A pelau of her own

Pelau = rice + meat + pigeon peas, right? Not if Anu Lakhan has her way. A plea for pea-free pelau

Illustration by Shalini SeereeramIllustration by Shalini Seereeram

Diet-wise, mine was a wild and uninhibited youth, unfettered

by health concerns or nagging parents. True, my eating habits have turned
out to be appalling; but it is also true — and how many can say this? — that
I have never had to endure, beyond a first bite, anything I did not enjoy.

The list of things I would eat was neither shorter nor more bizarre
than those of other young problem-eaters; I was simply allowed to eat as
I chose. The result of this surfeit of freedom is a kind of obliviousness
to convention.

Which brings me to pelau. Having little concern for the culinary rules
and expectations of society, I was shocked the day I realised that the one-pot
wonder I had enjoyed for years was not, in fact, the national treasure I
thought it. By rights, many scoffed, it could not even lay claim to the name.
The pelau I adore was ostracised on what I can only call very thin grounds:
it is entirely devoid of pigeon peas.

I argued the case: the preparation is the same; the taste is the same,
but without the intrusion of the odious legume. Much head-shaking. My family
slides into ignominy. We alone are responsible for the shameful position
the worthy pelau finds itself in. I might as well truss up a teapot and try
to pass it off as a Christmas turkey, for all I am able to convince my detractors.
It seems that one might even be allowed, on grounds of vegetarianism or
great poverty, to skip the meat; but on the issue of pigeon peas the ruling
is clear. How else could we have evolved a phrase of endearment like, “Darling,
you are the peas in my pelau”?

Rice + meat + pigeon peas = pelau. The combination is stewed richly to
a result that, at its best, is sweet and slightly sticky; not like a dessert,
but in that spiritually satisfying kind of way that only the finest stews
can achieve.

But I persevere on my lonely course, in spite of the criticism, and, in
time, make so bold as not merely to deny the peas but to introduce a substitute
in the form of the mushroom. The savage flatmate calls it pseudo-pelau,
refuses to acknowledge it as the same dish prepared in countless other homes
(but all the same never refuses seconds).

Apparently, I am not merely submitting to a minor idiosyncrasy, but am
flouting a deeply entrenched Caribbean tradition. I am doing nothing short
of suggesting divorce to a pre-Protestant world. Almost every nation in
the Caribbean has its signature dish of rice cooked with legumes: cook-up
in Guyana; moros y cristianos in Cuba; straightforward peas-and-rice

in most of the English-speaking islands; and pelau in Trinidad. Further
afield, pilaus, pillafs, and paellas vary the same basic principle. A hearty
one-pot rice-based dish is irresistible for obvious reasons: it is nutritionally
all-inclusive; diverse in taste and texture; easy to the point of being almost
idiot-proof.

In Jamaica, where guango peas are highly revered, the incarnation is known
as rice-and-peas, not peas-and-rice. This unnatural reversal of ingredient
names, a colleague speculates, points to a fundamental cynicism in that
country’s national character; the peas should be the item of significance,
with the rice serving as a mere backdrop. I disagree. I find Jamaicans neither
cynical nor gastronomically ambivalent. I am certain that by relegating
the peas to the latter part of the dish’s name, they are making a statement in favour of substance over detail. Even in a country where
to be in one’s guango is to be in one’s element, I would be entirely unsurprised
to discover that there are places where peas are left out entirely.

Food is not a precise science. Methods, desirable results, and even motives
vary. Mystery and surprise have always been part of the beauty and magic
of cooking. At worst, I fail to see why our pea-less (and peerless) version
might not be accepted simply as a minor quirk. As a family we do far odder
things, and still, after all, adhere to other pelau conventions: it is prepared
religiously on New Year’s Eve and shared liberally on Carnival days; it can
be counted on to feed the masses who have come to help you move house, paint
the wall, or any other job that requires a large volume of volunteer staff;
and it is served with no adornment besides a humble helping of coleslaw.

And if I were to heed this gross suppression of free expression, what would
follow? No breakfast foods for dinner? No ice cream as an entrée?
Must I really allow lettuce to be part of my hamburgers? And this from fellow
Trinis not without their own perversions: the ketchup-laden pizza; the desire
to curry everything that stands still. These, along with the saladification
of staples like doubles and shark-and-bake, are apparently acceptable. Enjoyed
by the masses, they are admitted to the canon. I suppose it is like making
it into the dictionary: it matters not if it is good and right, only that
common use legitimises it.

We have seen this before, this trampling of the independent will. This
is a great crisis. The refusal to allow me to interpret the pelau according
to my taste bodes no good for society. My pea-free pelau threatens anarchy.

Pseudo-pelau recipe

2 pounds chicken (cut into pieces)
1 cup rice
large handful white button mushrooms
1 heaped tablespoon brown sugar
cooking oil
1 tomato
1 onion

1 generous tablespoon green seasoning (chives,
thyme, celery)
crushed garlic (2 or 3 cloves)
Angostura bitters
nutmeg
bay leaves
cinnamon sticks
salt and pepper

Cut the chicken into pieces — not too small, and not so big that they look
ungainly on their bed of rice. You really don’t want anything more than two
or two and a half inches across. Season with green seasoning, salt, pepper,
and crushed garlic. Wash rice and set aside.

Melt the sugar in a little oil. When it’s dark and bubbly, toss in the seasoned
chicken and cook until the meat is well browned. Add the rice and two cups
of water, cover the pot, and turn the heat down low enough for you to forget
about it for a while.

Chop the onion and tomato finely. If the mushrooms are big, cut them up,
but leave them chunky. Crush a couple of bay leaves (fresh or dry), break
up a stick or two of cinnamon, grate a bit of nutmeg, and add these along
with the vegetables to the pot. Stir everything around a bit. The stirring
may not really be necessary, but it makes everywhere smell really lovely;
you can repeat as often as you want to conjure up the aroma. The bitters can
go in now or at a later stirring. Keeping the pot covered and on low heat,
cook for about 45 minutes.