Haiti is a Caribbean country located on the island of Hispaniola. Its history and people are steeped in diversity, independence and resourcefulness, so much so that these qualities and virtues trickle down to every detail in their lives—most importantly, their cuisine.
History of Haitian Food
Pre-colonial Haitian cuisine was similar to its neighbors in the Caribbean and Latin America, but also takes inspiration from Africa and Taíno natives. The prime example of food from this era is barbecue—derived from the Spanish word barbacoa, meaning “framework of sticks”—referring to the array of metal sticks used to cook the meat.
Haiti was colonized by Spaniards in 1492, then the French in 1625, until the successful Haitian Revolution that ended in 1804. The impact on Haitian cuisine was significant. The flavor and simplicity of Haitian food remained intact, but the cooking techniques were influenced by Spanish and French cuisine. The European colonists also brought with them food and cash crops such as oranges, sugarcane, coffee, rice, and cacao, and these crops became well-integrated into Haitian food and agricultural industry.
Haitian cuisine, in summation, draws its charm from a distinct, balanced mix of simplicity and sophistication.
Haiti is primarily an agricultural country, but although the industry employs 66% of the working population, resources are scarce and weather conditions are harsh. The Haitian landscape is mountainous, and the farmable land is only 25% of the country’s total land surface. Haiti is also prone to soil erosion, floods, droughts, and other natural disasters.
Domestic agriculture only provides 46% of the nation’s food requirements. In most countries, what cannot be provided for by crops is compensated for by livestock; however, animal agriculture and livestock took a hit during the 2010 earthquake and have struggled to thrive in the subsequent conditions. As a result, Haiti imports 88% of its food from neighboring countries such as the Dominican Republic and the United States. Despite this, more than 38% of the population struggles with food insecurity, and 25% of the Haitian children are malnourished.
Today, Haitian farmers are lobbying for domestic and international support and pushing for agricultural reform. Meanwhile, many Haitians have adapted. Scarcity has shaped the way they eat; they have learned to live with and subsist on very little. Because of this, most Haitian farmers focus on cultivating food staples such as maize, bananas, plantains, rice, and beans. The simplicity of these ingredients reflects the simplicity of their food, and it is particularly evident in their popular dishes.
- Haitian Pâté or Haitian patty is characterized by the flaky crust of the pastry puffs, contrasted by the spicy, lively flavor of the filling. It is often stuffed with beef or chicken. Modern Haitian adaptations of this traditional food substitute meat for vegetables or fish.
- Bannann Peze is a popular Haitian appetizer made with green plantains. It is prepared by flattening plantain slices and frying them; the result is a hearty golden-brown dish, often served with fried meat slices.
- Diri Djon Djon, a regional delicacy most commonly found in the northern region of Haiti, is a native dish made with rice and black mushrooms, seasoned liberally with select Haitian spices. The black mushrooms give the dish its black color and distinct aroma.
- Poule en Sauce, or Haitian stewed chicken, flaunts the island’s resourcefulness. This chicken dish has plenty of variations, adapted by each region to make use of the available harvest. What remains constant is the signature slow browning of the meat, achieved by patience and technique, and the end result is an exotic, flavorful dish.
- Haiti, as an island, offers an array of seafood options. One of its seafood delicacies is lambi or conch. It can be prepared in various ways—fried, stewed, barbecued, or sautéed. Lambi is seasoned with citrus juice, Haitian herbs and spices, and served with sautéed red peppers, green peppers, onions, and tomatoes.
- Salade de Betteraves (beetroot salad) made its way to American cuisine and trended as a superfood, but it finds its humble roots in Haiti. The beet’s vibrant color and earthy taste, combined with the heartiness of potatoes, the coolness of mint, and the contrast of lemon juice, make it an attractive, delicious, and nutritious delicacy.
- Another of Haiti’s signature dishes is pork griot. This meat-based dish is widely considered (and understandably so) the national dish of Haiti. It is prepared by marinating pork cubes in a spicy-sour mixture, then frying with bell peppers, onions, parsley, and thyme. The dish is often served with beans, rice, bannann peze, or pikliz.
- Pikliz is a condiment or side dish made from shredded cabbage flavored with carrots, Scotch bonnet peppers, thyme, vinegar, salt, and pepper. It often accompanies every Haitian meal because its strong flavor embellishes rice and beans, and balances the oiliness of meat dishes.
Haiti is a tropical country, and its drink options often include tropical fruit juices and alcoholic drinks. An especially noteworthy alcoholic drink is Rhum Barbancourt, a type of rum made from sugarcane, best served with ice and lime. The robust domestic production of sugarcane, combined with the company’s extraordinary formulation, makes Rhum Barbancourt a USD$20 million per year industry. Another example of Haitian beverage is its homegrown Prestige beer, an award-winning American-style lager, brewed and bottled in Haiti and exported to the United States and Canada.
“You are what you eat.” Perhaps there is some truth to the old cliché. Not in the direct, straightforward sense that you become what you eat, but in the idea that the food the land gives you and what you choose to make from it defines you. Haitians had a bad start and their luck hasn’t improved; a series of misfortunes—uncooperative climate and geography, the European colonization, and the 2010 earthquake—forced them to make bad starts over and over, but start again, they did.
From a Westerner’s perspective, Haitian cuisine seems visually plain. It doesn’t have the finesse of the French, nor does it have the minimalism of the Japanese. Food as an art form is a luxury that Haiti cannot afford, but the food in Haiti serves something so easy to digest—an appropriate testament to its people. At the first glance, it is simple enough that it borders on gastronomically pedestrian, but at the first taste, it is exotic, bold, and packs a punch.