pulao from North India is different from the one in western India. Growing up, I always thought that pulav was quite simple and straightforward to make, while for biryani you need greater marination etc. But who knows what the original differences were…

  • iamthewitch

    13 years ago

    I never even heard of Pilau until now! But I’ve had my fair share of briyani over here.. such flavourful and fragrant rice! And your pictures are already making me drool, oh the glorious sauce!

  • Amy

    13 years ago

    Great post! I don’t think I knew the difference between the two either apart from a vague notion that Biryani is usually yellow. 🙂

  • Mark Wiens

    13 years ago

    @LinguistInWaiting: Awesome, I’ve discovered that there are so many different variations to both of these two dishes, sort of spanning out from the Arab world.

    @Krista: I was on a layover for 13 hours in Cairo (4 days before the demonstrations). EgyptAir put me up in the Radisson Hotel for the day, and I got to partake in 2 buffets! Thanks for stopping by my site as well.

    @Inka: They are just both so delicious that it’s almost impossible to make a solid decision!

    @Angela: Hehe, that’s no problem. In the end it doesn’t really matter if its biryani or pilau – as long as its good!

    @Jozef: Oh man, I know the feeling of needing some beef, hope you can locate some as soon as possible!

  • Jozef Maxted

    13 years ago

    Your food posts always make me soo hungry!! I could die for a bit of beef after that!

  • Angela

    13 years ago

    I’ve just been to India, but my bad, I really confuse the two types of rice too 😛
    I love Middle Eastern and Indian food though, they are always my first choice when I go out for dinner, wherever I am!

  • inka

    13 years ago

    The war of the rices!! Wonderful. I like both too, but given that I don’t and can’t cook if I ever were forced to do so I would go for the one pot cooking. Guess why!!!!

  • Krista

    13 years ago

    Thanks so much for stopping by my blog today. 🙂 No, the airline did nothing for me with such a long layover. I either stayed in the airport or I was on my own. 🙂

    I’m LOVING these food pictures so much. 🙂 The spices and hint of sweet sound so delicious. 🙂

  • Linguist-in-Waiting

    13 years ago

    I never linked biryani and pilaf until now! I had this idea that biryani is something Indian, after all, I always see it in the menus of Indian restaurants everywhere. Pilafs on the other hand, I thought, were just a rice-based one-pot dish, and it can be of any origin. My prototypical pilafs were Mediterranean and Caribbean in flavor. But now that you mention it, they definitely have similar properties!