A Word On Food: Chilau

Dec 28, 2013

A play of light mesmerized me as I lay in bed, savoring the last moments of an unmoored  consciousness. I allowed my mind to wander as I simply enjoyed the light show and worked on understanding where it was coming from and how it was working.

The process of cooking is nearly identical for me. The analyst in me came to realize that the fluttering sequences of light and shadow dancing on the unadorned wall placed me in the room that once was my son’s. The light of the early morning sun punctuated by the rhythm of the ceiling fan sought to keep me lulled and sleeping longer.

Curiosity escorted me from my warm repose and I entered the day. I wondered: What would Key West show me, give to me, have me taste today?

The weather was cool by this island’s standards. A breeze pushed noisily through the leaves of various trees along the canal where our home stands. As usual I was the first awake. I savor the quiet time treasuring the first coffee and my mind’s satori-seeking path. I pulled on a light sweatshirt and submitted to our dog’s excitement to do a little wandering of his own. The morning’s spell might be broken I realized, but life always intrudes. With me it is often due to hunger. And the only known antidote begins with cooking!

I had not gotten the pooch out the door before I wondered if the fish house would be open yet on Stock Island. I wanted to make an old time dish we had been discussing after dinner last night. It is a dish known by the melodically named, chilau.

All along coastal Florida up along the sea towns of Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia the cooking is very often in rapt dialog with what the fishermen bring in. The hands of history are not quick to leave these tradition-loyal folk. Languages and dialects are kept alive in the foodways of this place, especially along the docks and in the kitchens of cooks who spend more time with hooks than books or TV’s showy chefs.

Chilau is just such a word and just such a dish. The crab fishermen are whom I am hoping  have found luck with their catch last night. Whether using their nets to scoop them up, or out wading in the shallow grass flats, using their strings and chicken necks to entice the crabs from creeks in the back-country is all fine to me. I just need them fresh and kicking to make the best chilau. I will also need a host of other ingredients.

Chilau is a stew, and like many stews, has a list of things to procure first. But they are logical and have an order, usually that is, until you get to the part of the recipe that says something like “and then add in cooked spaghetti pasta” and you wonder: Where the heck did that tradition begin? Let’s get back to that in a minute.

My theory is that the word ‘chilau’ is a corruption of the word enchilada or enchilado. The Spanish version of this dish is completely different than the Mexican enchilada. But if you think about how a word as simple as ‘bed’ can be construed in various ways you should be flexible with a word like this one.

The Spanish composition that came through a few generations features ingredients any Sauce Creole maker would be familiar with. Onions, bell peppers, garlic, spices, herbs, wine, tomatoes and stock finished with plenty of sweet crab are common. We add in olives which are Spanish to the core!

Many stews call for potatoes. Chilau does not, but a starch is a good way to fill the belly and I think that spaghetti is an adaptation of Spanish noodles called “fideo.” But that is another show! 


Serves six as an appetizer

Pure olive oil, as needed

2 Tablespoons butter

3 Cloves garlic, peeled and very thinly sliced medium

1 Sweet onion, peeled and diced medium

2 Bell peppers, stem and seeds removed, diced medium

1 Poblano chile pepper

3 Stalks celery (inner stalks are best), cleaned and diced medium

1-16 Ounce can tomatoes, crushed up

4 Anchovy fillets, rinsed and minced up

1-10 Ounce can tomato sauce

1/2 Cup tomato paste

2 Cups of white wine

1-2 Tablespoons of sugar (to taste)

2 Tablespoons fresh thyme leaves, chopped up

1 Bay leaf, broken

24 Fresh crabs, cleaned

Kosher salt and fresh black pepper, to taste

2 Cups cooked potatoes or browned/toasted fideo noodles (or a combination of the two)


One to two dozen cleaned blue crabs or cleaned shellfish as desired.

Heat a large, heavy sauce pan.

Coat the pan with olive oil and heat on medium high temperature.

Add the butter and quickly add the garlic. Stir. 

Add the onion, bell pepper, poblano chile and celery. Stir and allow the vegetables to become  a bit translucent. Season with a bit of salt and pepper now.

Add the crushed tomatoes and cook until soft and heated through.

Add anchovy fillets, tomato sauce and tomato paste.

Add wine and cook for 10-15 minutes, stirring.

Add the sugar, thyme leaves, bay leaf, salt and pepper.

Let simmer for 1 hour.

Add the crabs into the mix and let simmer about 30 minutes.

Add in the cooked potatoes and/or noodles. Heat through and serve.