Trinidad Chicken Pelau

3.4.16 | Recipe by Renz

A savory one-pot meal with a combination of chicken, rice, and pigeon peas. This is a perfect weeknight meal that can be added in rotation to your family recipes.

A plate of Trinidad chicken pelau with a tomatoes and cold slaw with a pot of pelau in the background.

After being out for a few weeks I am officially back with the recipe for one of the most popular dishes from Trinidad and Tobago.

In fact, pelau is unofficially the national dish of Trinidad (Tobago's is crab and dumpling first I feel).

If you are looking for a versatile one-pot meal that has rice, pigeon peas, and meat then you need to grab this pelau.

A flavorful meal that is extremely popular to take to beach limes, at parties, at outdoor concerts.

I think every West Indian country has its own "national" dish, officially or unofficially. Or we easily associate a certain dish with an island.

Jerk is easily Jamaican. Pepper pot is for Guyana. Fungie is for Antigua and Barbuda. Conch is Bahamian. Crab and dumpling, for Tobago. Well, pelau is simply Trini.

What is pelau and what does it mean?

Ten points for anyone who, seeing this word for the first time, pronounces it right.

It's pronounced pay-lao.

This is a master one-pot Caribbean dish. It is said to have originated in the French West Indies but has become the popular dish of Trinidad and Tobago. So popular that it is officially the unofficial dish of Trinidad and Tobago.

It stemmed from chicken pilaf originally, but then adapted to the region and what was available.

It is one of those one-pot dishes everybody has their "way" of making. But at the most basic level, traditionally, the common ingredients are rice, pigeon peas, and some meat, most popularly chicken.

Pigeon peas are used because of the type of legume it is. It can stand up to cooking pressure. It's can be found dried in packages, or fresh and even frozen. Fresh is the best in my opinion but all variations are great to use.

Over time we have seen variations of pelau with different meats being substituted: beef, pork, pigtail, and even fish. We even see substitutions for the type of peas (red beans/black eye peas) and the types of rice (brown rice instead of parboiled).

We have also seen no meat versions, where the dish just includes rice, peas, pumpkin, and some other vegetables.

How to Make Trini Pelau

A lot of people in the early stages of making pelau are a bit wary of getting the initial step of burning sugar or making "burnt sugar". This is the same process we use when making our stewed chicken.

We are not actually "burning" the sugar. We do not want that to happen because then you will get bitter-tasting meat. What we are trying to do is get the sugar to caramelize and then add the meat to it so that it browns to a nice color and gives a deep flavor to the meat.

I much prefer burning my own sugar, but you can also use bottled browning (which is what we do with sugar) instead.

Some people also like to use oil with sugar to caramelize it, but I do not usually do that, but you can. The oil helps the sugar to not stick to the pot as easily.

Once you get that sugar bubbling evenly in your heavy-bottom pot and it has a nice brown color, add your seasoned cuts of chicken and get it coated in the sugar and cook for about 2-3 minutes.

Add your pigeon peas and also get that coated.

Once you add your rice, everything should be a good color. I use parboiled rice which stands up well to heavy cooking. If you decide to substitute with brown rice or jasmine, please know that it might require a little less cooking time.

Now is the time to get the pot to set and season up.

I love using fresh coconut milk here. It's pretty easy to make. But you can also use canned coconut milk. Just makes sure it's not sweetened.

Add in your pumpkin, carrots, and other seasonings. Also your hot water. You can also substitute the water with chicken stock or chicken broth for added flavor.

If you like a little spicy, you can add a hot pepper like a scotch bonnet pepper.

And we are going to cover the pot and let this simmer down in this flavorful liquid.

Now there is a debate on wet pelau or dry pelau. And it all depends on your personal choice. I much prefer a grainy one that is considered dry. If you would like to have it be "wet" which is really more liquid you would need to up your liquid amounts a bit.

While cooking you can add more broth or water later down to get the texture you want. My recipe is going to create a "dry" pelau.

I like to add more seasonings at the end. Some fresh culantro/shado beni. Or even some more green seasoning or pimento peppers.

Close up of a finished pot of pelau with chicken, rice, peas and carrots.

What to eat with pelau

By itself, this is a whole meal. But we know we need to have some sides.

Pelau is commonly used as a "lime" food at social events (beach, house party, social event, cricket match) and we need it to feed everybody. So we include other things for a full plate.

Some coleslaw, tomato, and cucumber salad, cucumber chutney, and slices of avocado.

Don't forget to have some pepper sauce for the pepper-mouth people. And some people also like additional ketchup on their pelau.

Then we slurp down some cold coconut water, mauby, or cold beers.

A full plate of pelau with sides of tomato slices.

Storage and reheating

We can eat this all week. Yes, make a big pot of pelau on Monday and eat it till it is finished on Thursday.

It's a one-dish meal that tastes better as it gets "stale". It lasts for up to five days in an air-tight container in the fridge.

If any leftovers after that can surely be frozen for up to three months. When ready to be eaten, take it out of the freezer and place it in the fridge, then warm it up in the microwave.

Pelau is great to also make ahead and just warm up in time for your event.

It is my go-to meal for something, quick and flavorful and with not much effort.

The entire dish is cooked in one pot which makes cleaning up so easy.

This is one of the dishes we refer to as "real trini food" and will always be a part of my menu whether I am at home or abroad.

I really encourage you to try this dish. If it's one Trini food you should try let it be pelau.

A delicious plate of Trinidad chicken pelau.

If you love one-pot dishes, here are some more Caribbean-based ones:


  1. Hi ,
    I was wondering if I could replace the brown sugar for browning sauce and if so, how much should I put and when do I add it in?

    1. Oh yes you can. I would season up the meat with about a tablespoon of browning sauce, If after you throw it in the pot with oil, and the color isn't dark enough to your liking, you can always add some more browning (a tsp or so at a time) while cooking.

  2. Hi, I love this recipe so much! I made this last night, but it was more wet than dry. However, I'm not sure if it was because I covered the pot when it cooked or if it's because of the liquid. So are you supposed to use both coconut milk AND water or do you use only one? Also, do you cook with the lid on or off once you add all ingredients (the last 30 minutes)?

    1. Hey. You might just need to turn your heat up a little higher in the end of the cook to get some more of the liquid out (stove's can vary with temperature) . Yes both milk AND water is needed. I never really cover my pot to be honest lol but that shouldn't create that much more liquid. You can try to reduce the amount of water you use, and then add more water later down if you need the rice to steam some more till tender.


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