On a recent drive home from work, I wracked my brain and mentally scanned the contents of my freezer and cupboards, trying to figure out what to cook for dinner.
Then it hit me. I could make pelau!
Pelau is a traditional rice dish of the French West Indies (Guadeloupe, Dominica, St. Lucia) and became popular in other islands such as Trinidad and Tobago, Grenada and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. Pelau, pronounced “Peh” followed by an emphasized “lau,” rhyming with “ow,” is a spicy dish consisting of meat (usually chicken), rice and pigeon peas.
I had been craving pelau for weeks. My mouth watered just thinking about the Creole rice dish that my St. Lucian mother prepared mostly on Saturdays and for family gatherings and parties on the beaches of St. Croix, where I was born and raised. It’s a comfort food that brings back childhood memories of sitting on the beach with my siblings and cousins, balancing paper plates piled high with the rice and chicken, talking about nothing and everything while staring out at the turquoise sea. In my adult years, my friends and I feast on pelau during boat trips to Buck Island. The dish travels well, holds heat and keeps us fueled for a day of swimming, drinking rum, and dancing to reggae, soca and calypso music.
My mother makes the best pelau and I have tried to replicate it a few times with varying degrees of success – the rice is overcooked, the chicken is too bland, not enough pigeon peas, not enough chicken – you get the idea.
Pelau is often referred to as a “cook up” or “one pot”. Depending on which island in the Caribbean a person hails from, the pelau may look and taste slightly different.
Where did this yummy dish come from?
Pelau’s origins and when the dish first entered the Caribbean are not precisely know. However, it is widely believed that Pelau’s roots can be traced to rice pilaf or polow, a rice dish commonly found in Central Asia and the Middle East. When the Caribbean islands were under Spanish rule, their version of Paella was passed down to the enslaved Africans who transformed the dish. The method of burning the meat in brown sugar to get that smoky, sweet flavor is influenced by African food traditions. In West Africa, the dish is called “jollof rice” or “one pot.” The dish arrived in Trinidad & Tobago from East Indian indentured servants who came to the islands from colonial India after slavery in the Caribbean was abolished, according to Trinidad & Tobago Guardian. The use of tomato sauce or ketchup is a New World addition to the dish, likely brought to Trinidad and other islands by the British. Over the course of time, the basic method of preparing pilaf, the caramelization of meat and the influences of Trinidadian cuisine, blended into today’s pelau.
My Pelau Preparation Process
Pelau is meant to be a no fuss meal made in one pot and plentiful enough to feed an army. It’s perfect for a family lunch, a beach party or even at a funeral wake. It’s the casserole of the Caribbean!
Start by seasoning your chicken with all-purpose seasoning, turmeric powder and sofrito – a Caribbean and Latin American sauce of tomatoes, onions, peppers, garlic, and herbs — and set aside or let it sit overnight. Cook the sugar with either coconut oil or vegetable oil in a large saucepan over medium heat until it begins to caramelize. (You can cheat like I do and use browning instead of sugar.) Stir in your herbs, tomato sauce, chopped peppers, onion, and garlic. Sauté the chicken with the herbs and vegetables until brown and caramelized. Add carrots and stir, making sure the chicken is coated. Add the uncooked rice (you may also pre-cook the rice), pigeon peas, coconut milk and vegetable broth or water. Salt and pepper to taste and if you think you can handle it, add a scotch bonnet pepper. Cover it and allow to steam for 20 minutes until rice is cooked.
Pelau will taste and look differently on each island — even from one household to the next. And that is the brilliance of pelau. Its origins tell the powerful story of the brutal past of plantation slavery and of human resiliency and collective memory. The dish is as diverse as the Caribbean islands and its people. A blend of cultures, languages, ethnicities, and traditions – all united by a shared love of family, fun and food.
Watch St. Lucian Chef Shorne Benjamin prepare chicken pelau.
Recipe for CHICKEN PELAU
2 pounds of boneless and skinless chicken thigh, cut up in 1-inch pieces, or chicken wings (Your choice!)
4 seasoning peppers, minced (or 2 Jalapeños)
2 cloves of garlic
1 tablespoon of brown sugar or browning sauce
1 tablespoon of coconut oil or vegetable oil
2 cups of white rice, uncooked
1 medium onion, diced
2 carrots, peeled and diced
1 can of pigeon peas
1 bay leaf
1 can of tomato sauce
2 cups of vegetable stock (can substitute water but will have less flavor)
1 can of coconut milk
1 scotch bonnet pepper, minced
Adkins, L. (2021, May 11) The Trinidadian Comfort Food You Need in Your Life. Food & Wine.
The Propa Eats Team. (2018, August 31) Pelau: The Unofficial, National Dish of Trinidad & Tobago. Trinidad and Tobago Guardian.
Washington, B. (2022, March 17) To Learn About Trinidad and Tobago, Start by Cooking Pelau. Bon Appetit. (2022, March 21)
Pelau – A Popular and Historical Trinidadian Dish. The New York Carib News.
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