Caribbean Style Stew Chicken…it’s a dish that I fondly remember making an appearance at my mother’s dinner table almost every Sunday with variations of beef or pork too. Rich and bursting with Caribbean flair, the true flavor of this dish comes from the caramelized brown sugar that is used as the base for the sauce and subsequently what the meat simmers in. But don’t let that fool you, this isn’t a sweet dish, it’s quite savory with gorgeously subtle caramel undertones. Making it is a cinch but there are a few tricks to know to the process. Taught to me by my mother, here is how you make this staple Caribbean dish…
To begin, we’ll gather our ingredients. Today I’ll be using some boneless, skinless chicken (though beef or pork works beautifully as well!) that will be seasoned with salt, pepper, gluten-free soy sauce, smoked paprika, chipotle powder, cayenne pepper, tomato sauce, thyme, onion, garlic, chives, ginger, basil, cilantro (or culantro aka chadon beni if you prefer) and dried oregano. For the caramelization we’ll need oil and raw organic brown cane sugar.
Now, just a quick note about the sugar, regular brown sugar is what my mother used to make this but the reality of brown sugar is that it’s not clean. As a matter of fact, it’s stripped down white sugar that they’ve added molasses back into (ironically they do this after they remove the molasses and process the sugar to death). I’ve tried other sugars including coconut and date and the flavor profile was drastically changed. Finally though, I spotted a bag of raw, organic brown cane sugar on sale, and after doing some research, I learned that the molasses content is never removed, and that the overall process of this sugar passes the clean production test!
After adding all the seasoning to the cubed chicken
We’ll mix it all together and allow it to marinate for at least an hour.
Now comes the tricky part: Browning the sugar in oil. This is something you need to keep your eye on because it can go from nice and caramelized to burnt in just seconds. If that happens the stew will be dark and bitter. But if you add in your chicken too soon, the meat will be pale and cloyingly sweet. This dish is all about balance. A good measure is to keep your heat on med-high and watch until the sugar completely spreads out and starts to froth and bubble and you can just see the underside beginning to darken.
Be sure you have your seasoned meat ready at hand to add it to the pot the moment it resembles #6 in the above image. Once you add the meat, quickly turn/mix the meat to evenly coat all pieces in the browned sugar. Note that there will be a loud hiss and some pops and splashes of the oil as you add in the chicken (especially if there is a lot of liquid in the marinade) so be careful! Molten hot sugar is no joking matter. I’ve found that using a deeper pot does help to mitigate the splashing and sizzling as well as adding the chicken in all at once so that it creates its own barrier over the oil.
Once all pieces are coated (this should take no more than 5-10 seconds from the moment you add the meat in) lower the heat to med-low and let the chicken rest for two minutes to continue caramelizing before turning it once more.
Once the meat has cooked half-way through we’re going to add some liquid to the pot. Now the choice is yours here, you can add in water or low sodium chicken broth and/or you can even add in a touch of coconut milk if you like (in a ratio of your preference). Once the liquid is added to almost cover the chicken we’re going to cover the pot and simmer for 20-30 minutes until the liquid is reduced by half.
Also, as a bit of an aside, it would be amiss of me to not mention that in true Caribbean fashion a whole uncut hot pepper 🌶️ is typically added to the pot when the liquid is added and the meat is left to simmer. The pepper adds a whole other dimension of flavor to this dish beyond heat. Before serving the pepper is removed to prevent it from breaking or splitting because if it does, the entire dish becomes VERY spicy 🔥🔥🔥
The end result is a richly colored and flavorful meat that is only just slightly sweet and very well seasoned. The balance of flavors here is paramount and this meat dish pairs well with so many things from rice and beans to one of my favorite Caribbean dishes: Green Banana Pie. This method is also the key step to creating a sensational Caribbean-style Pelau which is also a phenomenal one-pot rice, peas, and meat dish that is the unnamed national dish of Trinidad and Tobago!
Caribbean Style Stew Chicken
- 2 lb boneless, skinless chicken breasts (cubed)
- 2 tbsp chives (finely chopped)
- 3 tbsp fresh cilantro (or 1 tbsp culantro aka chadon beni)
- 3 cloves garlic (grated)
- 1/2 medium onion (diced)
- 1 tbsp dried basil (chopped)
- 1 tsp Dried Oregano
- 1 tsp fresh ginger (grated)
- 3 sprigs fine thyme
- 1 tsp Smoked Paprika
- 1 tsp Chipotle Powder
- 1 tsp cayenne powder
- 2 tsp Himalayan salt
- 1 tsp ground black pepper
- 3 tbsp tomato sauce
- 2 tbsp soy sauce
- 3 tbsp raw cane sugar
- 1-2 cup water or chicken broth
- 1/2 cup coconut milk (optional)
- 4 tbsp extra light olive oil
- Dice the chicken breast and season using the chives, cilantro, garlic, onion, basil, oregano, ginger, thyme (leaves only, discard the sticks), paprika, chipotle, cayenne, salt and pepper, soy sauce and tomato sauce. Mix well to ensure all seasoning is evenly distributed. Cover, and marinate for at least an hour.
(*See notes #1, #2 and #3)
- In a heavy-bottom pot add the oil and the sugar on high to medium-high . Allow the sugar to slowly melt and when it starts to spread, froth, and you can just see the edges and underside (through the froth) beginning to darken, lower the heat to medium-low and add in the chicken and turn it quickly to ensure that all pieces are evenly coated with the caramelized sugar.
(*See notes #4, #5 and #6)
- Once coated, allow the chicken to cook undisturbed for two to three minutes before turning and allowing the pieces to cook on the other side for another two to three minutes.
(*See note #7)
- Pour in enough water or broth, and, if using, coconut milk to partially cover the chicken.
(*See notes #9 and #10)
- Cover and allow to simmer on low heat for 20-30 minutes until the chicken is tender and half of the liquid has cooked off.
- Adjust salt levels to taste.
(*See note #8)
- Store any leftovers in an airtight container in the fridge for up to a week. Similarly you can freeze the meat in the sauce in the freezer for up to three months.
- Even though I used chicken for this recipe, pork and beef can also be used and works beautifully. You can also use bone-in meat.
- Don't omit the ginger, it really does elevate the level of flavor in this dish.
- Even though the tomato sauce seems odd, its umami flavor blends well with the chicken so don't skip it!
- The browning of the sugar is where things can go wrong so be vigilant! It takes a bit of time for the sugar to begin to caramelize, but once it starts to happen you have a space of seconds to add in the meat before it goes from perfect to burnt so do not walk way from the pot at this stage!
- If the sugar gets too dark or blackens entirely, discard it (by removing the pot from the heat and letting it cool completely) and start over. Burned sugar will make the dish bitter.
- Be careful when adding the chicken to the oil and caramelized sugar. There is often splash-back when any moisture in the chicken and its marinade hits the oil. Using a deeper pot and adding the chicken quickly and all at once minimizes this. Just be careful when you go to turn the chicken at first.
- Step 3 is essential in allowing the color on the meat to develop and for the caramelized flavor to set. If you rush this step and add in the liquid in too soon you'll find that your stew is pale and may be bland.
- If you find in your taste test that there is a slightly bitter taste to the sauce, try adding sugar a teaspoon at a time to the finished dish and adjust the salt levels to balance the flavor. The sweetness will in part cover up the bitterness but note that if the bitterness is too strong there is no saving the dish.
- Adding in the coconut milk is optional but it adds an extra layer of deep and rich Caribbean flavor so I highly recommend it!
- If you prefer a thicker sauce one way to attain this is by adding in a couple tablespoons of a potato starch slurry to the simmering stew and stir to incorporate it. An even better trick is to add 1/2 cup of cubed butternut squash just after you add the liquid. The squash cooks and melts and thickens the sauce.