May 09, 2020

Uniquely Haitian : Comfort Foods

It’s no secret that, so far, 2020 hasn’t exactly been the most comforting year. Between the looming pandemic, numerous natural disasters, and the inevitable economic crisis, it’s a year many of us are already eager to leave behind. As we remain confined to our homes, many of us have turned to one of the few comforts we have left: our favorite foods. Like many cultures, Haitian people have a plethora of traditional comfort foods. Let’s look at a few of those familiar dishes, how they’re made and where they came from.


While Haitian food is well known for its unique blend of African, Spanish, and French flavors, there is another, much older influence on this Caribbean cuisine.


Haiti’s first inhabitants were an indigenous people called the Taíno. They inhabited most of the Caribbean and spoke a version of Arawakan, which is an ancient indigenous language originating in South America. The Taíno people were the first New World peoples Christopher Columbus met, and he and his fellow Spanish explorers often observed the native tribes cooking meat over a grill, producing a distinct smokey flavor. This culinary practice is something we know today as barbecue. Even the word “barbecue” comes from the Arawakan word “barbacoa”. Since large animals were not native to the Caribbean, the Taíno mainly grilled smalls mammals, birds, and fish. They were excellent fisherman and farmers and some of their staple foods like red snapper, corn, yuca, peppers and beans, are still staples in Haitian cuisine today.


As an example, a simple, yet incredibly popular Haitian comfort food is diri kole ak pwa or rice stuck with beans. This timeless dish, usually served alongside grilled fish or meat, is a colorful blend of rice, chili pepper, kidney beans and a flavor base known as epis. Epis is generally a blend of onions, garlic, peppers, parsley and thyme and its flavor profile is prevalent in a wide variety of traditional Haitian dishes.


Another comforting staple served alongside traditional Haitian dishes is a product of the island’s tropical climate. Bannann peze is a sweet, yet savory dish consisting of fried plantains marinated in vinegar, salt and garlic powder. Like diri kole ak pwa, this dish always has a place at Haitian tables and is served alongside most meals.


The final dish we’ll talk about today is full of not only flavor, but cultural significance as well. Soup Joumou, a hearty soup consisting of winter squash, potato, turnip, beef chuck and Haitian epis, was once reserved for, and eaten only by white slave masters. After the revolution in 1804, Haitians began eating the dish to celebrate their liberation. This savory stew still stands as a testament to the most successful slave revolt in history. Traditionally, this soup is served on New Year’s Day in celebration of Haitian independence.


These recipes, passed down through generations, continue to bring comfort and enjoyment to not only Haitian citizens, but to anyone who has the opportunity to taste them.


While the current frustration at the inability to visit your favorite restaurants during this outbreak is understandable, perhaps this small sampling of Haitian comfort foods will offer some of you some delicious (and comforting) alternatives to make at home. Stay safe, and stay inside.

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