Trini Carnival: Project Runway Pelau

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The next course was one of my husband’s favorites, chicken pelau.  We’ve named our version Project Runway Pelau.  To understand why and what it is, please read the story below, originally published on Spicebox Travels.

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As a Trinidadian by marriage, I am proud of the authentic Trinidadian food I have learned to cook for my Trini husband.  At this point, PCH has lived in the US for longer than he lived in Trinidad, but that is where his palate was formed, and its food is what he craves.  Trinidad, for those of you not so sure, is the Southeasternmost island of the Lesser Antilles of the Caribbean islands, just across the sea from Venezuela.  Its population is diverse, with about half descended from African slaves, and another half from indentured laborers from India.  There’s also a smattering descended from the British colonists who presided before independence, the adventurous Chinese who sailed over from Canton to make their fortunes, the native Arawaks and Caribs, and various combinations of these.  It’s fascinating to look at my husband’s family photos, which are a personal reflection of Trinidad’s diversity.

sydney-knox-1896Photo caption: In the back row, the first man on the right (posing at a jaunty angle in the black boater hat) is my husband’s Scottish great-grandfather, Sydney Knox, who was the longest serving Town Clerk of San Fernando, Trinidad, from 1905-1939.  This photo was taken in 1896.

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Photo caption:   Left to right, my husband’s grandfather Henry, who sailed from Canton, his Indian-Scottish grandmother Ivy Knox, and her brother, great uncle Randolph.

Trinidad’s cuisine reflects its diverse cultural heritage.  Nothing is quite “authentic” to its roots, and everyone, regardless of their ethnic background, cooks and devours the variety.  Chinese food is given a kick of fiery Scotch bonnet pepper, and Trinidadian Indians developed a type of roti found only in the Caribbean, with a filling of smashed chick peas.

Pelau, a rice, bean and meat (usually chicken) dish, is thought of as an Afro-Trinidadian dish.  However, anyone familiar with Indian cuisine will note the remarkable similarity of its name to the Indian rice dish known as pulao, or in other derivations, pilaf.  In fact, pelau’s history can be traced back even further.  According to http://www.ifood.tv, pilau is related to Persian polow:

“The earliest known mention of dish is during the reign of Alexander the Great, who was served the dish during his stay in Bactria – formerly a province in eastern Iran. Alexander’s army popularized the recipe and dish throughout Europe. The British mastered the recipe from fellow Europeans and refreshed their pilaf making skills in India and introduced it to much of Africa and later Trinidad.”

The basic ingredients of rice, beans, vegetables, and meat, are indeed similar.  But the flavorings used in pelau are distinctly Trinidadian.  The meat in caramelized in a manner thought to be brought over from Africa, and the coconut milk is a common broth used in Caribbean cooking.  The type of beans used, pigeon peas, are also a hallmark of Caribbean cooking not found commonly in Indian cuisine.  Pelau is widely loved and served at special occasions, including Carnival.

It was a while back when food blogger Lucy Mercer (A Cook and Her Books) emailed me asking about pelau.  ”Do you watch Project Runway?” she asked.  I told her I didn’t, and wondered why she was asking.  (We tend to discuss food and children, not so much fashion.)  ”Well,” she explained, “the winner is, like your husband, Chinese Trinidadian.  You should watch it.”

That Chinese Trinidadian would be Anya Ayoung-Chee, who won Season 9 of Project Runway in fall 2011.  She’s a beautiful (former Miss Trinidad and contestant in Miss Universe in 2008), graceful and talented designer.  And, brace yourselves… she is my niece.  That’s right! OK, she is actually the cousin-of-the-best-friend-of-my-husband’s-niece, but, I think I can still claim her as one of my family.  (I’m so proud of her!)

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Photo caption: Anya Ayoung-Chee, via Wikipedia

And it so happens that Anya’s comfort food is the same as my husband’s: pelau.  In an interview on Trinidad’s Jay Blessed Media, she was asked about her favorite Trini food:

“JB: What’s your favorite Trini food dish?

Anya: Pelau. HANDS DOWN!  A close second would be any kind of curry, doubles is way up there. But when you talk about comfort food, pelau any day!”

So pelau, this humble dish of rice and beans, has associations with both Alexander the Great and my husband, and could be called the official food of Project Runway Season 9.  What more could you ask for?

Without further hyperbole or ado,  I present you Project Runway Pelau.

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Project Runway Pelau

This recipe is adapted from The Naparima Girls’ High School Diamond Jubilee: Trinidad & Tobago Recipes, affectionately known by Trinis worldwide as the “Naps Girls’ Cookbook.”  It’s a community cookbook of recipes from students’ families and was originally published in 1988.  It’s not fancy, definitely homestyle, and has made an honest Trini cook out of me.

Ingredients

2 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs (or to be more authentic, 3 pounds skin-on, bone-in chicken thighs)

1 tsp freshly ground black pepper

1 tsp ketchup

1 small onion, diced

1 tsp soy sauce

1 tsp Worcestershire sauce

1 tablespoon dark rum

1 tsp Trinidadian pepper sauce (made of Scotch bonnet peppers; commercially available online from Matouk’s); habanero sauce can substitute in a pinch

3 tsp cilantro, finely minced

3 tsp fresh thyme, finely minced

4 garlic cloves, minced

2 tsp canola oil and 1/4 cup sugar to make browning (see below)

4 cups Uncle Ben’s or other parboiled rice

1 can coconut milk

3 cups water

1 bell pepper, diced

1 can pigeon peas (available from Goya)

2 tsp salt

Technique

1.  In a large bowl, stir together the marinade: ketchup, onion, soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, rum, pepper sauce, cilantro, thyme, and garlic.

2.  Add chicken to the bowl and coat evenly with the prepared marinade.  Allow to sit for a minimum of 30 minutes.

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3.  After chicken has marinated, warm 2 tsp of oil in a heavy pot over medium heat.  Then add the sugar and allow to cook until almost black, stirring occasionally.  This is the “browning.”

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4.  When the browning is liquid and almost black, carefully add the chicken one piece at a time (beware, it may splash).  Reserve any remaining marinade.  Allow to brown on each side, about 5 minutes.

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5.  Next add the rice, and stir for a few minutes.

6.  Add the pepper, pigeon peas and the remaining marinade, and stir until well combined.

7.  Add coconut milk, water and salt, and stir until all ingredients in the pot are well combined.  Cover pot and bring to a low boil, adjust salt if necessary, then lower heat to low and allow to cook for 30 minutes, stirring about every 10 minutes.  The dish is ready when the rice is cooked.  Add additional water and stir if needed to fully cook the rice.

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Hope you enjoyed this! Come back next week for the next course in our Trini Carnival supperclub!

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