Learn to Burn

In cooking, “burnt” is usually an undesirable flavor.

Of course, fire is sometimes used for dramatic effect. And some people say they prefer their hot dogs or marshmallows this way, but I think that’s generally an indicator that they lack a) practice or b) patience.

Burnt sugar, on the other hand, requires a bit of skill. You don’t actually want to burn it—just caramelize it. Most Americans are only familiar with this flavor in old-fashioned burnt sugar cake.

I’d pass on that dessert, but  this dish, which also features burnt sugar, is one of my favorites.


Pelau is the iconic traditional dish of Trinidad and Tobago. It’s a one-pot rice stew, closely related to pilaf and paella. The rice is cooked in coconut milk, along with chopped vegetables, meat and pigeon peas. The signature flavor comes from pieces of chicken seasoned with garlic and herbs and seared in hot, burnt sugar.

My sister’s Trini friends have my undying gratitude for teaching her to make Pelau—and bringing Caribbean flavors to our Midwestern table.


A few notes:

You can use brown sugar for deeper flavor and color (some cooks insist on demerara; we like ours with turbinado).


Pigeon peas are traditional, but black-eyed peas work well too. Whichever you use, you’ll need to cook them first.

Black-eyed Peas

You can also trade out the chicken for beef, lamb or crab—or try pumpkin, squash or sweet potatoes for the veggies.

Before you get any other ideas, let me warn you: Don’t try brown rice for this recipe. It will take ages! Choose a white rice that cooks more quickly.



  • 2 ½ –3 lb chicken pieces, seasoned with salt, pepper, chives, thyme, garlic and parsley (or green seasoning), 1 tsp Worcestershire sauce, 1 tsp soy sauce, 1 T ketchup
  • 2 – 3 T oil
  • ¼ C sugar
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 1 sweet pepper or a few carrots, chopped
  • 1 – 1 ½ C pigeon or black-eyed peas
  • 2 C rice
  • 2 C coconut milk
  • 2 C water
  • salt and pepper, to taste
  • hot pepper, if desired

Mix the ingredients for marinade.


Stir to coat chicken pieces, and marinate as long as you choose.


Heat oil in a large skillet (large enough to hold the entire dish—unless you want to wash more pans).

Add sugar and allow to burn (this is a step you may want to practice—be careful not to let the mixture turn black and bitter).

As soon as the melted sugar bubbles and grows darker, add the seasoned meat. Stir until pieces are well coated and brown for 5 minutes.


Stir rice into chicken and cook 3 minutes.


Add vegetables and peas and stir fry.


Add salt, pepper, coconut milk and water.


Boil, then lower heat, cover and simmer until rice is cooked and liquid evaporated.


If rice is still hard, add more liquid and cook longer.


Bring this dish to perfection with kosher salt and fresh-ground pepper at the table. This intensifies all the delicious flavors so you can savor a taste of the twin islands.


If you manage to save any leftovers, they’re fantastic for breakfast—or in stuffed peppers.

Pelau Pepper

But I don’t really care whether you finish the Pelau in one sitting or stretch it out over a week.

Just don’t burn it.


One thought on “Learn to Burn

  1. Pingback: A Mad Experiment | Spicy Life

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