The Trinidadian Comfort Food You Need in Your Life
Whenever Peter Prime partied with friends at the Trinidad Steelband Panorama, a pre-Carnival winter music competition on the island, the chicken-laced pelau his friend's mother made and stuffed in a foil-lined cooler kept the festivities going.
The competition's preliminary rounds were raucous affairs that began in the evening and ended just before dawn. For Prime, the "crazy party" meant fueling up on pelau, drinking beer and rum with friends, dancing and sweating out all the calories, and then repeating the process twice more over the next two weekends.
"It's not a street food, but it does work for those events," Prime says of pelau. "You just take a cooler, paper plates, and spoons and you can feed an army."
The one-pot, white rice recipe, packed with ingredients such as green seasoning, coconut milk, and sometimes beef or chicken, is one of Trinidad's most popular dishes, says Prime, chef and co-owner of Cane, a restaurant in Washington, D.C., that specializes in dishes inspired by traditional Caribbean street food.
"[Pelau] is a really common food, something you may have on the table once a week," Prime says. "It's a staple, it travels well, it holds heat really well."
Pelau's roots go back to rice pilaf, or polow, which is commonly found in Central Asia and the Middle East. The dish arrived in Trinidad & Tobago from East Indian indentured servants, who came to the islands from colonial India, according to the Trinidad & Tobago Guardian.
Besides India, cuisine from Trinidad pulls its diverse flavors and influences from the indigenous people who were originally there, the Europeans who colonized it, the enslaved Africans who worked the sugar plantations, and the Chinese, who originally migrated to the former British colony to work as peasant farmers and free laborers.
Burning pelau's meat in sugar to cultivate a smoky, sweet taste, for example, originates in African food traditions. Indeed, sugar was the most important crop in Trinidad by the time the British took over in 1797.
Rice has a long history in Trinidad. East Indians introduced it to the island in the 1800s, and by the 1870s the crop was being cultivated in the Caroni swamp and the Oropouche Lagoon, according to the University of the West Indies. It was especially important to the Hindus, who ate it and used it in religious ceremonies.
"It was one of the early crops that we used to produce," Prime says. "We don't have very much agriculture anymore, but that was one of the things—it was sugarcane and then rice—[we produced] as we were becoming a nation."
Rice remains a staple in Trinidad. Popular rice side dishes include yellow saffron rice and Spanish rice infused with a tiny bit of mirepoix.
Many people in Prime's orbit back home typically avoided eating plain, white rice because it tasted bland to them and was typically of lower quality, Prime says. This prompted others to punch it up so it had some semblance of flavor. At Cane, Prime adds coconut milk, bay leaf, cinnamon, and star anise to jasmine rice, a mix serving as a solid foundation for everything else he prepares.
"It's super fragrant, nothing is overpowering," Prime says. "It soaks up sauce really well."
Prime says the music competition, a cultural mainstay since 1950, helped popularize pelau. The dish is inexpensive to make, and you can use whatever you have to make it. It typically comes with beef or chicken, but if you have tougher cuts of meat, you can just cook them until they're tender and throw them in, he says.
Prime says that he's seen pelau made with oxtail, salt beef, and pigtails. "It's one of those things that's a traditional food that just became popular. It's delicious, and it's portable for large groups. If you want to feed everyone, it's the way to go."
These days, Prime is planning to open a new Washington, D.C., restaurant that will center African-influenced, Trinidadian cuisine.Prime wants to experiment with his pelau by doing a play on condiments, adding "cool, funky aiolis and dressings that he's seen served with paella or pilafs," something that isn't typically done in Trinidad.
"I hope to give myself a little more license at the new restaurant to interpretive, fun cooking, as opposed to just expressing it the way we know it back home," Prime says. "I'm going to let myself be a chef sometimes."