This Trinidad pelau recipe has Spanish, Creole, and African roots. It is a delicious dish made with chicken, pigeon peas, rice, veggies, coconut milk, browning sugar and Caribbean seasonings.
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What is Pelau?
Pelau – pronounced pay-lah-ow – is the quintessential Trini lunch.
Some suggest pelau originated from traditional paella, when the West Indian islands were under brutal Spanish rule. Jollof rice – the popular African rice dish – may have also influenced this dish.
In either case, pelau was adapted by the enslaved Africans who started caramelizing or stewing the meat – a common African cooking technique.
That technique is still used today to make this absolutely delicious meal.
I don’t know if pelau is the most popular dish in Trinidad and Tobago. I mean it has to compete with doubles, bake and shark, roti and callaloo… but it is definitely in the top 5.
It is also incredibly popular for Sunday lunches and get-togethers (we call it limes). Christmas limes, beach limes, river limes, and house party limes, you’ll find Trinidad pelau being served. Sometimes, you’ll see it being cooked at the beach or river on make-shift firesides… and trust me, the food made on those firesides always, always taste better.
How to Make Chicken Pelau
So, I should mention here, there is no one-way to make Trinidad pelau and there is no fixed ingredient list. You can add or subtract anything you don’t want to use.
For instance, pelau is usually made with chicken, but you can substitute in beef or pork.
Pigeon peas is also used in pelau. You can try fresh or frozen green pigeon peas or canned ones. Brown canned pigeon peas are also commonly used.
Pumpkin is often added… And parboiled rice is mainly used but brown, basmati and jasmine rice also works.
There are no rules here, use what is available to you.
Here is what I had for this recipe:
- seasoned chicken pieces
- Caribbean green seasoning (get on Amazon)
- Worcestershire sauce
- coconut oil
- brown sugar
- green pigeon peas
- parboiled rice (get on Amazon)
- fresh coconut milk
- stock or water
- herbs – cilantro, chives, rosemary, thyme
- butter (or cooking margarine)
Here are a couple more sauces from Amazon to make your pelau tasty:
Let’s get to the steps:
Step #1: Season the meat
I explain exactly how I prepare and season chicken a while ago.
Essentially, the chicken is cleaned and washed with flour and lime (some skin is left on). Then, salt and Caribbean green seasoning – made with culantro, cilantro, garlic, and pepper – are used to marinate the meat.
At this point, you can season with some of your favorites. Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce, ketchup, tomato paste, pimento pepper, ginger, turmeric, thyme, parsley and other herbs can all be added in here. You can allow the chicken to marinate for a few hours to overnight.
From my ‘how to season chicken post,’ I usually batch freeze the meat. So, all I do is defrost the chicken and start the next step.
Step #2: Cook pigeon peas
You can use fresh/ frozen/ canned green or brown pigeon peas. It does not matter here – both will work in this Trinidad pelau recipe.
Wash the peas (double and triple wash if canned). Place in a pot of boiling water and cook until softened; it usually takes 15 minutes to cook. Strain once cooked.
Step #3: Brown sugar
While the peas are cooking, place a heavy-bottomed pot on medium heat. Once well heated, add oil (I usually use coconut oil). Now, you don’t need to use oil if your pot is non-stick or ceramic coated; the brown sugar will not stick. But, if you are using a cast iron pot, I suggest adding a bit of oil.
Sprinkle brown sugar in the pot and allow to caramelize.
This is the exact procedure to make browning sauce. And you can use the sauce to save some time.
As the sugar begins to caramelize, stir to prevent sticking. This step should take less than 5 minutes.
Expect some smokiness at this point.
Step #4: Add chicken
When the sugar has achieved a dark, dark brown color, add the marinated chicken and mix well.
This will color and coat the chicken with that smokey, caramelized sauce and stop the sugar from burning. And that smokey flavor infuses into the meat.
Cover the pot and allow the meat to release its juices. You’ll want to cook until completely dry before moving on to the next step. It should take about 15 minutes.
Sometimes, I like throwing in a rosemary branch to add that distinctive rosemary flavor. The flavor comes through stronger in the pelau leftovers.
Step #5: Add everything else
Mix in the cooked pigeon peas, chopped onions, carrots and washed parboiled rice. Add in all other herbs, ginger, seasonings, salt and pepper at this point. Stir to coat everything with the caramelized sugar.
Here, you can add other veggies too like pumpkin.
Add water or stock to the pot and coconut milk. I made my coconut milk using a large piece of frozen coconut meat. You can use canned coconut milk too. It’s up to you and what you have available.
Completely cover the pot and lower the heat. Simmer to allow the rice to cook and the contents to absorb the flavors.
After 15 minutes, check the rice. If it hasn’t fully cooked, you may need to add more water or stock. It usually takes about 30 to 40 minutes for the rice I use to cook completely and all the liquid to boil off.
Step #6: Add fresh herbs
Once cooked, I mix in cilantro, chives, other herbs and a little cooking margarine or butter. The herbs add a nice fresh flavor and the butter gives a creaminess to the pelau dish.
That’s all to it… cook time is usually an hour. Serve Trinidad pelau hot with a nice salad, a few slices of avocado and maybe some boiled plantain slices.
Don’t forget to pair this meal with some refreshing island drinks like a tall glass of sorrel or mauby. Yum!
Trinidad Pelau Recipe
Trinidad Pelau Recipe
- 2½ lbs chicken pieces (cleaned, cut up)
- 3 tbsp Caribbean green seasoning (sauce made with culantro, cilantro, garlic, pepper)
- 1 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
- 1½ tbsp ginger (grated)
- 1 tsp turmeric
- 1 tsp fine thyme
- 1 tbsp oil (I used coconut oil)
- 3 tbsp brown sugar
- 1 onion (chopped)
- 1½ cups pigeon peas
- 1½ cups carrots (chopped)
- 1½ cups rice (parboiled)
- 1½ cups coconut milk
- 2 tbsp Caribbean green seasoning
- 6 cups water or stock
- salt to taste
- pepper to taste
- ¼ cup cilantro (finely chopped)
- ¼ cup chives (finely chopped)
- 1 tbsp butter
- Incorporate the marinade ingredients with the chicken.
- Refrigerate for at least two hours (or overnight).
- Wash, rinse and boil the pigeon peas until soft (this takes about 15 minutes).
- Strain and set aside.
- Place heavy-bottomed pot on medium heat.
- Add oil and brown sugar.
- Stir continuously so the sugar caramelizes evenly.
- When the sugar turns very dark, add marinated chicken.
- Mix well to coat, color and flavor the chicken in the caramelized sugar.
- Cover pot to allow meat to release its natural liquid.
- Cook until completely dry (about 15 minutes)
- Mix in cooked pigeon peas, onions, carrots, rice, herbs, seasonings, salt and pepper.
- Add water and coconut milk.
- Cover completely and simmer on low heat.
- Cook until rice is done and the liquid is absorbed (takes about 15 – 30 minutes).
- Stir in cilantro, chives and butter.
- Serve hot and store leftovers.
- Marinade ingredients can also include soy sauce, ketchup, tomato paste, pimento pepper, parsley and other herbs.
- Other veggies like pumpkin can also be added.
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