Inspired by my childhood in Tanzania, this vegetarian mushroom pilaf is an easy and flavorful way to take rice to a whole new level.
I spent the first ten years of my life in and around Tanzania and fell in love with the country. People, food, taste, climate and everything in between. This recipe and many of the recipes to come are an ode to my time in Tanzania.
If you haven’t visited the coast of Kenya, Tanzania or the islands off the coast of East Africa, you’re missing out on great food culture and history. As one of the major stops on the vast spice trade route, East Africa has centuries of history with a mix of Indian, Arabic and African cultures. Swahili is a blend of Bantu and Arabic, and food follows the same trend.
Swahili cuisine is full of spices found in many Indian and Arabic dishes, such as cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, star anise and peppercorns. Flavors combine typical Indian Ocean flavors like coconut with native African flavors like tamarind. Swahili cuisine is perfect for people who don’t like pepper but like warm spices.
It is important to note that Swahili cuisine does not encompass all food cultures of East African countries. This is because cultures found more inland (mostly Bantu/Black Africans) enjoy different cooking methods and flavors. This is also the beauty of East African food culture.
What is Pilau?
The word pilau is used in different ways depending on where you are. Perau in Trinidad. In Central Asia it is called Parov, and in India it is called Prao. They all refer to rice dishes cooked with spices and some add-ins. This differs from biryani, a one-pot rice dish containing protein, vegetables, and sometimes potatoes, where rice is not the star of the dish. It was made with lots of sautéed onions, basmati rice, and a combination of spices (mainly cinnamon, cardamom, and lots of cumin with black pepper). My vegetarian mushroom pilau is not 100% authentic as it omits animal protein, including coconut-based products, but it tastes just as good.
What you need for vegetarian mushroom pilaf
- mushroom: I like the taste of dried shiitake mushrooms, and I used them because they don’t fall apart even after being boiled for a long time. However, you can use any kind of mushroom you like. We recommend using dried shiitake mushrooms.
- onion: This adds sweetness to this dish and gives it some color from the caramelization.
- Pilau Masala: Everyone has their own way of making pilau masala, but the base of pilau masala is lots of cumin followed by cinnamon sticks, cardamom pods and black pepper.Some contain cloves, others star anise. It all depends on your taste.
- Rice: The only rice that goes well with this dish is basmati rice.
- coconut: Most people don’t add coconut milk, but I like the flavor of coconut so I do.
- broth: I use my favorite Better Than Bouillon Vegetable Base, but any stock cube will work. You can also substitute water for the vegetable broth for added flavor.
Frequently Asked Questions + Substitutions
Can I use brown rice?
Yes, you can use brown basmati rice, but we recommend adding water to allow for extra cooking time. Be sure to cook on a lower temperature and longer so that the rice cooks well and evenly.
I am allergic to coconut, can I omit it?
Yes, I can. Just replace coconut oil with water.
Where can I buy these spices?
Grocery stores are full of these spices, but here are a few places that offer single-origin, more sustainable spices. Diaspora Inc. Also burlap and barrelYour local Indian/Middle Eastern grocery store also has a great selection of spices.
I don’t have whole spices, can I use the powdered version?
Yes, I can!Ground spices are much more concentrated than whole spices, so you should probably reduce the amount by 1/3 to 1/2, depending on how fresh the spice is.
Can you make it oil free?
You can certainly do it, but it will affect the sweetness of the dish as onions need oil to caramelize well.
Can I use raw mushrooms?
Yes, I can! Use hardy mushrooms such as portabello or brown cremini mushrooms, as they will soften.
What would you like to serve with this dish?
- Mishkaki tofu skewers are the perfect East African dish to accompany this rice.
- For East-West African fusion, try the super popular yassa tofu.
- 2 heaping tablespoons coconut oil
- 2 small onions
- 2 large cloves minced garlic
- 1 tablespoon minced ginger
- 2 cinnamon sticks
- 2 star anise
- Cumin seeds 1 tablespoon
- 6 cardamom pods
- 1/2 teaspoon whole cloves
- 1 teaspoon black pepper
- 2.5 cups washed basmati rice
- 1 tablespoon bouillon paste
- 1 cup coconut milk
- 3.5 cups of water
1. Heat the pan and fry the spices. Toast for a few minutes until the spices start to smell. Take the heated spices, separate the cinnamon sticks and star anise, and grind the remaining whole spices into a powder.
2. Heat coconut oil in a pan over medium heat and sauté the onions until caramelized.
3. When the onions are caramelized, add the ginger, garlic and mushrooms and sauté for a few minutes.
4. Add seasoning and mix. If the pan seems dry, deglaze it with a little water.
5. Wash the basmati rice well and put it in the pot.
6. Add water and coconut milk to make it better than broth. Mix everything well, cover the pot and let it simmer for a few minutes until the water starts to boil. Once it boils, reduce the heat to low and let it sit for 30 minutes with the lid on.
7. Check if the rice is cooked after 30 minutes. If you cover the pan with parchment paper, the steam will cook the rice better.
8. After 10 minutes, check that the rice is cooked. When the fire goes through, stop the fire and cool the pot. The rice that sticks to the bottom of the pan will cool down and become easier to remove.
9. Enjoy with your favorite protein.