When’s that last time you talked about Haitian cuisine? When people talk about Haiti, they often focus on the grim figures. It is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Three-quarters of Haitians live on less than US$2 per day, and half of the population earns less that US$1 per day. The country ranks 161st out of 187 countries in the 2012 United Nations Human Development Index. And this week marked the fifth anniversary of the devastating earthquake that leveled much of the capital, Port-au-Prince. Yet the country is home to rich culinary traditions, as varied as the Republic’s ten departments. So why is hunger the only story we tell about Haiti?
In her recently published recipe book, Haiti Uncovered: A Regional Adventure into the Art of Haitian Cuisine, Nadege Fleurimond reframes this narrative. Fleurimond showcases Haiti’s strong culinary heritage through scores of colorful photos and wonderful, kitchen-tested recipes.
The book weaves aspects of the country’s national history into a celebration of the diversity of Haitian cuisine—the product of a blend of African, Taino (or Amerindian), Spanish, French and even Middle Eastern influences. It also pays homage to the important role women play as cooks and purveyors of food both out of their own homes and from food stands. According to Fleurimond, “The food culture provides a revealing synopsis of the social and economic characteristics of Haitian life.” These recipes also serve as a bridge between Haiti and its diaspora. Haitians who have left the island may not still speak Creole, but they often carry with them the flavors of Haitian cooking and pass them down to next generation.
The volume is divided by region and by the food type, and includes excellent glossary of ingredients and spices. The recipes are clear, and dishes are named both in English and Creole. Highlights include recipes for fried goat (tassot cabrit) and the national pumpkin soup (soup joumou), typically served on New Year’s Day, as well as seafood dishes typical to southern Haiti—for example, conch ceviche (lambi serviche).
No cookbook would be complete without a section on grains and starches. In Haiti Uncovered, the section serves as a quick guide to the ways changing agricultural trade relations have altered both the country’ economy and foodways. Haiti’s breadbasket, the Artibonite, in the Northwest Department, was the central source of rice agriculture until a decision in 1995 allowed subsidized U.S. rice into the Haiti, thus undercutting the locally grown variety. It nearly destroyed the peasant farmers, making Haiti dependent on imported rice, and transforming rice into a luxury today for most Haitians. Cornmeal is now the grain of choice as it is affordable and is often prepared as a polenta with salted fish like cod and herring.
When I asked Fleurimond how she was able to get the exact measurements for recipes she told me that she traveled with her own set of cups and measuring spoons. If she asked a cook for a recipe they would often be unable to give her specifics. But like any scientific project, she was able to get cooks to drop dry ingredients on to sheets of paper before putting them into the pot. She would then quickly jot down the exact amounts, and let the cook continue. The technique worked. The book’s recipes are easily made with accessible ingredients.
So why don’t people who visit Haiti actually taste the delicacies that Fleurimond describes? Those who stay at hotels or resorts will only experience international cuisine cooked by top chefs who are not Haitian. To really enjoy Haiti’s culinary contributions you will have to visit small local restaurants or food stands—or perhaps even travel to the Haitian communities in Brooklyn, Boston or Miami.
“Food humanizes Haitians, “says Fleurimond. “There is food even in poverty. There is humor in cooking. It is the way we interact.” There is an old Haitian proverb which says that if you don’t cook in an old pot the result will not be good. It speaks truth to the way food is prepared in Haiti. As the dedication to this volume to all Haitians and their descendants makes clear, “though … not always given credit for it, Haiti is the true birthplace of freedom, bravery, and moral values in the Americas.” For Fleurimond, food plays a central role in this long historical struggle, and speaks to the roots of her homeland and its role in liberating the nation from slavery through a revolution that opened the floodgates to democratic revolts in the Americas.