Trini Carnival: Project Runway Pelau



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.


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, 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!)


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.


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


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.


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.”



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.


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.



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

Trini Carnival: Eggplant (Baigan) Choka with Coconut Bake


We began the sit-down (but informal) portion of our meal with a starter of roasted eggplant choka on a round of coconut bake (a quick bread that can be either baked or fried).  Choka is a common Trinidadian Indian preparation of many vegetables, most commonly eggplant (known locally as baigan or melongene), tomato or pumpkin.  I love them all.  It’s the kind of dish you should be able to find anywhere, but on our recent trip home to Trinidad, whenever I tried to order one as the filling for my roti at the roti shop, they were out.  Trinis, I’m afraid, love meat and anything deep fried, and come to think of it, the only vegetables I ate for a week were deep fried.  Not always a bad thing, but enough is enough!  So arm yourself with this technique, and you won’t be faced with a similar fate of meat and fried things.  Apologies for the bad photo– eggplant is never photogenic, and in mood lighting? Even worse.

And for a lively tale of bake and more on another Caribbean island, St. Vincent, read Francis Lam’s article in Afar‘s May 2013 issue.  The Trinidadian couple he mentions (thankfully anonymously) are Mr. and Mrs. Spicebox Travels!

Baigan Choka with Coconut Bake

choka bake



1 Eggplant

2 cloves garlic

1 onion, chopped

1 teaspoon cumin seed, toasted


salt and black pepper to taste


1.  Preheat oven to 300 F.

2.  Wash and dry eggplant.  Cut in half lengthwise and place, cut side up, onto a parchment paper-lined baking sheet.  Use a paring knife to cut deep diagonal slices into the flesh, but not through the skin, of the eggplant halves.  Repeat at a 45 degree angle in the other direction until you have diamonds.

3.  Brush each eggplant half with a few tablespoons of olive oil.  Sprinkle on a bit of salt and freshly ground black pepper.

4.  Roast in oven for 45 minutes to an hour, until the flesh is soft when pierced with a fork, and the eggplant loses its shape

5.  Use a spoon to scoop out the roasted eggplant flesh and put it into a bowl.

6.  Heat some oil in a pan and add chopped onion, garlic, salt and black pepper.  Cook for a minute until onion is just softened, then combine entire mixture along with the toasted cumin seeds into the roasted eggplant.  Add salt to taste.

Coconut Bake


2 cups flour

2 tsp baking powder

¼ tsp salt

4 Tbsp margarine (butter may be substituted but would not be authentic)

¾ cup coconut milk


1.  Preheat oven to 350 F.

2.  Sift together dry ingredients in a medium mixing bowl.

3.  Work in margarine with your fingertips until crumbly.

4. Add coconut milk, first stirring with a spoon and then your hands to form dough into a smooth ball. Depending on your kitchen’s humidity, you may need more coconut milk or more flour; add a tiny bit at a time. Allow dough to rest for 30 minutes, covered with a damp cloth.

5.  After dough has rested, roll out onto a floured surface to a 1 inch thick circle. Transfer onto a parchment-lined baking sheet and bake for about 30 minutes, until golden.

6.  Bake be eaten on its own, or split horizontally to make sandwiches with choka, buljol, smoked herring, or for more familiar flavors, avocado, tomato and onion, ham or eggs.

Thanks for coming by! This is the fourth post about our recent Trini Carnival Supperclub.  Please visit the preceding posts on the menu, the Spicebox Cocktail, and nibble on fried plantains.  Come back soon for our next course!

Trini Carnival: Plantains


We would have been happy keeping Dave busy mixing up more Spicebox Cocktails, but to ensure that the Supperclubbers would have the stamina to proceed with the rest of the evening, we served these lovelies to go with our drinks.  No, not regular bananas.  Theses are plantains, selected at this stage of ripeness (not green, and just starting to blacken) to be firm and just slightly sweet, perfect for a bar snack.

Fried Plantains

platanos fried


3 plaintains, slightly ripe




1.  Slice plantains into desired lengths and 1/2 inch thickness.

2.  Warm about 1/2 inch of oil in a frying pan over medium heat until shimmery.

3.  Add plantains and fry on both sides until golden.

4.  Drain onto paper towels and sprinkle with salt, if desired.

We’re just getting started! Come back next week, when our Trini carnival meal begins!

Spicebox Supperclub: Trini Carnival

SBSC menu

A few weeks ago we got a turn to host the third Spicebox Supperclub, chez Spicebox! In honor of Mr. Spicebox’s Trinidadian roots and Trinidad’s famous/infamous Carnival, which was held the same weekend as our dinner, the theme was Trini Carnival.  We had a menu custom designed, typeset and illustrated by our younger daughter, including a drawing of Trinidad’s national bird, the Scarlet Ibis.

Spicebox Supperclub Dinner #2 March 1, 2014

Trini Carnival

Hosts: Linda and Peter

Executive Chef: Linda (aka Spicebox Travels)

Bartender: Dave

Sommelier: Nalin

Pastry Chef: Chris


Cocktail: The Spicebox Cocktail (custom created by Dave for this occasion and this wonderful group of Supperclubbers!)



Baigan (Eggplant) Choka on Cocount Bake

First Course:

Callaloo with Macaroni Pie

Second Course:

Project Runway Pelau

Third Course (prepared by Peter):

Trini Curry Chicken with Dal


Cassava Pone (and a story!)

Mango Rum Smoothie


Wine List (carefully curated by Nalin to complement the spicy, Indian-influenced menu):

wine glasses

Von Winning

Deidesheimer ParadiesGarten

Riesling 2012

A new and dry style Riesling. Very clean with upfront minerality, and then a slight amount of sugar at the end. Nicely complements small appetizers with strong flavors.

Von Winning Winery founded in 1849, vineyards in Ruppertsberg, Deidesheim, and Forst. District of Pfalz, adjacent to the Trier/Koblenz regions.

Paradiesgarten (Deidesheim) appx. 30 ha (74 acres); hillside west of Deidesheim above the village, close to the woods, orientation: east-southeast sandstone statue “Eve in Paradise” was built by our winery.

Name: named in the 1950s by our estate’s former owner due to the paradise-like location Soil: top soil: loam to loamy sand, loessial loam (several meters thick at some points), subsoil: new red sandstone.

Winemaker description: “A Riesling with a juicy flavour of yellow fruits, reminiscent of mandarins and yellow plums combined with a fresh citrus aroma, a wine full of elegance and finesse. Depending on the vintage, it is fermented up to one third in 500 and 1200 litre wooden barrels.”

This wine is referred to as a Grosses Gewächs – (great growth), a designation used by VDP members in all regions except Mosel and Rheingau to designate top-level dry wines from selected sites. Used by the organisation Bernkasteler Ring for the same purpose in Mosel.


Zeltinger Schlossberg

Kabinett Riesling, 2012

Classic Riesling with a clean taste on the palate and some residual sugar, particularly at the end. Balances and complements the strong flavors of a spicy dinner.

Traditional ‘Mittelmosel’ location with Riesling planted on steep, south-facing terraces by the Mosel River. In the state of Rhineland-Pfalz.

Zeltinger Schlossberg. Steep slope, medium grained Devonian slate as topsoil with medium-deep subsoil of slate and loam.

Prädikatswein, renamed from Qualitätswein mit Prädikat (QmP) (superior quality wine). Translated as “quality wine with specific attributes”, this is the top level of German wines. These prominently display a Prädikat on the label and may not be chaptalized. Prädikatswein range from dry to intensely sweet, but unless it is specifically indicated that the wine is dry or off-dry, these wines always contain a noticeable amount of residual sugar. Prädikatswein must be produced from allowed varieties in one of the 39 subregions (Bereich) of one of the 13 wine-growing regions, although it is the region rather than the subregion which is mandatory information on the label.

Kabinett – literally “cabinet”, meaning wine of reserve quality to be kept in the vintner’s cabinet fully ripened light wines from the main harvest, typically semi-sweet with crisp acidity, but can be dry if designated so.

For the following wines, I chose a theme of 2000, since it was a special year for me. I had a couple of wines from that year so they’ve had a chance to hang out for some time.

Chateau Rol Valentin

Saint Emilion Grand Cru

Bordeaux 2000

Very small Bordeaux vineyard (4.6 hectares). The Saint-Emilion region is in the Libournais area of the right bank. Saint-Emilion Grand Cru is a region adjacent to the main region of Saint-Emilion and Rol Valentin is considered one of the newer ‘garagiste’ wines that are characterized by strong flavors, perhaps reflecting less on the terroir. This wine does display a terrific balance that is typical of Bordeaux wines. The wine is mostly Merlot (85%), with equal amounts of Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. It does not taste like a typical new world Merlot, lacking the soft and mild flavors of the latter.

This wine was now 14 years old and ready for drinking. It had a lovely mouthfeel with a smooth finish on the palate. It complemented the strongly flavored curry dishes nicely.

Sequoia Grove

Napa Valley

Cabernet Sauvignon 2000

A traditional Napa Valley maker of Cabernet Sauvignon wines, from the Oakville/Rutherford appellations. The winery sits on 22 acres in the heart of the valley floor in an important region referred to as the Rutherford Bench. I’ve always regarded this wine as a great example of the good (flavor) and bad (tannins) of the region. After some time stored away, the tannins were surprisingly still present, but much softened. The winery refers to themselves as making ‘Bordeaux-style’ wines, but I don’t think that’s entirely true given their tendency to stay true to Cabernet Sauvignon. Their single vineyard Cabs command prices in the $100/bottle range.

Jost Vineyards

Nova Scotia

Vidal Ice Wine 2000

The grapes used to produce this icewine were grown in the Warner Vineyard in the Annapolis Valley of Nova Scotia. During the coldest mornings of December (temperatures between -8 C and -14 C) the frozen grapes were harvested and pressed. The pressing yields a golden nectar which was high in sugar, flavour and balance giving acidity. A cool, slow fermentation resulted in a very complex, full bodied dessert wine. This wine still preserved its character after a long time in storage. It has that clean but flavorful taste typical of icewines.

The following description of the icewine process comes from the vineyard:

The precious juice for icewine is pressed from grapes that have been subjected to the harshness of winter, temperatures of at least -8°C for a couple of days. At these temperatures, the water portion of each grape separates from the sugar, flavour and acid components. The water freezes and crystallizes, leaving the other components as suspended liquid drops among the water crystals. The liquid drops are very concentrated, with sugar and flavour levels two to three times higher than juice from grapes harvested in the fall, and are carefully extracted from the grapes by gentle pressing. Pressing, as does the harvesting of the grapes, takes place outside. The grapes must not be allowed to warm up (neither can the pickers or the pressing crew!) or the sugar content of the juice will be reduced. Once the juice of the frozen grapes is collected, the sugar level must be at least average 35 Brix (35%sugar). The icewine juice is then fermented, a process which takes about 6 months to complete.


Well, I don’t know about you, but I feel like I’ve just been to wine school! (Not whine school; I’ve already gotten my degree from there.)  Nalin’s carefully chosen wine list taught me to appreciate Rieslings, which I had previously dismissed as syrupy. I also enjoyed the chance to understand the process of making ice wine and the reminder that Nalin is from Nova Scotia, not Newfoundland!

Cheers, and come back next week for the specially created Spicebox Cocktail from Dave!  For now, enjoy a selection from one of Nalin’s favorite reggae artists, Matisyahu: