My first encounter with Haitian food occurred about six months ago on a cold December evening in Prospect Lefferts Gardens, Brooklyn. I was dining at Zanmi, a new Haitian restaurant on Nostrand Avenue. Named for the Nostrand family, a Dutch slaveholding clan, Nostrand Avenue cuts through a neighborhood known for its large Caribbean population. In recognition of this history, in 2004–the 200th anniversary of Haiti’s independence from France–Nostrand Avenue was co-named Touissant Louverture Boulevard.
A Brief History of Haiti
Haitian freedom fighter Toussaint L’Ouverture, as well as the nation he fought so hard to liberate, is famous throughout the African Diaspora. From 1791 to 1804, enslaved people rebelled against the inhumane conditions in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (modern day Haiti), ultimately earning their independence. A powerful symbol of Black self-determination, the Haitian Revolution demonstrated that victory over colonization and oppression was possible. Haiti was the first Black-led republic and the first country in Latin America to triumph against European domination. It inspired revolutions around the world.
Unfortunately, the nation paid the price–both literally and figuratively–for its bravery. In 1825, under threat of war, France required Haiti to pay the French government and slaveholders $21 billion in reparations for lost “property” and land. To this day, France refuses to return the money, a debt which stifled Haiti’s development as an independent nation. Corruption and instability within the Haitian government, twenty years of U.S. occupation, escalating gang violence, as well as devastating earthquakes have only added to its burden. Despite all of this, as I learned from my conversation with Haitian chef Jane Cajuste, Haiti has immense potential as well as a rich history and culture.
An Overview of Haitian Food
As I stated above, Zanmi in Brooklyn served as my introduction to Haitian food. Due to COVID-19 restrictions at the time, my cousins and I huddled around heat lamps as our server greeted us. He told us that he and his friends had opened Zanmi, which means “friends” in Haitian Creole, to share their cuisine with the community. He was very friendly and took the time to explain the unfamiliar menu, pointing out the essentials of Haitian food.
From our discussion as well as my own research, I was intrigued by the following foods:
- Soup Joumou (Pumpkin or Squash Soup)
- Lambi (Conch, a Caribbean seafood)
- Poulet en Sauce (Chicken Stewed in Creole Sauce)
- Tasso (Fried Goat or Beef)
- Djon Djon (Black Mushroom Rice)
- Macaroni au Gratin (Baked Macaroni and Cheese)
- Bannann Peze (Twice-Fried Plantains)
- Pikliz (Spicy Haitian Slaw)
- Dous Makos (Haitian Fudge)
Read on for my experience with Haitian cuisine. Spoiler: I fell in love!
A Celebratory Haitian Food: Soup Joumou
Halfway through our delicious meal, our server told us that the restaurant would be hosting a free event on New Year’s Day to commemorate Haitian Independence Day. They would be cooking up huge pots of soup joumou, or Independence soup, which Haitians eat to celebrate the holiday.
Soup joumou is made with chunks of beef marinated in a foundational Haitian seasoning known as Epis, which is a blend of onion, garlic, bell peppers, scotch bonnet peppers, thyme, parsley, cloves, apple cider vinegar, lime, olive oil, and bouillon. The meat is then cooked with pumpkin or squash puree and a host of ingredients including ginger, cabbage, carrots, and pasta. It is absolutely divine.
I was not sure to expect from squash soup, but any of my preconceived notions were blown out of the water during my first bite. Even though I over reduced my soup into more of a stew, this recipe from Haitian blogger Mirlene at Savory Thoughts is an absolute keeper.
Lambi, The Escargot of the Caribbean
I first learned of conch during my conversation with Bahamian chef Raquel Fox. She raved about the flavors of the sea snail found throughout the Caribbean. I’ve tried it twice, both at Zanmi and at a Haitian restaurant in New Jersey, Woulibam. Both times it was stewed in a delicious, slightly spicy sauce. Its taste and texture is hard to describe, but it was tender and chewy at the same time–sort of a blend between chicken and shrimp.
Haitian Chicken in Creole Sauce
While reading the introduction to Haitian American chef Gregory Gourdert’s new cookbook, he described the Haitian foods of his childhood. One of his fondest memories was of chicken stewed in a creole sauce, so I knew I wanted to try it.
From my understanding, the dish begins with chicken marinated in Epis and browned. From there, onions, garlic, peppers and tomato paste are sautéed with water and stock until the chicken is returned to the pan. The pan is covered as the sauce simmers and the chicken cooks. This all comes together to make a deeply flavored gravy. It reminded me a bit of American smothered chicken, and it went great served over a bed of fonio.
Got Beef? Fry Up Some Tasso
Deep fried meat is always a good time, and Haitian tasso was no different. The taste of seasoned beef fried with onions and garlic is delicious, but a special ingredient put it over the top: apple cider vinegar. I admit I was a bit skeptical of dropping vinegar into a pan of sizzling meat, but it brought the meat to life. I think one of the reasons Haitian food has so much flavor is because of the use of vinegar. Yes, they say acid livens things up, but I’m really starting to understand that now.
Starches and Sides
Djon Djon, or Haitian Black Mushroom Rice
I am so glad that I had the chance to try djon djon at Zanmi, because I was unable to find the ingredients in my local grocery store. Djon djon is a foundational Haitian food, and traditionally it uses mushrooms (also know as djon djon) native to northern Haiti. The mushrooms are expensive, and thus this rice is usually reserved for special occassions.
According to haitiancooking.com, “When boiled, the [mushrooms] release a gray-black coloring, giving [rice] a distinctive aroma, flavor and color.” In the United States, the Maggi brand has djon djon flavored bouillon cubes that can be used as a substitute.
Macaroni au Gratin
I am a macaroni and cheese lover. Always have been. So whenever a cuisine has some type of mac in its repertoire, I am sure to try it. Haitian macaroni and cheese, known as macaroni au gratin, is made with pasta boiled with onions and bell peppers. This serves as a flavorful base for the casserole, which consists of noodles layered with a blend of cheeses–typically cheddar and parmesan. The parmesan leads to a drier consistency than the typical American macaroni and cheese, but it gives a nice texture to the dish. There is a contrast between the creamy noodles at the bottom and the crunchier topping.
Bannann Peze, or Fried Plantains
Fried plantains are a mainstay in West African and Caribbean cuisines, and Haitian food is no different. However, Haitian plantains are prepared similar to tostones in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. Green plantains are fried, soaked in a salt and vinegar mixture, smashed, and fried again. This process makes for plantains that are seasoned from within and have a little bite.
Pikliz: The Essential Condiment in Haitian Food
Pikliz, a Haitian spicy slaw, is a condiment used to top plates heaped with rice, protein, and plantain. Don’t let that fool you. It, in my opinion, is the star of the show. Spicy, tangy, goodness. It is made with a pickled mixture of cabbage, scotch bonnet peppers, carrots, bell peppers, and herbs. I purchased my pikliz from Chef Jane Cajuste’s company Paula’s Kitchen, and it was delicious. I’m not ashamed to admit that I eat it straight out the jar.
A Sweet Haitian Food: Dous Makos, or Haitian Fudge
Although the premiere dessert of Haitian cuisine appears to be butter cake, the essential ingredient is rum. As a nondrinker, I decided to find another sweet to try, as I feel that the rum likely adds a particular authenticity to the cake. So I set out to make Dous Makos, despite never having made fudge before. My first batch was a hard, grainy mess. I over cooked it trying to eyeball temperatures instead of buying a candy thermometer. That may work with a simple caramel, but it did not serve me well with fudge.
So I found a trick where you use a bowl of cold water to estimate the temperature of the sugar syrup, dropping the syrup in the water until it is hot enough to form a soft ball. This technique resulted in smooth, chewy vanilla fudge. Food coloring is sometimes added to give the fudge a three toned, Neapolitan appearance, but I kept mine simple.
I had a great time exploring Haitian food. My only wish is that I had tried it sooner. Have you tried any of these dishes before? If not, which would you like to try?
For a look at another cuisine, check out my post A Guide to Senegalese Cuisine.