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News from Haiti Vol. 11 (Final): Culture of Haiti

  Haiti’s Foodstuffs and Food Culture

Contributed to by the former Japanese Ambassador to Haiti, Mr. Yoshiaki HATTA

Haiti is also known for its Haitian Creole cuisine. Haiti is a nation with a long history and blessed with natural resources, having been the site of cross-cultural communication through the ages. These factors have led to the creation of a unique food culture, continuing to develop with the addition of new innovations over time.
Looking at the food genre “Haitian Creole” through a historical lens, it has elements brought from the French, the indigenous people, and those brought from Africa, all mixed together while maintaining the genre’s traditions. Adding to this base, Spanish, Central American, and even recently American influences can be seen, these being enjoyed from daily meals to gourmets/culinary arts in restaurants.
In addition to Creole cooking, there are other ingredients and foods that are characteristic to the food culture, which I will introduce below.

1 Part 1 Haitian Products and Ingredients Connecting the World

Directly and indirectly, historically and in little-known places we might be eating foods connected with Haiti. I will explain further below.


Sugar and Sugarcane
Haiti is an important nation that has left a mark on the development history of a product we are indebted to daily: sugar. In the beginning, sugarcane from Asia made its way to Europe, and afterward made its way to Africa in search of cultivation lands. Then in 1493, on Christopher Columbus’ second voyage, he spread sugarcane seeds on the island of Hispaniola, which is considered to be the origin of sugarcane in the Caribbean region. Further down the road, sugarcane plantations became the underlying support of France’s economy, and also became the backbone all types of French and European sweets, many of which are still popular to this day. If there was no sugar from Haiti, there might not be any chocolate, cakes, tarts, etc. in the form that we know today.
Even now sugarcane fields spread over main production areas, and although the production lot has considerably decreased compared to the past, it is still a major crop. Sugarcane is still piled high on carts, cut and sold on the streets (it is a very fibrous food, but if chewed raw a sweet juice is released ensuring for a sweet treat), and in the fields the cane is taken to a facility where they squeeze the juice and through various stages simmer the juice until it becomes brown sugar (in Haiti it is called Rapadou, where it is wrapped in palm leaves and stored).

(Haiti’s brown sugar, Rapadou)

Rum and its Brother

(Barbancourt’s 150th Anniversary Bottle)

It is fair to say that wherever there is sugarcane, there is rum (rhum). Countries in Central America and the Caribbean islands which have sugarcane plantations produce their own rum. The majority of these rums are made through the process of simmering the sugar, and using the byproduct of the crystalized sugar (molasses, or mélasse in French), which is then fermented (turning into alcohol), and distilled. A famous Haitian rum brand, Barbancourt, takes the sugarcane juice and directly ferments it through a two-stage distillation process (this is called Rhum Agricole). The majority of rums are bottled right away and shipped off as white rum (transparent liquid), but there are others which are aged in wooden barrels. Rum aged in oak barrels become mellow and have a sweet nose, and can be enjoyed the same way as brandy, “taste and nose”. Barbancourt has a history of over 200 years, and were using barrels from previous times, but their storage facility was damaged in the 2010 earthquake. After the earthquake , they took various barrels and collections which they decided to blend together and then bottle and sell to celebrate their 150th anniversary (there were rumors that they blended barrels with rum that had been aged for at least 40 years…).
In addition, at other smaller distilleries (rumors say over 500 locations!) rum was distilled using almost all of the same ingredients, which is called Clairin. It was enjoyed as a local rum and its popularity spread, but there have been cases of groups of people dying from alcohol poisoning after consuming bootleg Clairin which contained mixed impurities.

Grand Marnier

The orange liquor that is necessary to make (European) sweets and cocktails, Grand Marnier and Cointreau are major French brands; their main ingredient, the skins of bitter orange, is actually from Haiti (citrus bigaradia). The scent is so specific to Haiti that the brands only use Haitian bitter orange, and it is not an overstatement to say that the fruit is helping support both taste and tradition. This bitter citrus is grown in the northern region of Haiti; Grand Marnier uses 100% Haitian bitter orange whereas Cointreau uses 50/50 Haitian and Brazilian bitter oranges, making for different flavors. The abovementioned products are examples of foods that we use regularly without necessarily knowing they are products of Haiti.

Coffee and Cacao

(Sun-dried coffee beans and coffee being brewed. Bottom right: cacao)

Haiti is also a producer of coffee beans, with beans being brought to the country dating as far back as 1726 from Martinique by a Frenchman. One of the sub-varieties of the high-quality Arabica bean is the Typica bean, which produces a coffee bean with a well-balanced aroma and a nice soft sweetness and richness. Actually, Haiti has been producing about half of the world’s coffee beans since the latter half of the 18th century, proving that coffee beans have been a commodity crop with an important position. Later on, production amounts continued to fall, and due to crop disease the amounts fell even further. The effects of hurricanes and global warming have limited the production of coffee beans, but recently Haiti is taking on new challenges and trying to revive their production of coffee beans. The beans are good for drips, and since they contain the right amount of acidity, are also good for espresso, leaving you with a good aftertaste.

I will introduce Creole cooking and daily meals in Haiti in the following paragraphs.
2 Part 2: Haiti Creole Cooking

(Soup Joumou (a hearty pumpkin soup))

Soup Joumou

When talking about Haiti’s traditions, culture, and history, one cannot forget to mention its pumpkin soup. The Soup Joumou (Creole: Soup Joumou; French: Soupe Giraumon) that is eaten on Independence Day (January 1st) is a pumpkin soup with lots of vegetables and meat inside.
There are many stories of its origins, but most simply it is a dish that the French settlers enjoyed, but which the slaves were denied the right to eat; however, with independence in 1804 the newly freed Haitians ate the soup as a symbol of the privileged French settlers, and is also said that Marie-Claire Heureuse Félicité, the wife of the first leader of Haiti, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, spread the custom of eating this soup, rich in nourishment, on Independence day. It is a mainly pumpkin-based soup, but one of its characteristics includes the addition of beef in it as well. The other vegetables included vary depending on households, with each family having their own preferences and flavors. A few standard vegetables are potatoes, carrots, and turnips, with celery added for flavor.
No matter the differences, Soup Joumou is a national dish that cannot be left out of Haitian communities. Articles about Soup Joumou are even published in the Miami Herald on January 1st, as it is home to one of the largest Haitian communities outside of Haiti.


(Griot (deep-fried pork))

Griot can be thought of as crispy, deep-fried pork, and is a main staple of Haitian cooking. There is a bit of preparation before frying, which is what I think makes it a bit special. First, cut the pork shoulder into pieces just the right size for stewing, and lightly wash (soak) the pork in Haitian citrus (this is the key point!) and let sit for an appropriate amount of time. Then place herbs and spices on top, and roast or sear, and for the final step deep-fry the meat. Griot that has turned a nice brown color will be crispy on the outside and soft and delicious on the inside. A lot of Creole dishes will be topped off with some spice; a typical spice is the vegetable Pikliz that has been pickled with the spice Piment Bouc (it is a clear pickle, but extremely spicy. The first time seeing the pickles and eating them with the same vigor as eating salad will sure to be cause for regret). The spice is used as an accoutrement to the pork, and serving the dish with rice or banana is standard practice.

Diri (ak) djon djon

(On the upper-left of Diri djon djon are common accoutrements; bottom-left is a fancier restaurant version; upper-right is djon djon spaghetti; bottom-right are dried djon djon mushrooms)

One of Haiti’s traditional dishes is djon djon flavored rice. It is a dark-grey to black rice, which led me to think “is this squid ink risotto (rice)?” upon my first try, taking time to notice they were mushrooms. Djon djon is a type of mushroom grown in the north region of Haiti which is dried and sold in stores (similar to a cloud-ear mushroom). This dish requires one extra step, which is reserving the dried djon djon in a bowl of water overnight in order to get the grey color from the juice; to prevent small pieces from getting mixed in, a net is used to take out the mushrooms, leaving the juice for cooking purposes. I heard that the mushrooms are thrown out after being removed from the water. Cooking rice with the juices from the djon djon mushroom constitutes Diri djon djon, but it can be used as a pasta sauce, and as a sauce for meat (chicken etc.). The rich flavors and umami of djon djon is something that I have craved since leaving Haiti. There are recent recipes which do not require the mushrooms to be soaked in water, but put them in the mixer to create a sauce. The djon djon mushroom does not grow just anywhere, and it is said that it cannot be cultivated, making it an ingredient that is not heard of outside of Haiti; in other words, an original ingredient.

(Riz National)

In addition, cooking local rice with beans is called Riz National, with its rice added on the side has an immovable status on the popularity scale. Riz National has been sold for a high price coinciding with the organic boom in the United States and Europe, which has taken away any guarantees to buy it for a cheaper price where it is produced in Haiti.


(Lambi Creole)

Haiti is surrounded by ocean, and one can fish sea bass and lobster, but with the combination of the warm seas and a relatively undeveloped fishing industry, the large shell called lambi is famous not only in Haiti but in the Caribbean region. In English, lambi is a conch shell, with a diameter of more than a few centimeters which is perhaps too chewy to eat, and thus it is cut into long thin strips and seasoned. Lambi with a spicy sauce is Creole style, called Lambi-Creole. Thinking back, in the opening of the first 007 series in 1962, “Dr. No”, the shells that the beautiful woman was picking up on the beach might just have been lambi.


(Acra and Maranga potatoes)

Acra is a dish made by grating maranga potatoes (possibly similar to taro potatoes?) and making them into ball or stick shapes and frying them in oil. The outside is nice and crispy, and the inside is warm, with a light and sticky taste. Since it is a fried food, it goes without saying that beer and acra are an excellent match. Sometimes herbs are mixed in, making it look like green seaweed, and just as delicious.

Banane pesée

(The yellow accoutrements on the left-side are banana pesée (the dish itself is codfish croquettes))

This is usually accompanied by plantain bananas; banana pesée is cut in round slices and pressed down using two boards to stretch and press the slices into 4-5 centimeters in diameter, and then fried. The process is simple, producing a delectable treat that is crispy on the outside and soft on the inside (however, there are some where it is so hard that it dries the mouth out).

Other Ingredients

I have introduced some of the typical dishes of Haitian-Creole cooking in this column. In addition to the abovementioned dishes, cabri (a type of goat also seen in Africa) and beef cooked in the same way as Griot is called Taso/Tasso, and is also a popular dish. Near the oceanside, lobster, octopus, and fish are also widely consumed.

(There are not many fish dishes, but they do exist (the yellow is banana pesée))

(Breadfruit (on the right are sliced, fried breadfruit))

In Haiti, vegetables such as gombo (okra) and breadfruit can also be seen. Citrus fruits are quite prevalent, but bananas are also delicious and mangos can be found everywhere. Also, strawberries are grown in the higher plateau regions.

(Mango and avocados can been found everywhere; on the upper-right are strawberries from Ranch Le Montcel; on the bottom are bananas and citrus found along the roadside)

(Selling coconuts street-side: getting coconut water)

Coconuts are also sold on the roadside, where they use a machete to cut off one end and create a hole to drink from. Additionally, the taste of chilled coconut water differs depending on the ripeness of the coconut fruit itself, providing a wide variety of tastes for everyone.

(Prestige Beer and the factory)

Unrelated to food is Haitian beer, with the brand Prestige most fitting to Japanese tastes with a crisp and fresh taste. Maybe the herbs like Moringa or Vetiver are worth to try for the health and beauty.

(*All photos taken by the author)
(*This column reflects the personal views of the author and not the opinions of their employer)

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