Trinidad pelau is a one-pot rice dish made with pigeon peas, chicken (or beef), coconut milk and "burnt" sugar.
Read on to learn how to make this iconic Caribbean dish!
When I think about the most iconic Trinidadian recipes, the ones that are an important part of our culture, the three recipes that come to mind are calalloo with crab (a soupy vegetable side-dish often served on rice), macaroni pie, and pelau.
These are the family recipes that my mom would cook when I was growing up, and that I'm trying to learn how to make on my own.
I've got the macaroni pie recipe down pat now (and I make a good sorrel drink too), but I haven't made calaloo on my own yet... that's next up on my list.
Today I'm sharing our family's version of Trinidadian pelau with chicken and pigeon peas, which I think might now be the most tested recipe on this website.
This is a seriously good recipe for pelau, in my opinion. I know every Trini family has their own way of making this dish, but (obviously) I'm partial to this one. It's basically the same recipe that my mom has been making for me all my life, and now I get to share it with you.
📖 Recipe Variations
As I mentioned before, every family has their own way of making Trinidadian pelau.
Some people like to add ketchup and/or tomatoes to the dish, which gives it some acidity and a reddish colour.
I've been told that sometimes pumpkin or butternut squash is added for sweetness, but I've never had it with that.
Another popular addition is Worcestershire sauce and/or soy sauce to add salty "umami" flavour, which I prefer with the beef version of this dish.
And of course, pelau can range from mild to super spicy depending on how much Scotch Bonnet pepper you add to it.
Scotch Bonnets are easily my favourite hot pepper, by the way. They are beautiful, fragrant and wicked hot! They are similar to a Habanero pepper, so you can use those as a substitute if you need to.
Another common ingredient is something Caribbean families refer to as "green seasoning", which is a combination of thyme or Spanish thyme, green onions, shado beni (culantro), garlic, onion and hot peppers (optional).
This mixture is used as a marinade for meats and as a seasoning for dishes like this Trinidad pelau.
I've left the green seasoning out of this recipe, because not everyone will want to go through the effort to make it and really, the rice is still really good without it. But if you have some in your fridge or freezer, feel free to add it to the recipe.
The last common addition to this dish is Golden Ray margarine. We hardly cook with this at home anymore because it's hard to find.
I've seen it described as a "vegetable oil butter" online, but I have a sneaking suspicion that it might be a hydrogenated margarine (the bad kind of margarine)... but damn is it ever tasty. It's bright orange in colour and adds a depth of flavour that I can't quite describe.
What are Pigeon Peas?
If you haven't eaten pigeon peas before, you're probably wondering what they are.
Honestly, I don't know why they're called "pigeon" peas, but they have nothing to do with the bird. They're actually tiny legumes that are native to Africa, but are widely used in Caribbean, South Asian and Southern United States cuisines.
Depending where you live, you may be able to find pigeon peas fresh, frozen, dried or canned.
I usually buy canned ones because they are easy to find in the international aisle at most grocery stores.
We've made this Trinidadian pelau with green pigeon peas before, but I prefer the "dry" pigeon peas instead.
These still come in a can, but they are pigeon peas that have been dried before canning. I think they have a nuttier flavour, and are a bit chewier too... but I could be imagining that.
🔥 How Do You "Burn" Sugar for Pelau?
Ok, first of all while people call it "burnt" sugar, you don't actually want to make your sugar black! It would be acrid and very unpleasant to eat.
What you're looking for is a deep caramelization of the sugar (see image above), which does have a bit of bitterness to it, but ultimately adds complexity to the overall flavour of the dish.
🥥 What Kind of Coconut Milk Should You Use?
There are 2 different kinds of coconut milk at my local grocery. One comes in a can and one comes in a carton.
For this recipe, and most recipes where you cook with coconut milk, you're going to want the canned version. The one in the carton is meant for drinking, and it's very watery in comparison.
I know I add water to my coconut milk in this recipe, but trust me it's not going to turn out the same. The canned version has more fat, which is something you want because it adds a certain creaminess to the rice that you wouldn't get with just water.
If you can't find coconut milk, you can used creamed coconut (which is more concentrated), or you can dilute a can of coconut cream with some water and that should work out ok for you.
My last tip for this recipe is to not worry if the rice sticks to the bottom of the pot. It's pretty much guaranteed to do that, and it's the best part of the dish (it's called bun bun). Just be careful not to actually burn it, and you'll be good to go.
I hope you enjoy making this dish! If you do, please give this recipe a star rating in the recipe card, leave me a comment, or share a photo on social media with #InSearchOfYummyness. I'd love to see what you make!
Happy cooking 🙂
🖨 Printable Recipe
Trinidad Pelau with Chicken and Pigeon Peas
- 2 ½ pounds chicken thighs , bone-in, skin on (could also use chicken legs)
- 3 sprigs thyme, use less if using dried thyme
- 4 cloves garlic, finely chopped, grated or pressed
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ¼ teaspoon black pepper
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil , or any neutral cooking oil
- 1 tablespoon brown sugar
- ½ onion, chopped
- ½ cup carrot, chopped
- 19 ounces dry pigeon peas, rinsed and drained (1 can)
- 2 cups long grain rice, washed and drained
- 1 tablespoon cilantro, finely chopped
- ¼ cup green onion, finely chopped
- ¼ teaspoon scotch bonnet pepper, or more if desired
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 7 ounces coconut milk
- 3 cups hot water, or chicken stock
- 1 teaspoon Golden Ray margarine, optional
- OPTIONAL STEP: Place chicken in a large bowl to marinate. Add 1 sprig of thyme (reserve the other 3 for cooking), garlic, salt, and black pepper. Stir to coat the chicken with the seasonings, cover and place in the fridge for 30 minutes (or overnight).
- Add oil to a large heavy bottom pot, and place over medium heat.
- Once oil is hot (but not smoking) pour the sugar into the pot in an even layer and allow to caramelize. The sugar will melt and bubble as it caramelizes. Do not stir the sugar, but watch it carefully to look for the change in colour.Wait until the sugar just starts to turn dark brown in colour (not black!), then carefully add chicken to the pot and stir to coat with the "burnt" sugar. (Use caution - hot sugar can burn you badly!)
- Add onion, carrots and pigeon peas to the pot and stir to combine. Cook for 5 minutes.
- Add rice, stir, and cook for another 5 minutes. Then add cilantro, green onion, reserved sprigs of thyme, and scotch bonnet pepper. Stir to combine.
- Add coconut milk and hot water to the pot. Season with salt and black pepper. Reduce heat to medium-low, cover pot and gently simmer for about 20-25 minutes, or until all liquid has been absorbed and rice is cooked through.
- Stir in margarine, if using. Serve hot or at room temperature.
- Feel free to use Caribbean green seasoning, if you have, it in place of the thyme, when seasoning the chicken.
- Use canned coconut milk, not the kind that comes in a carton
- This dish works well with both green pigeon peas and dry pigeon peas.
- Some people like to add ketchup and/or tomatoes to the dish, which gives it some acidity and a reddish colour.
- You could also try adding pumpkin or butternut squash for sweetness
- Worcestershire sauce and/or soy sauce can be add a salty "umami" flavour (but I prefer to use this with the beef version of this dish).
- Pelau can range from mild to super spicy depending on how much Scotch Bonnet pepper you add to it.
- If you can't find coconut milk, you can used creamed coconut (which is more concentrated), or you can dilute a can of coconut cream with some water.
- If you can find Golden Ray margarine, and enjoy that flavour, be sure to add it at the end of the cooking process.
- Be sure to deeply caramelize your sugar but not actually burn it.
- Chicken should be cooked to at least 165 ºF for food safety.
Please read the blog post for detailed tips and explanations.
Nutrition Disclaimer: this nutritional information is only an estimate. The accuracy of this information cannot be guaranteed.
Love the recipe and the explanation behind everything. My mom loved to eat the "bun bun". Have to try it with the dry pigeon peas. I always use green pigeon peas.
Thanks for your feedback Joan! If you do give it a try with the dry pigeon peas, let me know how you like it!
Vanessa | Zest & Simmer
I haven’t heard of this dish before, so now I really want to try it! The flavours sound exactly like something I would love. Thanks for sharing! Pinned for later
Thanks Vanessa! It's a nice one-pot dinner option 🙂
This sounds so warm and filling. Years ago when I had a catering company, I catered a themed event for the Trinidad & Tobago Carnival here in Calgary and we got the opportunity to research and make so many amazing Carribean dishes. This post brought back some great memories.
Oh that's cool. I love researching other cuisines, you learn a lot that way!
Quite a few years ago now, I was involved in a Habitat for Humanity build in Trinidad - our group was actually the first Canadian group to participate in a Habitat build. During that time, our group did try a dish similar to this. It is nice to see the technique and ingredients and directions for Pelau. Many thanks for sharing your family recipe with us.
I remember you mentioning the build to me before actually! Thanks for reading my blog post 🙂
Matt - Total Feasts
I just found your blog via FBC! Love the look of this dish, the creaminess and savoury, plus the pepper for a bit of heat. Now, I just need to find pigeon peas in the UK!
Thanks for visiting! Good luck with your search for pigeon peas!
I have never tried anything like this and now I definitely want to! It sounds absolutely delicious!
It's tasty! If you end up trying it, let me know how it turns out for you 🙂
Growing up with Grenadian parents, they made this dish for us regularly. The bun bun was my favorite! I have never attempted to make it myself before, but your recipe sounds the closest to my parents. Look forward to trying this soon.
I hope you like it Ayana! Let me know how it turns out for you 🙂
I am so happy with this recipe. Making this brought back so many childhood memories. I was so happy to cook this with for family and they enjoyed it, this will become a family staple in our home. I had to leave out peppers as I am the one one who loves spicy foods..
Hi Natasha, thank you so much for your comment. I'm glad to hear your family enjoyed the recipe, and it brought back memories for you. 🙂