It was the peaceful, Taino Indians who inhabited the island of Haiti before the arrival of the Europeans. The name, Haiti, is derived from their native language and means “mountainous country”. Haiti is part of the island of Hispaniola, which is the second largest island in the Caribbean, after Cuba. Haiti resides in the western third of the island and shares its border with the Dominican Republic.
Hispaniola was discovered in 1492 by Christopher Columbus and was the first island settled by the Spanish in the New World. The Taino Indians initially assisted the Spaniards but soon 90% of them died of European diseases, from which they had no immunity. The area became desolate. This made the island an ideal home for castaways and predominantly French colonist, fortune seekers, who became pirates and buccaneers. The French used these people in an unofficial war against the Spanish. In a treaty in 1697, Spain ceded the western third of the island to France to become Haiti. Slaves were brought in from Africa to work the many plantations.
In the late 1700s, this area was known as “The Jewel of the Antilles” and became the wealthiest colony in the world. In 1791, an uprising occurred as the African slaves, outnumbered the French by ten to one. This turned into a 13 year battle, fighting off the Spanish, French and English, who were also fighting one another for control of this rich colony. In 1804 the last European troops were defeated and driven from the island, making Haiti the first, independent, sovereign “black” country in the world. They declared independence on January 1, 1804 and it is celebrated in grand fashion each year.
Today the population of Haiti is 95 percent African descent and five percent mulatto or white. The official languages are French and Creole but few speak French today. Haiti is one of the most densely populated countries in the world and is now among the poorest in the western hemisphere. Voodoo ceremonial traditions are common, as Voodoo is practiced as a religion in Haiti, along with Catholicism and Protestantism.
The nation is made up of small farmers. Although only 30 percent of the mountainous land is arable, more than 40 percent is worked. Slash and burn agriculture, along with deforestation, has left the land susceptible to erosion, causing landslides and mudslides. The primary crops grown today are sugarcane, cocoa, coffee and mangoes. Imports come mainly from the United States and include many staple ingredients, like rice, beans and flour. Food is energy but energy is required to make food, which in Haiti, has historically come from coal and firewood. This too has contributed to the deforestation problem. However, there has been a recent push to get clean energy to the people, in the form of natural gas.
A tectonic fault line runs right through the heart of this island causing frequent and sometimes devastating earthquakes. The most recent major earthquake was in 2010, where in one day, 300,000 people died and over two million people were displaced. It additionally caused catastrophic damage to the already poor infrastructure. This tropical island also lies in the direct path of hurricanes. Despite these conditions and obstacles, the Haitians are a strong and resilient people.
The people are still waiting and hoping for an all important, non-corrupt, governmental leadership to emerge. The politics of this country were dominated for decades by the initially popular, but subsequently brutal, dictator known as, “Papa Doc” and then succeeded by his son, known as, “Baby Doc.” This family ruled the country from 1957 until 1991 with no regard for the people. Even though there have been elections and new leaders have come and gone, the Haitian people are tired of government corruption. A tell-tale sign of the frustration of the Haitian people was exhibited during the earthquake, when the people cheered as the Presidential palace collapsed. Now they just hope whoever comes next will look after their tourism, education, infrastructure and most importantly, the hard working people of Haiti.
Haiti received massive aid after the devastating earthquake in 2010. Unfortunately, it is believed that most of the funds were misused and there still remains much work left undone. Even the United Nations, who brought in relief workers to help, ended up causing more problems for Haiti by introducing the cholera outbreak. That said, there are reputable charity organizations still working diligently to help the Haitians. The actor, Sean Penn, has one such organization, called JPHRO, which appears to be doing excellent work in the country. He is committed to be there for the long haul. This is what he said about the people of Haiti, “You can feel the potential for growth and change, it is palpable. They simply need a chance.”
One of the buildings that has survived many challenges and is a testament to the people of Haiti is what is known as the Citadel Laferrière. This fortress that sits atop a hill, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was built to keep the people safe from Napoleon’s army. The site was built by the Haitians; it has no foundation and they had no training to know how to construct it. The mortar was made from sand, lime, animal blood, sugar and molasses. Many workers died in the process of building the fortress, but they believed if they perished, they would go back to their homeland of Africa. The building is straight and strong and has survived all disasters since its completion in 1813. Getting to the Citadel is an adventure in itself. You board a colorfully painted tap-tap. (That’s what they call a bus in Haiti, which is the sound people make when they want to get off the bus.) But the bus can only make it so far up the steep hill and then a donkey takes you the rest of the way to the top. It is one of Haiti’s most important tourist attractions.
Haitians are known for their colorful artwork. They make it out of, just about anything. Children gather garbage on the streets and create art from it. Many will never make a dime from their masterpieces, however it is an escape and a way to express their feelings. Some of the art is made with doll parts, showing limbs missing, perhaps representing the horrors of the earthquake but more likely from living their life in poverty and feeling torn apart. Their art is most telling in what these people have endured.
The Haitians will use just about any reason to take to the streets and make music. Way back when, slaves used anything they could find to design musical instruments. Today is no different. They love many types of music and a hotel called the Grand Hotel Oloffson, is a place that highlights popular bands. Many of the bands became famous for their protest music against the many corrupt regimes. Compas, Hip hop, jazz, Haitian rock, twoubadou and meringue, are all popular genres. Rara, is a type of music that is festive and uplifting and unique to Haiti.
The Grand Hotel Oloffson, was the real-life inspiration for the fictional hotel, “Trianon” in Graham Greene’s famous novel, “The Comedians”. The hotel features an architectural style that has been fading away in their capital city of Port-au-Prince. It showcases large, wooden verandas and intricate, Gothic, gingerbread wood work. Somehow, it managed to survive the 2010 quake with very little damage, even though multiple structures surrounding it, were destroyed.
As we look into the cuisine of the island nation, it is clear that the main influence is Afro-Caribbean. There is also a Spanish influence, from her neighbor, the Dominican Republic, along with French influence, combined with a distinctive, Haitian flair. They like their food bold and spicy. It is believed that barbecue originated in Haiti, as the first mention of it comes from the word “barabicu”, from the native tongue of the Taino people.
A typical meal in Haiti would simply be rice and beans, sometimes topped with fish or meat. Sometimes it would be a bean puree poured over the rice. Stews and soups are also popular, made with cassava, yam or sweet potato. Pumpkin has a deep significance to the Haitians, since they were forbidden to eat pumpkin soup by the French. Now they call it Sunday soup and it is on every Haitian table on Independence Day. Cassava bread is a staple and a drink called akasan, made with cornmeal and spices, is beloved.
Rum is the most popular alcohol in Haiti and they make a mean, rum sour. There is a very old distillery that’s been in business since 1862, called Barbencourt. The rhum (spelled with an “h” to distinguish it from regular rum), is made with sugarcane juice, as opposed to a sugar byproduct. Nearly half of the all the barrels of rhum in Haiti were destroyed during the 2010 earthquake. As a sign of their resilience, they combined all they had left and bottled it all together to commemorate their 150th anniversary in a grand celebration. Considered to be one of the best rhums in the world, Barbencourt Rhum is a symbol of national pride for Haitians.
So let’s eat “Manje Ayisien” (which means “Haitian food” in Creole)
Soupe Joumou (Pumpkin Soup)
Griot (Fried Pork)
Riz et Pois Rouges (Red Beans and Rice)
We set the table with colors of the Haitian flag; blue and red and surrounded it with gourds. Gourds were used as currency and are responsible for the name of their money in Haiti, called gourdes. We included several of their important crops, like coffee and sugarcane and for a little fun added the ‘Day of the Dead’ décor and a voodoo doll. Festive, Rara music played in the background. Before we began this meal, we bowed in thanks for our food, knowing that today, many Haitians are hungry and live in extreme poverty. This country is one of the reasons I started International Cuisine. This is a place where much work needs to be done but there’s a hope that good things will come to her people if given the chance.
We began the meal with pumpkin soup or Sunday soup, as it is called there. I chose this as a starter and made a lighter, vegetarian version (as normally the soup is made with meat.) The pumpkin, combined with coconut milk and vegetables, was both sweet and savory. Spaghetti noodles added some heartiness to this vegetarian soup. We respected the importance of this soup to the Haitians, since it had been denied to them, and rejoiced in their independence.
For the main course, we had a very popular dish, called griot, which could be considered the national dish. Griot is a marinated, pork dish that is braised until tender and finished by frying; a twice cooked pork that is spicy and amazing. It was served with another staple dish; red beans and rice. Red beans are consumed most every day in Haiti and this dish is a spicy one, tamed with coconut milk. Often times, this may be the only dish a Haitian would eat in an entire day.
Pikliz is a very spicy, cabbage slaw that is on every table; a condiment of sorts. It is simply always around. We loved the spicy slaw and can see why it is so popular.
For dessert, Blancmange was served, a beautiful, white coconut, flavored gelatin surrounded by fruit. This lovely cool and refreshing dessert was a great counterbalance to our very spicy meal.
As we say goodbye, we can only hope that more people will visit Haiti and get involved. If you can’t visit, donate to a charity that is really serving the needs of the people. Haitians desperately wait for a good leader; one that will take care of infrastructure, education and basic human needs. People who do come visit, sometimes never want to leave, as the people of Haiti are friendly and fun, despite their many hardships. Who knows, one may find a sunken ship or buried treasure, as it was the home of many buccaneers and pirates. What is certain is, you will eat delicious food and drink, enjoy delightful music and be treated with great hospitality.
I leave you with a few Haitian proverbs:
Bay piti pa chich (To give little is not being cheap)
Wont pi lou pase sake sel (Shame is heavier than a bag of salt)
Padon pa geri maleng (Sorry doesn’t heal the scars)
Malere pa bwode (The poor is not picky)
Until next week,