A Recipe for Trinidadian Pelau, Courtesy of Niala Boodhoo

Niala Boodhoo as a girl with her family

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My parents are from Trinidad and Tobago, an island perhaps known for its Carnival, great cricket players (and Nobel-winning writers!) as well as one of my personal favorites: fantastic food. My great-great grandparents immigrated to Trinidad from India. Today, families like mine who have Indian ancestry make up a slight majority of Trinidad’s population, about 40 percent, but the nation is a mix of people of African, Chinese and European heritage. That’s why I think Trinidad has the best food in the Caribbean, although I know that opens me up to controversy from other islands!

I was born and raised in Miami, with at least a similar tropical climate – and my mom and especially my maternal grandmother, on visits here and there, provided the food. As I’ve grown up, my uncle on my mom’s side has taught me much more about how to cook – although I’m not sure I can ever reach his culinary standards!

The standard, of course, is Trinidad’s variation of curry, a green curry that’s hard to describe – it’s not like Thai curry, and in my exploration of South Asian food, I haven’t come across a similar version. But I haven’t perfected my mom’s or Uncle Victor’s curry, which is hard to top, and a great favorite with my nieces and nephews in Michigan and California. I do make my mom’s pelau – a chicken and rice dish, all in one pot, flavored with pigeon peas, coconut milk and the essential scotch bonnet pepper. I base my recipe on a cookbook my mom gave me a few years ago from her high school. I’ve yet to find parboiled rice in Chicago – which is essential to this recipe, because otherwise the rice gets mushy, so I import it from Miami, along with the brown sugar. Trinidad no longer produces the caramel, rich demerara sugar that is a standard for stew chicken – it now all comes from Guyana, but having a good quality brown sugar makes a difference, too.

As any West Indian will tell you, “seasoning” is key to imparting the flavor of this recipe. It’s best to let the chicken marinate in this green seasoning at least overnight. I also find that pelau always tastes better the day after it cooks, and like my mom, I like to serve this with a creamy, tart coleslaw as a foil for the spice of this dish. My parents also like to add ketchup as a condiment.

Ingredients:

  • 3 lbs. chicken, cut up into large pieces
  • 2 Tbsp green seasoning
  • 2 tsp grated garlic
  • 1 Tbsp Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 Tbsp soy sauce
  • 1 Tbsp tomato ketchup
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 2 Tbsp vegetable oil
  • 3 Tbsp cane sugar (substitute with brown sugar)
  • 2 cups parboiled rice, washed and drained
  • 3/4 cup chopped onions
  • 1/2 cup chopped green peppers
  • 2 cups cooked pigeon peas (you can find this in Latino markets or in the Latino section of large grocery stores)
  • 2 cups coconut milk
  • 2 cups cooking liquid (stock, water or reserved cooking liquid from peas)
  • 1 whole scotch bonnet pepper (habanero will do if you can’t find scotch bonnet)
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Preparation:

  1. Add chicken, green seasoning, Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce and ketchup to a bowl along with salt and pepper to taste. Toss to mix and coat the chicken with the seasonings. Set aside and let marinate – overnight is best.
  2. Pour oil into a large pot and place on medium high heat. Let oil heat until hot but not smoking.
  3. Sprinkle sugar into heated oil in an even layer. Let the sugar melt until it starts to froth and bubble. As soon as the edges get bubbly (like a pancake) and get darker – almost to the burning point – add the seasoned chicken and stir to mix and coat with the burnt sugar. Let cook for 7 – 10 minutes.
  4. Add the rice to the pot, stir to mix and cook for 3 minutes.
  5. Add peas and green peppers and cook for 1 minute.
  6. Pour in coconut milk and other cooking liquid. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
  7. Toss in the whole scotch bonnet pepper. Cover pot and bring to a boil.
  8. When the pot comes to a boil, remove lid partially and let boil until you can see the surface of the dish – the rice, peas and chicken (about 7 – 8 minutes). Cover pot fully, reduce heat to low or simmer and let cook for 25 – 30 minutes or until all the liquid has evaporated.
  9. Serve hot or at room temperature.

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