Chachi’s Pulao

Indians have endearing names for every family relationship. For example, the English language will have one generic ‘Aunty’. This does not distinguish whether the relationship emanates from the maternal or paternal side of the family.

Indians, have specific labels, ‘Chachi’ is father’s younger brother’s wife where as ‘Bhua’ refers to the father’s sister. Similarly, the mother’s sister is ‘Maasi’. So there are three types of aunts, each differentiated by filial relationship. Often an elderly lady will be addressed with respect by youngsters as ‘Aunty’. Suffixing it with ‘Ji’ or dearest makes it more meaningful.

We lived in a big compound in Kenya, reminiscent of Rajasthani havelis.  My favourite Chachi happened to be married to the youngest of our household’s three brothers. Though she was older then other brother’s wives, due to her husband being the youngest, her status was reduced within the pecking order. She resented this pigeon hole position acquired through marriage and was a bit of a rebel. She got away with it by taking advantage of her status. My mother was her saviour and protected her. Chachi would often incur the wrath of other women as she would join in card playing games with the men folk. She was sought out as a partner for bridge and poker games by the household men. Besides, her culinary skills were the envy of all the women and she manipulated the men by charming them with her food. She often used to boast that the way to a mans heart is through his stomach.

It came to pass that she acquired a loyal coterie of all household men and children. Everyone loved her cooking and sang praises of her culinary skills to the general consternation of all women relations. No one was allowed to enter her kitchen with shoes and had to prove that their hands had been recently washed. As she refused to cook in the communal kitchen shared by all household females, she somehow manipulated her husband with the help of the other men folk to construct a separate kitchen for her. Poor Chacha invited the wrath of all the women in the household who felt he was a weak man and under her thumb. Who cared? She cooked the best food in the house.

Chachi‘s favourite dish was sea food Pulao. She would ensure that the best of Kenyan fish were selected from fish mongers, including Blue Marlin and Parrot fish from the Indian Ocean. Occasionally, Nile perch and Tilapia from Lake Victoria would find their way into our kitchens too.  She was an expert at peeling prawns and dressing lobsters and crabs. She would often gather us in her kitchen, which was her sacred territory and tell us stories while she cooked. On occasion, she gave a running cooking commentary and enthralled us with her culinary skills.   Her Pulao always consisted of four different types of fish – lake, sea and river fish – with different textures, tastes and colours. Each fish was cooked separately in masala and placed in a cooking pot with rice layers separating and sandwiching each different type of fish. Each mouthful brought forth a burst of flavours from different fish and the aromatic rice she used.

Sadly, she succumbed to cancer at a very early age but her culinary legacy lives on within our family. In tribute to her, I often prepare her fish pulao to commemorate her anniversaries.

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In the absence of tropical fish – I have adapted the dish using common British found in UK with different textures, colours and tastes

  • ½ Kilo Cod  (white fish)
  • ½ Kilo Smoked Haddock (yellow)
  • 1  Kilo Salmon (Pinkish red)
  • ½ Kilo Red Snapper.
  • Marinade made using following
    • 2 table spoons ground mustard seeds
    • 1 teaspoon turmeric
    • 1 teaspoon garlic
    • I tablespoon coriander and cumin powder
    • I tablespoon wine vinegar
    • 4 tablespoons mustard oil
    • Juice of one lime
  • Cooking oil
  • Fresh coriander
  • Rice washed and soaked in chicken stock + coconut milk


  1. Mix all the marinade ingredients in a liquidiser.
  2. Liberally coat each fish separately and lay them separately in a plate.
  3. Shallow fry each fish and strain when cooked.
  4. Fry onions in a pan until supple, add grated garlic, ginger, fresh tomatoes to make a thick paste.
  5. Pour rice to cover the bottom, place one type of fish across the rice, pour rice and place other layers of fish and rice. All layers interspersed with masala.
  6. Add chicken stock and coconut milk upto one inch above rice level
  7. Boil until rice is cooked – Do not remove the lid – let the rice steam cook in the end.

Serving suggestions:

  • Garnish with fresh coriander topped with an omelette.
  • Eat with either fresh plain yogurt with grated cucumber or a light dal.

Enjoy my Chachi’s Pulao.

Karam Bharij

a lecturer, freelance photo-journalist afflicted with the travel bug, sampler of fine wines and an avid cook of Kenyan, Indian, Chinese, Greek and French cuisines particularly fusion recipes. He has travelled extensively in Tunisia, the Far East, Europe, Turkey and the Greek Islands in the Aegean and Iona sea. All his travels are off the tourist beats to savour different cultures and foods. He's even crossed the desert with a Bedouin caravan a few years ago living on a rustic diet of Harrissa (ground red chillies with garlic), tomatoes and flat breads.