Chicken pelau is one of the most popular lunchtime meals in Trinidad and Tobago and is typically a one-pot dish made with well-seasoned, bone-in chicken pieces, browning, pigeon peas, rice, and veggies. Coconut milk and butter are often added for more flavor.
The origins of pelau are not exactly clear. The dish is similar in name to pilau or pulao, which is an ancient Indian rice dish. But, charring and browning of meat is an African cooking technique. There are East African versions of pilau that resemble pelau but use Indian spices like cumin, coriander, and masala instead of brown sugar. So, it is likely pelau is a fusion dish that epitomizes the melting pot that is T&T.
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Ingredients for chicken pelau
For this recipe, I used:
- chicken pieces: Small, bone-in chicken pieces are most often used for making this recipe.
- flour or lime juice: this is needed for prepping the meat to remove any freshness and sliminess.
- Caribbean green seasoning: made with chadon beni or culantro, garlic, pepper, and other typical herbs and spices like cilantro, thyme, and ginger. You can make your own using my green seasoning recipe or get it on Amazon.
- pigeon peas: During “peas season”, the elders often shell the fresh, green pigeon peas in large quantities and freeze them. That’s what I am using here but you can also used canned green or brown pigeon peas. They also work great and you won’t need to pre-cook the peas.
- coconut: fresh, white coconut meat, blended with some water, adds amazing flavor to the pelau. You can also substitute for canned coconut milk or coconut milk powder mixed with water.
- vegetable oil: any type of vegetable oil works great.
- brown sugar: this is one of the stars of chicken pelau. The brown sugar caramelizes and adds this incredible, smoky, depth of flavor to the rice dish. Browning sauce can also be used as a substitute if browning sugar is intimidating. Or you can make your own beforehand using this browning recipe.
- ketchup: usually added for some sweetness and to balance the browning.
- pepper: fresh pepper is often used like pimento and scotch bonnet peppers but feel free to use your favorites.
- chadon beni: also called culantro. This herb is widely used in Trinbagonian cooking and adds a sharp, herbaceous taste to the pelau.
- carrot: other veggies including pumpkin can also be added but this is optional.
- rice: it is typical to use white parboiled rice for this recipe since it cooks fast without getting mushy. You can also use basmati rice here.
- butter: this adds a wonderful, silky element to the pelau and prevents it from becoming too dry.
- fresh herbs: like chives, cilantro, chadon beni, thyme and other herbs are used for more seasoning.
- water: needed for boiling the pigeon peas if you are using fresh or frozen green peas; for blending the coconut if you are using brown coconuts; and for cooking the pelau.
How to make chicken pelau recipe
Prepare the chicken
Step 1: The chicken should be cut into 2- to 3-inch pieces. I usually purchase the meat already cut and start the prep by removing any fatty tissue from the pieces. Rinse the meat a couple times.
Step 2: Sprinkle flour over the pieces and massage it in. Then, using a small paring knife, scrape the slime of the meat. The flour helps with slime and odor removal. You can also use lime juice as a substitute. Once the slime is clear, give the chicken pieces a good rinse.
Step 3: Add green seasoning and salt to the chicken and mix thoroughly. If you aren’t planning on making browning for the pelau, you can add it in here along with ketchup. Extra seasoning and pepper doesn’t hurt either.
Step 4: Cover the chicken and allow to marinate in the fridge for several hours to overnight.
Prepare the peas
Step 5: Since I am using frozen, uncooked green pigeon peas here, I need to cook the peas. Place a small pot with water on medium heat onto the stove. If you are using canned, pre-cooked, green or brown pigeon peas, simply skip steps 5 through 7. Instead, rinse the canned peas thoroughly and set aside for later.
Step 6: Wash the green peas and add to the pot. Leave to cook until the peas have softened completely. This can take about 20 minutes.
Step 7: Strain and set aside for later.
Prepare the coconut milk
Step 8: Since I am using a brown coconut for this recipe, I need to make coconut milk with it. To do that, crack open the coconut using a small hammer or back of a cleaver. Pry out the coconut meat using a flexible paring knife or use a coconut shredder to grate the meat. You can skip steps 8 through 10 if you are using canned coconut milk. For coconut milk powder, follow the instructions on the packaging to make 3 cups of coconut milk.
Step 9: Add the coconut pieces and water to a blender and blend until smooth.
Step 10: Strain the mixture and set the coconut milk aside for later. You can use the strained coconut bits for other recipes like Trinidad coconut bake.
Prepare the other ingredients
Step 11: Wash and finely chop the onion, garlic, pepper and herbs like chadon beni, cilantro and chives. Wash, scrape and cut the carrots into chunks.
Step 12: Wash and drain the rice multiple times until the water runs clear.
Step 13: With the meat well marinated and the other ingredients prepped, it’s time to start making the pelau. Place a large, heavy bottomed pot on the stove on medium heat. Leave to heat up for a couple minutes.
Step 14: Pour in the oil and leave for another minute or 2 to heat up.
Step 15: Add the brown sugar and give it a quick stir. Leave until the sugar starts to melt and caramelize.
Step 16: The sugar will become darker brown and frothy. Stir ever so often to make sure there is even heating. This can take about 3 to 5 minutes from adding the sugar to becoming frothy and dark.
Step 17: Once the sugar becomes dark brown, you’ve made browning. Now, stir in the ketchup (carefully).
Cook the chicken
Step 18: Add the marinated chicken immediately after. Be careful, the browning can burn you. Mix the chicken with the browning-ketchup sauce.
Step 19: Stir in pepper and fresh herbs like chadon beni.
Step 20: Lower the heat and leave the chicken to cook uncovered for about 10 minutes. The meat should release its own natural liquid.
Add other ingredients for chicken pelau
Step 21: Once the liquid has mostly boiled down, mix in the onion, garlic, carrot, pigeon peas and about a tablespoon of cilantro (what we call celery). You can add other veggies like pumpkin as well.
Step 22: Leave to cook for about 5 minutes.
Step 23: Stir in the washed rice. Allow to cook for about 3 minutes. The rice will absorb the color and flavor of the browning and liquid during these few minutes.
Step 24: Add the coconut milk and water to the pot.
Step 25: Cook on low heat for 30 minutes or so. Stir ever so often to prevent the bottom from burning.
Step 26: Mix in butter, chives, and the remaining celery (cilantro). Feel free to add in any of your favorite herbs too like thyme, more chadon beni, etc.
Step 27: Cook for another 10 to 15 minutes or until the liquid has been mostly absorbed and the rice, peas and veggies are all fully cooked. You can stop cooking while the pelau still has a lot of moisture, making “wet pelau.” Or cook down more to make “dry pelau.” Everyone has their own preferences and I enjoy my chicken pelau on the drier side.
Step 28: Serve hot as is or with sides like coleslaw, fresh salad or avocado slices.
Chicken pelau recipe
Trinidad Chicken Pelau
- 2 lbs chicken (cut up pieces)
- 2 tbsp flour
- 3 tbsp green seasoning (with chadon beni, garlic, pepper)
- 1 tsp salt
Pigeon peas prep
- 1½ cups green pigeon peas (200 grams)
- 3 cups water
- ½ brown coconut
- 3 cups water
- 1½ tbsp oil
- 2 tbsp brown sugar
- ⅓ cup ketchup
- 2 pimento (or pepper of choice like scotch bonnet)
- 2 tbsp chadon beni (culantro)
- 1 large onion
- 3 cloves garlic
- 1 large carrot
- 2 tbsp cilantro (celery)
- 1½ cups parboiled rice (or rice of choice like basmati)
- 1 tsp salt
- 3 cups water
- 1½ tbsp butter
- 2 tbsp chives
- Remove fatty tissue from the cut-up chicken pieces. Wash the meat.
- Rub flour into the chicken. Scrape off any slime.
- Rinse the meat again and drain.
- Mix in green seasoning and salt.
- Cover and refrigerate overnight (or at least 4 hours).
Cook pigeon peas
- Place a small pot on the stove on medium heat.
- Add water and green pigeon peas.
- Leave to boil until the peas are cooked (about 20 minutes).
- Strain and set aside.
Make coconut milk
- Crack open a brown coconut.
- Remove the white coconut flesh from half of the coconut.
- Add the coconut flesh and water to a blender.
- Blend until smooth.
- Strain the mixture for pure coconut milk.
- Set aside.
- Wash, peel and chop onion and garlic. Dice the pepper.
- Wash and chop carrots into chunks.
- Wash the rice several times until the water runs clear.
- Wash and finely chop the chadon beni, cilantro and chives.
- Place a large pot on medium heat. Allow to heat up.
- Add oil and leave for 1 to 2 minutes.
- Sprinkle in brown sugar.
- Leave sugar to caramelize and become frothy.
- Stir occasionally to ensure even heating (about 3 to 5 minutes).
- Once sugar darkens (it may smoke too), stir in the ketchup.
- Add the seasoned chicken pieces.
- Mix to coat the chicken.
- Add the pimento and chadon beni.
- Lower the heat. Cook for 10 minutes (uncovered).
- Once the liquid has mostly boiled off, toss in the onion, garlic, carrot, 1 tbsp of celery and cooked pigeon peas.
- Mix and cook for about 5 minutes.
- Stir in the washed rice. Cook for about 3 minutes.
- Add the coconut milk and water.
- Cook on low for 30 minutes. Stir occasionally.
- Add butter, chives and remaining celery. Stir.
- Cook for another 10 to 15 minutes or until the liquid has boiled off and the rice is cooked.
- Serve hot.
- Substitute green pigeon peas for canned green or brown pigeon peas. No pre-boiling will be necessary, saving you time. The canned peas can be rinsed and added to the pelau when the rice and other ingredients are added.
- Substitute fresh coconut milk for canned coconut milk. Or mix about 6 tbsp of coconut milk powder with 3 cups of water.
- In place of caramelizing the sugar, add 2 tbsp of browning and 1/3 cup ketchup to the seasoning chicken pieces. So, once the pot and oil are hot, add the meat, pimento and chadon beni to the pot and cook until the liquid has mostly boiled off.