Thursday, January 21, 2010


I thought I would devote this week's post to Haiti. Four years ago I spent two weeks in Oaxaca, Mexico. I was working for an art gallery at the time and was there in search of artists. While I was there I went to a photography exhibit featuring a Mexican photographer's images of a ritual in Haiti. The pictures were extraordinary. The ritual took place in a river where women of all ages, grandmothers, mothers, sisters, and children gathered. They danced, sang, swayed, cried, and screamed as the water rinsed over their naked bodies. If I recall, I think it was a fertilization ritual. The raw beauty and passion I saw in those images transformed my meager understanding of this island nation. It is a powerful place.

Haitian culture is often misconstrued as shadowed by underworld darkness, haunted by voodoo and demons and while I have never been there, I have been to its neighboring country, the Dominican Republic. Twelve years ago I purchased the painting above at a street market. "It is a Haitian painting", the vendor explained to me with animosity in his voice. Our guide and interpreter explained that the Dominicans are very prejudiced against the Haitians. Two nations, one island...their rift was vast. The market was full of vibrant Haitian artwork, colors like a flock of exotic birds, and lately I have been wondering about Haitian cuisine and if their culinary culture is similar to their visual art.

African and French cuisine are the major influence on the food culture in Haiti, combined with Spanish and the native Taino technique. The Taino people were from the Pre-Columbian era of the Carribbean and Antilles. Their diet consisted mainly of vegetables,fruit, meat, and fish. While large animals were few and far between, they mainly ate turtles, birds, hutias which are like squirrels, and unfortunately manatees. Yuca was a staple of their diet as well as sweet potatoes, and they also grew beans, peppers, peanuts, pineapples, and squash.

Like their artwork, Haitian cuisine is ripe with flavor due to the heavy handed use of peppers and herbs. Their cuisine is not too spicy, but has just enough zip. The flavor profile for thier culinary world is called
epis. Peppers, garlic, and herbs cooked down into a sauce which is as a fundamental condiment. Lots of veggies, like tomato, oregano, cabbage, avocado, and red and green peppers are used in their dishes along side chicken, goat, beef, pork, and fish...often red snapper. Fried plantains, sliced and flattened can be found as a side with many meals, or just eaten as a snack. Delish.

Rice is something that I can eat with every meal, it is my favorite grain and it turns out to be one of the staple foods of Haiti. Throughout the different regions of Haiti rice and beans are eaten in a variety of ways. Haitian Creole cuisine is the umbrella in which most of the food falls.

A typical Haitian Creole meal would look something like this:

First Course :
Pates - Meat patties with a crispy bread crust

Second Course: Du Riz Colee a Pois - a pois sauce which is usually red kidney beans or pinto beans glazed with a marinade of herbs, mixed with brown rice finished with a beautiful peice of red snapper, tomatoes, and onions.

Third Course:
Pain Patate - a soft sweetbread made from sweet potato, evaporatd milke, and cinnamon, served cold.

And what do they wash this wonderful food down with? Juice is the most common beverage of choice, guava, mango, and a variety of citrus juices because it is easy to come by. For a more spirited drink, one of the best rums in the world Rhum Barbancourt. It is distilled siliar to cognac, but is done so with sugarcane juice, rather than molasses like most other types of rum. If you have never tried it, treat yourself. It is exquisite.

A people that drink fresh fruit juice as a staple and dine on food rich with flavor have a certain understanding of life. The strength of its culture will pull its people through, and Haiti will survive this tragedy like it has so many times in the past.

Check out this article, Food for Haiti for a number of organizations which are accepting cash and food donations to feed the 3 million people in need.

No comments: