In a dining room in a wealthy district in the hills above Haiti’s capital, waiters in black outfits whisk plates of crunchy malanga fritters and a creamy cornmeal dish to well-off locals and tourists. In the kitchen, the chef ladles glistening, fresh conch into a pot as his staff dice tomatoes and watercress.
Haitian cuisine is a spicy confluence of French, Spanish, African and Amerindian cooking traditions that blends indigenous ingredients like the rich, earthy black mushroom known as djon djon with a variety of cooking techniques, crusted baguettes and flaky pastries. For decades, Haitian food has been seen as simple, hearty fare best simmered for hours over charcoal stoves at home or fried up and served in cheap curbside restaurants. Haitians who could afford a night out at a restaurant used to opt for versions of continental menus or a generic Caribbean fusion mimicking the food in island resorts.
In recent years a new generation of Haitian chefs here and abroad has begun reimagining the country’s cuisine. Traditional delicacies like the milky cornmeal beverage called akasan; the fiery carrot and cabbage condiment called pikliz; citrus-marinated chicken with boiled cashews; and whole fish in spiced broth are being prepared using haute cuisine techniques and served in the growing number of restaurants serving foreigners and Haiti’s small middle- and upper-class.
“It’s a real exciting time right now for Haitian gastronomy. We have serious, bona fide culinarians who are creative and focused on raising the profile of our food,” chef Jouvens Jean said as chile-laced shrimp sizzled in a pan at Jojo Restaurant in Petionville.
Accomplished chefs like Jean and Stephan Berrouet-Durand moved back to their homeland from the United States, importing the presentation and kitchen know-how of the various countries where they’ve worked, while others are increasingly vocal ambassadors for their food culture overseas, appearing on U.S. and European cooking programs.
“Suddenly, a lot of Haitian chefs don’t have this fear of saying ‘Haitian cuisine’ out loud. It is becoming a very popular thing,” said Georges Laguerre, a Miami-based food entrepreneur who ran a Haitian eatery in Los Angeles for over a decade.
Dependence on food imports has grown as a result of intractable economic stagnation, but local favorites like malanga root, chayote squash and a dark spinach are still grown organically on farmland plowed by oxen and maintained without pesticides or chemical fertilizers only because most farmers could never dream of affording them.
The fact that Haiti has a vibrant food culture at all can be surprising to those who only associate this Caribbean nation with hunger and crushing poverty. But even through decades of decline and recurrent political turmoil, Haiti never lost its delicious recipes.
“I think one of Haiti’s greatest resources is its food. I have yet to meet anyone who did not appreciate the flavors of traditional Haitian cuisine,” said Nadege Fleurimond, a Haitian-born writer and caterer based in New York City whose 2014 cookbook “Haiti Uncovered: A Regional Adventure into the Art of Haitian Cuisine ” helped kick-start a fresh look at the country’s recipes.