When I got married and moved to Haiti I was introduced to a new culture and cuisine. I realized early on that although Haiti was part of the Caribbean, the culture and food was quite unlike the other neighboring countries. The rich bold flavors of Haitian foods were delicious and I immediately loved the different way some familiar ingredients were used. I wanted to learn as much as I could about the fascinating history, the rich culture and the enticing cuisine of my new home. It was very important to me that I be able to cook my husband’s favorite foods. I learned many new special things from my mother-in law, Lucile. She taught me her marquise au chocolat, lambi gratin, pain patate as well as many other family favorites. My three sisters-in-law were all amazing cooks and together we shared recipes and techniques. Learning about Haitian cuisine was a great way to assimilate into a new culture and for me it was the perfect way to adapt to my new family.
Sour oranges, leeks, parsley, garlic, hot peppers or piment bouk.
Although Guyana is situated in South America, it is considered part of the Caribbean due to our common culture. As such, I thought I had knew practically all of the fruit and vegetables of the area. I discovered many new varieties which I had never tasted before when I arrived in Haïti. Due to the altitude and mountain terrain, Haïti grows several types of crops which are more familiar in cool temperatures. As most of the Caribbean is tropical and a few islands boast the high mountainous terrains like Haïti. This is why crops such as potatoes, turnips, cauliflower, broccoli, leeks and carrots can grow so well. Arabica coffee is also commonly grown in the mountains of Haïti. few of my favorites were mirlitons ( prickly pear or Christophene), sweet earthy burgundy beets, the complicated but awesome artichoke, the delicious creamy cachiman (coeur de boeuf) and the sublime taste of grenadines.
Fresh beets in all of their glory
There were also things which I could not find here locally which I was accustomed to having in Guyana, such as soft skinned pumpkin varieties, bok choi greens, bora beans, golden apples, sourie to mention a few. I had to learn to adapt my recipes and use what I could locally. It was at this point that I started integrating my spices and herbs into local foods, coming up with my own unique flavors.
My kitchen helper was rather curious about my seasonings. She had never used ginger in cooking before and it is an ingredient which I often use in many preparations. Beyond the occasional grating of ginger for teas or in a preparation like pain patate, this rhizome is not really used in Haïtian cooking. I also could not find chives or green onions easily. Instead, poireaux (leeks) and cives are more commonly used. When we started to farm our land in Belot, I had to think of a way to use leeks. We grow a great deal of it on our land and so I had to figure out a way to use the quantity of this legume which arrived at my house during the height of the season. This is how I decided to make my green spice blend, as I had a surplus one year that I had to use.
The average Haïtian cook prepares the seasoning blend as needed. The kitchen ritual of prepping the green seasoning is time consuming but habitual. The key ingredients are added to the wooden pestle: garlic, cives and parsley and are vigorously pounded together, breaking them down into a paste. This forms the base of the spices for frying the beans for diri ak pwa kolè (rice and beans). I changed the traditional formula in my home in an effort to use the abundance of farm grown leeks. It worked well and I make batches in my food processor. For the last 16 years, I have meticulously made batches of green seasoning. I store extra containers in the freezer and always have a new fresh jar on hand. I season practically all of my meats, chicken and fish with my green seasoning blend. It saves time and energy and has become a kitchen staple.
The food of Haiti is bright, flavorful and has strong African and French flavors which blend together to make up the Creole style.
Ingredients for the National and ever popular rice and beans or diri kole ak pwa rouge.A typical bouquet garni bundle and a hot pepper with cloves is commonly used in sauces and rice.
I learned a great deal about Creole cooking from two women who worked with me over the years. Rita and Rosanna were both great cooks and they shared techniques and methods of doing things the Haitian way. I learned the value of the basic components of Haitian cuisines such as sour oranges, piment bouk, poireaux and a bouquet garni could enhance creole food. The simple addition of a few cloves, ground or whole to a dish can also heighten the flavor incredibly. In turn, I showed them many new ways of using local ingredients and how to blend them with other non-traditional ingredients to create flavors which were unknown to them. I can say that in my home I have created a true fusion cuisine over the course of 28 years. For me, that’s what innovation is all about. It’s about taking the best things that exist in a culture and combining them in new and exciting ways to create something fresh and out of the ordinary. I find great pleasure in using the spices and methods of my ancestors and mixing them with ingredients and methods of my adopted home.
A bounty of organic freshly harvested vegetables grown in the mountains of Haïti.
Haitian dried black mushrooms or djon djon.
Tasting djon djon, a small black mushroom only found in the mountains of Haiti was quite a revelation. It is the principle ingredient used to make an unforgettable and very flavorful black rice. It must be reconstituted with water and the woodsy flavors of the mushrooms can then be imbibed in the rice grains. The addition of seafood to the rice is a special treat. It can be also made by combining the flavors of tiny dried shrimp, fresh shrimp or small blue crabs. Using any of these seafood additions will greatly enhance the flavor and will make an already exquisite rice even more delicious and flavorful. This particular rice is served on special occasions such as weddings, baptisms and holidays.
In Haïti, I also discovered a meat which I had never eaten before. Goat meat is readily found all over the country. There are goats herded by invisible owners. Goats can be seen in many neighborhoods roaming menacingly in search of grass and leaves. They are not herded by anyone who takes responsibility for their transgressions. If a goat is seized by someone or killed by a vehicle; miraculously the owner appears on the scene to be compensated. These animals are serious eating machines and are highly destructive to gardens, shrubbery and flowers. They seem to have an insatiable appetite and if one has the unfortunate luck of having a goat wander into a garden or field, great havoc will be done in a short while. I have seen the amazing agility of goats jumping onto parked cars in order to reach tall overhanging leafy branches of trees.
But as menacing as goats are, these animals provide a most delicious meat. It is not as gamey as lamb and is low in fat and high in protein. It is delicious prepared creole style but in my opinion is Cabrit boucanné or spicy grilled goat is the most succulent. Marinated overnight in a bath of sour oranges and hot peppers, small cuts of meat are rapidly grilled over charcoal and eaten with fried green plantains. This simple preparation is delicious beyond belief. I also make a very good curry goat in homage to my Guyanese roots, and it is well loved in my family.
Another delicacy enjoyed in Haïti is pintade or guinea fowl. These beautiful grey and white speckled birds are hunted in the wild and are very difficult to catch. They are also farmed in small quantities, and are today quite expensive. The meat has a refined taste. As this bird is rather active, the meat is best cooked in a braised preparation. Pintade in a black mushroom sauce (djon djon) with breadnuts (Arbe à pain) is a Haitian classic.
The simple everyday rice and beans is the accompaniment to most meals, as is the ubiquitous ‘sos pwa’ or bean sauce which is poured liberally over white rice and is a Haitian staple. Corn meal and millet are also eaten in place of rice. Ground provisions such as potatoes, yams, sweet potatoes, plantains, malanga and cassava are root vegetables which are widely used all over the country.
Creole food is delicious and will vary slightly in different provinces with more seafood eaten along coastal areas. Although this is a large island and we are surrounded by the sea in a large portion of the country, seafood is very expensive and not always easily available. In seaside towns, you will definitely be able to find fresh fish, lobster and crabs.
Fishermen offering their catch of fresh fish to be grilled on the beach in Haïti
Haitians love lambi or conch. There are always people meandering around market places with pots of prepared conch and a bottle of hot sauce made of lime juice and hot peppers selling to eager customers. Lambi boucanné is a beach favorite. Spicy and delicious, it is synonymous with summertime and the beach in Haïti. Salted local fish as well as imported salted codfish and smoked herring are commonly used in creole cooking. As these dried type of fish are preserved and requires no refrigeration, it is a common food source to many.
Like many Caribbean countries, spicy flavors are embraced and therefore hot peppers are a part of the cuisine, though they are used more for flavoring rather than merely the heat packing element. The addition of whole peppers to simmer in sauces and to steam amid rice dishes is common. The spicy condiment pickleez, is a Haitian slaw made with cabbage, carrots, onions, vinegar and hot peppers. It works perfectly with practically all foods and is served as a condiment and part of the meal. It is the equivalent of pepper sauce on the table in a Guyanese home. A spicy clear gravy called “sòs ti malice” is also a favorite to accompany grilled meats or to serve on rice when there is no meat cooked in a sauce. It is usually quite spicy and is also made with eshallots.
A plate of fritay (mixed fried green plantains and bread fruit) and bowl of pickleez or spicy slaw.
Another very typical Haitian food which is not only delicious but bears a very strong traditional importance in this culture is Soupe joumou or Pumpkin soup. I knew pumpkin soup in Guyana, but it is not prepared in the same way as it is in Haïti. The strain of pumpkin is also not the same. The skin of the pumpkin or joumou is tough and hard and has to be cut with great strength and pressure unlike the pumpkins in Guyana, which are sweeter and more water based. The flesh when cooked is of a heavier and thicker consistency. The symbolism behind this creation is one of national pride. It is traditional to have a bowl of soupe joumou on January 1 to celebrate the New year as well as in remembrance of Haitian Independence. The pumpkins, turnips, potatoes and cabbages were items which slaves were forbidden to consume and were meant solely for the masters. It was only fitting that upon victory, all of the forbidden ingredients were melded together to make a soup to commemorate Freedom.
The deep yellow/ orange colored pumpkins make the best soup.
It is made from a stock base of beef and pork or chicken stock. Puréed Pumpkin, potatoes, turnips, carrots and cabbage are added to make one of the most delicious and satisfying soups imaginable. It is also quite common to add a bit of pasta to the soup. This was probably not in the original soups back in the day, but it is a nice addition. Soup joumou is synonymous with a free and independent Haïti.
Food is an important part of any culture. We all need to nourish our bodies in order to function and it is fascinating to me the way that food is prepared all over the world. In my little corner of the earth, undoubtedly economics dictates how well and how varied a person’s diet is formulated. Haïti is a country of diversity in many realms, therefore local foods will most definitely vary from region to region. One thing that I can state for sure is that all Haitians have learned to use whatever is at their disposal to create a tasty meal for their families. From porridges made with ground fermented corn (AK100), manioc, rice or wheat, flavored with cinnamon, lime zest and cloves to hearty bowls of bouillon or soups using various root vegetables and fresh greens like watercress and spinach, Haitian food a wide spectrum of choices. The Marchand de griot can be found all over the country selling plates of fried pork and fried green plantains. The meat is marinated and boiled in Seville oranges, peppers and spices and then cut into chunks and fried golden brown. This is local food which is customary and well loved all over the island… from the mountains, the plains and to the coastal regions, you will see these familiar spots with the local griot vendors and their vats of cooking oil and meats.
Spaghetti for breakfast is common on menus and as odd as this may seem to some, it is tasty and filling. Made with sautéed sweet peppers, onions, and either fried sausages or even smoked herring , this local pasta dish is easily made and widely available. French styled puff pastry pâtés are also delicious and a big part of Haitian food culture. They can be found fresh at all patisseries with filling of chicken, beef, ham and cheese and salted cod. I urge you to look for a Haitian restaurant if you live in the USA, France or Canada as these are areas where there are large Haitian diaspora communities. Try something new and exciting to tantalize your palate and to open your mind about Haïti. Order some stewed goat or other Creole dishes like turkey Tasso. Try an appetizer platter of accra, marinade or pork griot. Taste Creole chicken with rice and beans or a vegetable dish simply called ‘touffé de legumes’ made of braised eggplant, mirlitons, onions and tomatoes. There is great variety and a wealth of flavors to enjoy in Haïtian foods. I hope you can take the culinary journey soon.
Top photo: fried sardines, Middle: typical Haitian meal of chicken creole, rice and beans, mirliton gratin. Last photo: stewed goat with okra and rice and pigeon peas.