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Susan Spicer’s crab pelau

For four as a main dish.

According to Austin Clarke, “[s]ince you can only make real pelau with chicken, it don’t make sense to call it chicken pelau.” New rules; while it is something of a national dish in Trinidad, and we have no cause to doubt Clarke’s notion of how it always is made there and in his own Barbados, there are, in fact, lots of different and authentic pelaus. This one uses crab: Another splendid dish from the New Orleanian master, an overtly Caribbean concept that owes more than a little to kedgeree, a favorite hybrid from the Raj.


crab100.jpg-1 Tablespoon unsalted butter

-1 Tablespoon neutral oil

-a minced celery stalk

-2 smashed and minced garlic cloves

-a minced onion

-1 heaped Tablespoon curry powder

-¼ teaspoon cayenne

-¼ teaspoon black pepper

-2 cups rice (see the Notes)

-a tomato, peeled, seeded and chopped

-about 1 ½ cups coconut milk

-2 teaspoons Angostura bitters

-1 Tablespoon lime juice

-1 ½ cups water

-1 lb crabmeat


-hot sauce

-¼ cup chopped basil

-¼ cup chopped cilantro

-½ cup minced scallion greens

  1. Melt the butter with the oil over medium high heat in a heavy pot and stir the celery, garlic and onion.
  2. Stir fry the vegetables for 2 minutes, then stir the curry powder, cayenne and pepper into the pot and cook for another 2 minutes.
  3. Add the rice and continue to stir fry the mixture for… 2 minutes longer.
  4. Add the tomato, coconut milk, bitters, lime juice and water, bring the pelau to a boil, then reduce the heat to low, cover the pot and cook for another 10 minutes.
  5. Stir the crabmeat into the rice mixture, replace the cover and continue to cook the pelau until the rice has absorbed the liquid, usually in about 5-10 more minutes; if the liquid is gone and the rice remains uncooked, add a judicious amount of coconut milk; not too much, you want fluffy pelau, not glop.
  6. Turn off the heat, gently stir the pelau to remix the ingredients (they tend to separate as the rice cooks), check for salt, season with hot sauce and replace the cover.
  7. Let the pelau stand for 10 minutes, then stir the scallions, basil and cilantro into the pelau. Serve immediately.


- Spicer adds her crabmeat at Step 4 to cook for a full 20 minutes or so; we find that too long.

- She also uses carrot instead of celery: Take your pick or use both. We find the carrot too sweet.

- We have doubled her amount of bitters because we found that the original amount got lost.

- The Editor follows the lead of Paul Prudhomme and likes Uncle Ben’s rice.

- Do not be deterred by the relatively long list of ingredients. This is an easy and forgiving recipe.

- Spicer, whose base technique is not Caribbean, actually calls her pelau pilaff. Whatever she calls it, this dish is not only good on its own, but also as a topping for simply grilled or roasted finfish.

- Austin Clarke’s quotation is from Pig Tails ‘n Breadfruit (New York 1999). He never measures anything and his minimalist recipe for Barbadian (chicken) pelau goes something like this: Take as many pieces of chicken, including backs, feet and gizzards if you like, and rub them down with lemon juice. Dry the chicken and season it generously with salt, pepper and both dried and fresh (if you have some) thyme. Toss the seasoned chicken with some thinly sliced onion and let it stand for an hour or two. Heat a few Tablespoons of neutral oil in a cast iron pot over medium heat and add a heaped Tablespoon of brown sugar. Whisk the sugar and oil carefully (the spatter will cause a particularly nasty burn) until the sugar colors and halfheartedly combines a little with the oil, then brown the chicken pieces all over in the sugared oil. Reduce the heat to low, throw a couple of smashed garlic cloves into the pot with a peeled, chopped tomato and lots of hot sauce, then simmer for about half an hour. Here we do feel impelled to measure, however contingently, despite Clarke’s blandishments: Add a volume of water or chicken stock including about half a cup of orange or grapefruit juice that totals 1 ½ times the amount of rice you are cooking to the pot, stir that rice in too, reboil the pot then cover and simmer it until the liquid is gone and the rice is done, usually for about 20 minutes. Let the pelau stand for a few minutes before giving it a stir and serving it.

- If your tomato has thrown a lot of liquid that remains in the pot when you add the orangy water, reduce the amount accordingly.

- Clarke does not worry if his pelau is tepid. In fact he likes it that way.

- He is firm about the proper accompaniments for his pelau: None. “Some of your greaty-greaty friends might call for a salad. Tell them to go to hell! Pelau don’t need no salad.” (Pig Tails 195)