Recipe: Ital Pelau [Shiitake Mushroom]

Nazma Muller:

As a child, Amilcar Sanatan was awakened on Saturday mornings by the spicy aroma of delectably seasoned meat as it cooked in bubbling brown sugar and hot oil. This, he would think, is what bliss smells like, as Aunt Valerina once again made her magic pelau. For Sanatan, a former president of the Students Guild at the University of the West Indies St Augustine campus, and now a research assistant at the Institute of Gender and Development Studies, this national dish is part of his DNA. “But as a Rasta man, meat is not,” he says. “It may come off as cuss words and devil-talk if I ever shared the idea with my granny, Aunty Val, and family that pelau can also be vegetarian.”

While it may seem like treason to even think of pelau sans chicken — or beef or lamb, goat or pork — Sanatan uses mushrooms instead. Shiitake mushrooms, to be precise. Their smoky flavour and chewy texture — once marinated with the right herbs and spices — can make even the most carnivorous Trini exclaim: “This chicken tasting real boss!”

Sanatan shudders at the thought of using a strict recipe; most people cook pelau “by heart,” either having learned from watching their “sweet hand” granny or mother — who all seem to have been born with the instinct to gauge precisely how much freshly squeezed coconut milk to add to the pot — or else by experimenting. 

1 cup long-grain brown rice
4 tablespoons vegetable oil
4 garlic cloves, minced
4 chives, chopped
1 onion, minced
3 tablespoons brown sugar
½ pound pumpkin, sliced into chunks
4 ochroes, sliced finely
½ cup whole corn
1 can pigeon peas
1 red sweet pepper, minced
1 whole hot scotch bonnet pepper
1 cup coconut milk
1 pound shiitake mushrooms — stems removed, sliced into chunks
4 chadon beni (culantro) leaves, minced
1 tablespoon grated ginger
2 tablespoons soy sauce
Salt and black pepper to taste

Season shiitake mushrooms with chadon beni and grated ginger. In a large pot, heat the vegetable oil over medium heat. Add the sugar until it begins to bubble. Add garlic, chives, and onion. Next add two cups of water, pumpkin, pigeon peas, ochroes, two tablespoons of salt, and two tablespoons of black pepper. Add pigeon peas. Cover the pot and cook for 10 minutes. In the same pot, add four cups of water and one cup of coconut milk. Cook over medium heat. When the water starts to boil, add the rice. Let boil for 10 minutes. Add the scotch bonnet pepper and corn. Reduce heat to simmer and add seasoned shiitake mushrooms. Uncover and stir pot occasionally. Add salt and black pepper to taste.

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