Today I am going to show a real traditional, staple Trinidadian dish. If you are Trinidadian/Tobagonian and you can’t make Pelau, I don’t know what to say to you other than, you’d better learn. Pelau is a one pot meal, made with nutritious and tasty ingredients that fills bellies. I can’t think of a specific time when Trinis eat Pelau. It works any time of year, at any festival or celebration and is welcomed by all every time it is served.In my family Pelau happens at Carnival time, mid week for lunch, on a Sunday for lunch sometimes, at christmas, at the beach, at fundraisers, at Gaby’s rehearsal dinner, when Trini’s come back home for a visit, or when I have people at my home in Canada so that my guests can taste our heritage cuisine. It can be stored for the week in the fridge and the staler the Pelau, the nicer it tastes, in my opinion. Pelau can be frozen and thawed and eaten at a later date and again, it tastes even better. Many Caribbean islands claim to be where Pelau originated. The French West Indies claim it to be their traditional rice dish, and here is what the epicurious website says about Pelau:
“Pelau is one of those dishes that really exemplifies Trinidadian cuisine because it is an admixture of various cooking styles. Pelau, or rice with meats and vegetables, is a variation of East Indian pilau, which originated in Persia where it is called polow. The Anglicized version of the dish is called pilaf. The process of browning the meat in sugar for pelau is an African tradition and ketchup is a New World addition to the dish, although I suspect it has its basis in tomato chutneys available in British India and likely brought to Trinidad by the English.”
In my biased opinion, Trinidad & Tobago Pelau is the best because of the way we cook our food, the way we season our meat and the way we perfect it a little more every time we cook it. I believe, even if you don’t consider yourself a cook, every Trini, needs to know how to make a Pelau just as well as they know how to tie their shoes. Now isolated in this time of the COVID-19 pandemic, I am teaching my younger son to cook and while I know perfecting Pelau will take him some time, I want him to get to the point I am at, where if I feel like eating it, I can make it anytime, once I have the ingredients.
As you know, at this time of isolation,we are using what we have in the house to make our dishes, so I had Logan take out the Basmati rice and measure out enough for the four of us ( so just under 2 cups). I showed him how to wash the rice and that he was to do so about 3 times or until the water becomes much less cloudy than the first rinse. Next, I had him open the last can of pigeon peas that we had, drain and rinse it. With all the cooking we have been doing we have seasoned meat ready to go. So if you are wondering, the seasoning is my Trinidad bottled green seasoning, garlic, onion, chives, thyme, salt and pepper, parsley and basil, tomato paste and Worcestershire sauce. Logan wanted a chicken and beef Pelau, so I showed him how to brown the chicken and had him add the pigeon peas and rice to it. I like the beef tender so I showed him how to use the instant pot to achieve this texture.
Putting a little olive oil to prevent the meat from sticking and I chose saute on the instant pot and started cooking it for just over a minute. Then, I set it to “pressure cook” for about 20 minutes and set aside.*Note about the instant pot. I have made Beef Pelau in the instant pot before but I cannot guarantee the bottom layer of food will not stick to the pot so in the interest of not wasting or burning food, we just used it to soften the texture of the stewing beef.
Pelau is all about cooking down the food together. So since we used about a cup and a half of rice I added just under 2 cups of water to the peas and chicken, added the beef,
and a tablespoon or two of coconut milk which is an ingredient I always have on hand in cans or my freezer. However, you don’t need coconut milk to make Pelau though it is a nice touch when it comes to flavor. I also did not have a Scotch Bonnet pepper so pepper was added to people’s plates as needed.
Allow your Pelau to come to a boil then simmer. giving it the occasional stir. Once the water starts to diminish, cover and lower heat. The cooking and prep time for me is usually about 45 minutes, maybe a little longer. It is a pot that has to be watched as it simmers down because you don’t want what is at the bottom of the pot to burn. It will take Logan some time to learn this but after years of making Pelau, I have found that sweet spot in the cooking time where my dish is not overly dry and not soggy. My Pelau is moist and does not stick to my pot and I consistently use my iron pots from Trinidad.
Here is the finished product of Logan’s chicken and beef Pelau. Pelau can be made like this, with beef as the only meat, with chicken as the only meat or ox tail as the only meat. Of course, my mom, who makes the best flavored Pelau I have ever eaten is loaded with dark chicken meat, beef and ox tail…because she is granny and when she “throw down” a Pelau, she silences everyone. My mother comes from a large family of brothers and sisters who knew how to cook. I could taste my grandmother’s hand in all their dishes, each sister’s dish slightly different from the other’s with their own signature. The base taste for all however, is Ma Juanita Yee Foon’s hand. My cousins can cook. We were all brought into the kitchen at an early age and while some may say they aren’t as good as others, I have never had a meal at any of my cousin’s homes that was not tasty. I am loving passing on this skill to my son. I think he is enjoying it and moves comfortably about the kitchen. I hope he feels the same pride I do, having the ability to make my heritage dishes and I hope he gains as mych joy as I do spending the hour or so it takes to make a meal.
For those of you trying this for the first time, I have included a recipe for chicken Pelau. Cooking new dishes is something we can do during this time of Pandemic isolation and social distancing. Stay at home. Step away from the news and spend the time cooking with your family and best of all, eating with them. This time shall pass, why not use wisely and productively. Stay safe. Stay germ free. Wash your hands. Stay home. Feel free to share your recipes as well and comment on how your Pelau turned out.
- 1 cup dry or 1 (12-ounce) can pigeon peas, pinto beans, or black-eyed peas
- 2 cups long-grain rice (or whatever rice you have)
- 3 tablespoons canola oil (to brown meat)
- 3/4 cup sugar (white or brown to use in browning meat)
- 1 (3-pound) chicken, cut into 8 pieces, skin removed
- 1 small onion, chopped
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 1 cup canned coconut milk (use just a tablespoon or two for flavor. Too much can overpower the taste)
- 1 bay leaf (optional)
- 2 teaspoons green seasoning ( if you have green seasoning. see Tips, below)
- 1/2 cup chopped parsley
- 1 sprig thyme
- 5 scallions, chopped (white and green parts)
- 1 small whole Scotch bonnet pepper
- 1/2 cup ketchup of tomato paste
- If using dried peas, soak them overnight in 3 cups of water. Drain. Bring 3 fresh cups of water to a boil in a saucepan and add the peas. Simmer for 15 minutes, or until cooked almost completely through. Drain and set aside. If using canned beans, drain, rinse with cold water, drain again, and set aside. Wash the rice by placing it in a colander or fine-mesh sieve and running cold water over it until the water runs clear, about 1 minute. Drain well and set aside.
- Heat the oil over medium heat in a Dutch oven or other heavy, deep pot. Add the sugar and swirl in the pot, stirring constantly; allow it to caramelize to a dark brown color. Add the chicken and stir well to coat. Add the onion and garlic and cook for 1 to 2 minutes, stirring constantly.
- Stir in 2 cups of water, the coconut milk, bay leaf, green seasoning, parsley, thyme, carrots, and scallions. Reduce the heat to medium-low, cover, and simmer for 10 minutes.
- Stir the rice, peas, hot pepper, and ketchup, into the chicken. Cover and cook for 20 minutes, or until the peas and vegetables are tender. Remove lid and fluff the rice. The rice should be moist but not sticky.