Pelau vs Pelau

It’s a tasty staple of family get-togethers, beach limes, and Carnival festivities — and there are as many recipes as there are cooks. Nazma Muller offers three versions of T&T’s beloved pelau

  • Illustration by Shalini Seereeram
  • Photo courtesy Khalid Mohammed
  • Photo courtesy Rhoma Spencer
  • Photo courtesy Amilcar Sanatan

Pelau is to Trinidadians and Tobagonians at Carnival time what hot dogs are to Americans on the Fourth of July — but much healthier. The seemingly humble pelau — T&T’s answer to the various rice-and-beans dishes beloved across the Caribbean — has been the one-pot favourite of local cooks for ever, it seems. It’s the main attraction in picnic baskets at every Panorama semi-finals in the Queen’s Park Savannah — for both the hoi polloi in the North Stand, who might add a zesty cole slaw on the side, and the more sedate crowd in the Grand Stand, with their fresh green salad or avocado complementing their more lofty pelau, where the chicken might be replaced by more sumptuous beef, lamb, or pork.

From Carnival fetes to the parade of the bands on Carnival Monday and Tuesday, pelau is a menu staple, feeding the proverbial multitudes from one large iron pot. Known elsewhere in the world as pilaf, pilav, pulao, or polow, the ancestor of  this rice dish was brought to T&T by Indian immigrants and soon became popular with all the island’s ethnic groups. Over the years, pelau has evolved and taken on new incarnations, reflecting the diverse tastes of this most cosmopolitan of Caribbean countries. So here, for your Carnival culinary planning, we offer you three recipes for pelau: a traditional “sweet-hand” chicken pelau; an ital version, for those who shun meat; and, for the foodies, a rather sophisticated beef short rib and three-bean pelau from one of Trinidad’s top chefs.


Khalid Mohammed’s beef short rib and three-bean pelau

First, here’s our “celebrity” pelau, from Khalid Mohammed, owner of Chaud Restaurant and Chaud Café and Wine Bar, rated as one of T&T’s top chefs. Renowned for his fusion of West Indian flavours with French techniques, Mohammed has cooked for former US president Bill Clinton, Gianni Versace, and other world leaders and celebrities. His posh pelau recipe is fit to grace the fanciest table — but relies on the same tried-and-true techniques known to all pelau cooks. 

1/3 cup each of dried pigeon peas, red beans, and black-eyed peas — soak overnight
5 pounds beef short ribs — boneless, cut in 1-inch chunks — marinated overnight in green seasoning, curry, and geera mixture (see below)

Green seasoning ingredients:

3 sprigs thyme
5 sprigs chadon beni (culantro)
5 leaves big leaf thyme
5 sprigs Portuguese thyme
1 onion
12 cloves garlic
2-inch piece of ginger
5 scallions
10 pimento peppers
1 scotch bonnet pepper
1 tablespoon sea salt
½ cup fresh lime juice
1 cup vegetable oil

Hand chop all herbs, stir in salt, lime juice, and oil.

Add to marinade:

1 teaspoon madras curry powder
½ teaspoon geera powder

Other ingredients:

3 cups fresh coconut milk
3 cups chicken or beef broth or stock
4 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 large onion, diced
5 cloves garlic, minced
1-inch piece of ginger, minced
2 bay leaves
1 cinnamon stick
2 allspice berries
3 ripe tomatoes, diced
1 cup celery, diced
2 carrots, peeled and diced
2 cups parboiled rice
1 cup pumpkin, cubed
2 scallions, chopped
1 green and 1 red bell pepper, diced
8 small ochroes
1 whole hot pepper
1 tablespoon butter

Drain the soaked beans and refresh in cold running water. In a saucepan, cover the beans in fresh water, bring to a boil, and simmer until cooked almost completely through. Drain; keep the cooking liquid and set aside. In another saucepan, mix the coconut milk, bean cooking liquid, and stock, and bring to a boil.

In a large, deep, heavy-bottomed pot, heat the oil over medium high heat. Add the sugar and allow it to caramelise. Immediately add the beef short ribs, turning frequently to coat well, for 5 to 8 minutes. Add the hot stock mixture, onions, garlic, ginger, bay leaves, cinnamon stick, allspice berries, tomatoes, celery, and carrots. Simmer until the beef is tender (1 to 1 ½ hours).

Stir in the rice, beans, pumpkin, scallions, bell peppers, ochroes, hot pepper, and butter. Cover and simmer gently for 25 to 30 minutes, or until the rice is cooked and has absorbed the liquid, adding more hot liquid if necessary.


Rhoma Spencer’s chicken pelau

Well-known Trinidadian actress Rhoma Spencer, now based in Canada, also plays the role of culinary ambassador for T&T, and her traditional pelau has received rave reviews in Toronto and London — especially among expat Jamaicans, she says. Her mother’s pelau recipe was influenced by Tobago, where the family lived until she was three years old. “The coconut milk taste to the pelau is a Tobagonian derivative,” Spencer explains.

When the family moved back to Trinidad and lived among Indian neighbours, they encountered another version of pelau. Many years later, she discovered from an army chef that what they had been cooking was “Indian pelau,” which has a wetter consistency than Afro-Trinidadian pelau, grainier in texture.

Half a chicken
Green seasoning
2 tablespoons brown sugar
3 to 4 dashes of gravy browning
4 tablespoons cooking oil
2 cans pigeon peas
2 cups brown rice
2 cups water
1 cup pumpkin cubes (optional)
1 fresh coconut or 1 can of coconut milk
Salt to taste

Grind coconut to draw one cup of coconut milk (or use can of coconut milk). Cut up chicken into small pieces; season with green seasoning (chive, celery, chadon beni, thyme, onion, garlic, ginger) and salt to taste. Allow to stand for an hour. The best bet is to season the chicken the day before and leave it in the refrigerator. Place pigeon peas with water in a crock pot to boil with green seasoning, two stalks of fresh thyme, and pumpkin (optional) until it simmers. Using an iron pot, add oil then sugar to brown. When sugar begins to bubble, add seasoned chicken and stir until half-cooked. Add simmering pigeon peas and coconut milk to chicken and cook for 20 minutes. Add rice to the pot and two tablespoons of oil (to prevent rice from sticking to the bottom of the pot). Add water as needed. Add salt to taste and two or three dashes of gravy browning to give rice a brown colour. Stir and cover pot, then cook on medium heat until all the liquid is absorbed and the rice is soft and dry.


Amilcar Sanatan’s ital pelau

As a child, Amilcar Sanatan was awakened on Saturday mornings by the spicy aroma of delectably seasoned meat as it cooked in bubbling brown sugar and hot oil. This, he would think, is what bliss smells like, as Aunt Valerina once again made her magic pelau. For Sanatan, a former president of the Students Guild at the University of the West Indies St Augustine campus, and now a research assistant at the Institute of Gender and Development Studies, this national dish is part of his DNA. “But as a Rasta man, meat is not,” he says. “It may come off as cuss words and devil-talk if I ever shared the idea with my granny, Aunty Val, and family that pelau can also be vegetarian.”

While it may seem like treason to even think of pelau sans chicken — or beef or lamb, goat or pork — Sanatan uses mushrooms instead. Shiitake mushrooms, to be precise. Their smoky flavour and chewy texture — once marinated with the right herbs and spices — can make even the most carnivorous Trini exclaim: “This chicken tasting real boss!”

Sanatan shudders at the thought of using a strict recipe; most people cook pelau “by heart,” either having learned from watching their “sweet hand” granny or mother — who all seem to have been born with the instinct to gauge precisely how much freshly squeezed coconut milk to add to the pot — or else by experimenting. 

1 cup long-grain brown rice
4 tablespoons vegetable oil
4 garlic cloves, minced
4 chives, chopped
1 onion, minced
3 tablespoons brown sugar
½ pound pumpkin, sliced into chunks
4 ochroes, sliced finely
½ cup whole corn
1 can pigeon peas
1 red sweet pepper, minced
1 whole hot scotch bonnet pepper
1 cup coconut milk
1 pound shiitake mushrooms — stems removed, sliced into chunks
4 chadon beni (culantro) leaves, minced
1 tablespoon grated ginger
2 tablespoons soy sauce
Salt and black pepper to taste

Season shiitake mushrooms with chadon beni and grated ginger. In a large pot, heat the vegetable oil over medium heat. Add the sugar until it begins to bubble. Add garlic, chives, and onion. Next add two cups of water, pumpkin, pigeon peas, ochroes, two tablespoons of salt, and two tablespoons of black pepper. Add pigeon peas. Cover the pot and cook for 10 minutes. In the same pot, add four cups of water and one cup of coconut milk. Cook over medium heat. When the water starts to boil, add the rice. Let boil for 10 minutes. Add the scotch bonnet pepper and corn. Reduce heat to simmer and add seasoned shiitake mushrooms. Uncover and stir pot occasionally. Add salt and black pepper to taste.

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