Haiti food bears many similarities to most other Caribbean islands. Many of the same fruits and vegetables are common ingredients and grow in abundance on the island. These include pineapple, sweet potatoes, avocados, bananas, and plantains. Many of these crops were staple items of the Taino Arawak people who occupied the island for hundreds of years before Europeans arrived in 1492. Other crops (like oranges, limes, mangoes, sugarcane, and rice) were introduced by Europeans and now grow in abundance. Some of the crops (like okra, taro, red beans, ackee, pigeon peas, and spices) are also not native to the region and were brought by the slaves from West Africa. Sugarcane (used to make sugar and rum) and coffee are the two important export crops that made Hispaniola Island the most important colonial possession of France in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As on other Caribbean islands, pork and chicken are the primary meats, with goat, shrimp, and other seafood often appearing on menus.
What sets food in Haiti apart from the cuisine of most other Caribbean islands is the spiciness of the dishes. You find this to some extent in Cuba, Jamaica, and the Antilles, but Haitian food is spicier than the cuisine of any other island. It more closely resembles the Cajun and Creole cuisine of New Orleans and Louisiana than does the food of any other island. In fact, a substantial proportion of the Creole heritage of New Orleans has its roots in the history of Haiti when many mulattoes fled the island to New Orleans after independence in 1804. One vegetable native to the New World was the chili pepper, and the native Taino people gifted this to the Haitians. The spices from Africa and the New World peppers are used more liberally in Haitian food than elsewhere in the Caribbean.
The major influence on today’s Haiti food has been the countries of West Africa, from which most of the slaves originated (Nigeria, Togo, Benin, and Ghana). The reason that the African influence is stronger than that of either colonial power (Spain and France) lies entirely in the way the two countries managed their slaves. Both countries were particularly harsh and brutal. As a result, few lived long enough to reproduce, and new slaves had to be continually brought from Africa. Because almost all slaves were newly arrived, they retained their customs, religions, and cuisine. France and Spain have also had important influences on the country’s cuisine, contributing things like thick sauces and soups, cheeses, and pastries.
So, what kind of Haitian food dishes will you find? The flavor base for much Haitian cooking is epis, a marinade similar to the Spanish sofrito and the French mirepoix. This is made by cooking together garlic, peppers, and a combination of other aromatic herbs such as parsley, celery, thyme, and green onions. This marinade is used in variations in many of the dishes, as a base for soups and stews, and as a rub on meats and fish. Rice and beans in various combinations can be considered the number one staple, and will be found as a component of virtually every meal. The culture of Haiti is strongly Creole, and you will find this type of cuisine everywhere; it is called Manje Kreyol.
Haitian food is accompanied by traditional drinks. Prestige is the local beer brand, and it is inexpensive. Rum is as important here as it is in Cuba, and Rhum Barbancourt is one of Haiti's oldest producers and considered one of the finest rums in the world. Unlike many rums that are made from the molasses byproduct of sugarcane, Barbancourt is made from pure cane juice, making it more flavorful. Every country has their version of “moonshine,” and Haiti is no exception. Here it is called clairin, which is made by almost every Haitian family since most of the local people cannot afford the more expensive rum. Juice made from tropical fruits is found everywhere, and Coca-Cola is a popular import.
Image: wmliu (flickr)