Words and Photo by Chris De La Rosa
Chris De La Rosa is an authority on all things related to Caribbean food. A native of Trinidad & Tobago now based in Hamilton, Ontario, Chris has catalogued hundreds of the best recipes from across the Caribbean on his website, CaribbeanPot.com, as well as in two books, The Vibrant Caribbean Pot and The Vibrant Caribbean Pot, Vol. 2. In the second edition of his LargeUp column Caribbean Pot, Chris shares a recipe for his personal favorite dish, chicken pelau.
As we get set to celebrate Scotiabank Caribbean Carnival in Toronto this weekend—aka Caribana—it feels like the whole world will be liming and fete’ing in unison. There’s Kadooment Day in Barbados, the Parade of Bands in Antigua and, soon enough, our cousins in New York and Miami will wrap up the summer with their versions of the world’s most popular street festival—Trinidad Carnival!
Our Caribbean heritage combines a love for partying and eating, so it’s no surprise that as you make your way to the parade routes, you’ll see revelers gathered at open car trunks, fueling up with their favorite Caribbean snacks and dishes. Right next to the coolers stacked with adult beverages snuggled under ice, you’ll find the most iconic of one-pot dishes: chicken pelau. From beach limes, to football and cricket tournaments to Carnival fetes, our bellies demand that a hot pot of pelau is always on the menu.
Pelau is one of those dishes I feel truly represents the Caribbean as a people: A delightful one-pot dish with layers of flavors and textures, but with subtle differences as you move up the island chain of the West Indies. If you look closely at pelau, you can see traces of our Spanish colonizers (Paella), our West African heritage (Jollof Rice) and the East Indians who were brought in as indentured laborers from 1838 (biryani) to the Caribbean.
One of the fondest memories I have of growing up on the islands was waking up with that giddy type of excitement a North American child would know on Christmas morning, whenever we had a family trip or school excursion planned. As early as 5 am, mom would be busy in the kitchen, preparing the pelau. The entire house would be encased in the delightful aroma of the stewed meat, peas, vegetables and rice, simmering away in the coconut milk and the lovely hint of ginger. By 8 am, we’d be on the road heading to either Mayaro beach on the east coast or, if we were good kids, Maracas.
After a few hours frolicking in the ocean you’d head back to the car exhausted, but you’d perk right back up at the sight of that plate of still-hot pelau mom would have dished out for you—with slices of cucumber, a small pile of coleslaw and, when in season, a thick slice of avocado zaboca. Pelau was always the choice for such trips, as it meant that mom only had to prepare one dish, one that kept warm all day (as long as it was packed in a tight container) and could be served on disposable dishes. So there was little work when we got back home late that night and no one wanted to help clean up.
Mom and dad were very economical, so the customary pelau also had a lot to do with what we could afford. The only thing in the pelau we had to shop for was the rice and the chicken—the other ingredients came from our garden, and the coconut milk directly from the coconut trees surrounding our home. Relatively cheap, quite satisfying and something you’re proud to share with fellow beachgoers!
Here’s what you’ll need should you wish to make this dish on your own.
5 lbs chicken drumsticks
Juice of lemon
1 tablespoon salt
1 teaspoon each Worcestershire sauce & ketchup
2 cloves garlic (thinly sliced)
1 teaspoon grated ginger
1 each medium onion & tomato (chopped)
2 tablespoon cilantro
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 scotch bonnet pepper
1 scallion (chopped)
3 sprigs fresh thyme
2 tbsp vegetable oil
1 heaping tablespoon golden brown sugar
3 cups long grain brown rice
1 can pigeon peas
1 carrot sliced into coins
1 cup coconut milk
3 cups water
1 tsp butter (optional)
—Clean chicken with lemon juice, rinse with water and drain. Season and marinate chicken in bowl with salt, Worcestershire sauce, ketchup, garlic, ginger, onion and tomato, cilantro, black pepper, scotch bonnet pepper, scallion and thyme for at least 2 hours.
—Heat oil in large pot; add brown sugar. It will start to melt (keep stirring) until it becomes frothy. When it turns amber, add chicken and stir well. Cover pot; cook on medium for 10 minutes.
—Rinse peas; wash rice. Remove pot lid and turn up heat to burn off any liquid. Pour rice into pot, then peas, carrots, coconut milk and water.
—Stir and quickly bring back to boil. Cover pot and allow to simmer 35 minutes or until all liquid absorbed and rice is tender. Add teaspoon of (Goldenray) butter.
—Traditionally, you’ll serve this with slice of avocado, tomato and cucumber (my mom always had watercress). Today I’m seeing more and more people reach for homemade coleslaw. Don’t forget the pepper sauce and red drink!