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Thursday, March 4, 2010 10:00 am

Hungry for Haitian

Food as an expression of solidarity


On Haiti’s long road to recovery, the first step is dinner.

It’s almost impossible to comprehend the devastation in Haiti after the Jan. 12 earthquake. But then, unless you’ve been there, it’s almost impossible to conceive conditions in Haiti, long the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, before that day.

“The squalor in (Haiti’s capital) Port au Prince was overwhelming,” says Vicki Compton, director of Springfield Catholic Diocese’s Office for the Missions. Compton lived in the Haitian coastal town of Jérémie from 2001–2003, working for a non-governmental agency, Aid to Artisans. “What it must be like now…I just can’t imagine….” her voice trails off as she shakes her head.

The statistics are grim. More than 200,000 killed in a country the size of Maryland. The Washington, D.C.-based Inter-American Development Bank recently upped its estimate of the damages from $5 billion to between $7 and $13 billion, making it possibly the worst natural disaster in history – and in an already desperately poor country. “This has never happened to a country before,” says Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive in the 2/22/10 issue of Time magazine. “Forty percent of our GDP was destroyed in 30 seconds.” Now the rainy season has begun, and only approximately a quarter of the 1.2 million made homeless by the quake have received tents or even plastic sheeting to use as shelter. Sanitation, woefully inadequate before the quake, is potentially an even bigger problem than housing. Woefully inadequate before the quake, it’s now nonexistent in much of Haiti; experts fear disease will run rampant as a consequence.

Some food markets are back in business, not least because of relief organizations bringing in edibles. But even before the earthquake, Haiti imported 75 percent of its food. One of Bellerive’s priorities in solving Haiti’s mountain of problems is to seek international aid to begin a “massive resuscitation” of local agriculture.

Just what do Haitians eat? The vast majority – those living in extreme poverty, many of whom are malnourished – subsist primarily on rice and kidney beans, with much more rice than beans. Or, says Compton, boiled (dried) corn with a few beans thrown in. Haiti does have a cuisine that’s similar to that of other Caribbean Central American nations. Almost all feature some sort of rice and legume preparation. Jérémie had a daily market, with those dried beans, corn and rice, as well as such things as potatoes, carrots, onions, and cabbage, and seasonal fruits such as bananas, plantains, avocados, mangoes, papaya and breadfruit. There were many different kinds of hot peppers.

Of course, food at markets must be bought; those with little or no money often must just take whatever food they can wherever they can find it (although that’s difficult to impossible in overcrowded Port-au-Prince). For example, Compton says, “We had a huge mango tree just outside our house [which was next to a free health clinic]. There were way too many mangoes for us to eat, and people coming to the clinic would pick them up off the ground. Coconuts were everywhere. There was lots of citrus: key limes, green-skinned oranges, and even sour oranges – nobody ate those; they were used as a cleaner. There were always chickens, pigs and goats wandering around. They all belonged to somebody, and everyone always knew who owned what. People fished a lot – you’d always see them standing in the water with nets. But sanitation was so bad – everything just drained into the ocean which was really polluted around the shoreline.”

Haiti does have some unique dishes. One is picklese (recipe below), a combination hot sauce and slaw/pickle. Another unusual specialty is diri djon djon, a rice dish made with Haitian mushrooms. The mushrooms are mild-flavored and turn the rice black. Compton says that pumpkin soup, joumou, is eaten on New Year’s day, other special occasions, and sometimes on Sundays. “Sunday is the day to visit,” she says. “When there’s no movies, tv or radio, visiting is the main entertainment.” Haiti is 90 percent Roman Catholic (and 100 percent voodoo) so they have a Carnivale, a.k.a Mardi Gras. Easter is the biggest festival of the year; when a beet salad is traditionally eaten.

The reasons Haiti was the Western Hemisphere’s poorest country well before Jan. 12 are as diverse as they are complex. It has a long and miserable record of almost chronic catastrophes, political as well as natural. But Haitians point with pride to the fact that their country was the first black democracy, freeing themselves from French colonization in 1804 and instituting a constitution in 1805. That democracy hasn’t been perfect or unbroken: the brutal dictators “Papa Doc” Duvalier and his son, “Baby Doc,” controlled Haiti from the 1950s to the 1980s; no small part of Haiti’s current problems can be traced to them. Haiti is once again a democracy, although political graft and corruption remain rampant.

Haiti also has a proud literary history; in fact an international literary festival was to be held in Port-au-Prince the same week as the quake. Jérémie is called the “City of Poets;” it’s most famous was Alexandre Dumas who wrote The Three Musketeers.

Can the horrific disaster of Jan. 12 present an opportunity to set Haiti onto a new course? Bellerive thinks it can. He’ll be attempting to persuade the international community – especially donor nations such America – that Haiti has “a good recovery action plan [that] won’t just rebuild what was destroyed but present the Haiti that we’re all dreaming of” by the next decade. Compton agrees: “It’s absolutely the hope of everyone who cares about Haiti.”

Certainly it will be a long and difficult struggle. It’s difficult for Haitians to look that far ahead when so many don’t even have a plastic sheet to call home. Bellerive knows that: “Our goal at the moment isn’t to escape poverty. It’s to escape misery so we can get back to poverty.”

There are many charitable agencies accepting donations for Haitian relief, from the Red Cross to churches and other religious organizations. Choose any that suit your preference; just be sure that it’s well established and reputable.

Contact Julianne Glatz at

RealCuisine Recipe
Picklese (a.k.a. Pikliz)

This classic Haitian condiment can be found on every table, sometimes even when there isn’t a table. The liquid is used as a hot sauce; in other dishes the thinly sliced vegetables are a sort of slaw/pickle condiment for meat or vegetable preparations. Scotch bonnet peppers are traditional –– but their close relatives, habañeros, can be substituted and are more easily found in local groceries. Pepper aficionados distinguish between them, but Scotch bonnets and habeñeros share a flavor profile unique among chilies, as well as a similar Scoville index – the measurement used to classify chiles’ heat levels. Both are incendiary: this condiment is not for the faint of heart. 

  • 6 Scotch bonnet peppers, or   substitute habañeros
  • 2 c. very thinly sliced cabbage
  • ½ c. very thinly sliced carrots
  • ¼ c. very thinly sliced onion, not super-sweet, preferably red
  • 1 ½ tsp. kosher or sea salt
  • 4 whole cloves
  • 4 whole allspice berries
  • 12 peppercorns
  • approximately 3 c. distilled white vinegar

Use rubber gloves when handling the peppers; alternately, coat your hands with oil before slicing. Stem the peppers and remove the seeds. Slice into thin slivers and place into a medium-large non-reactive bowl. Add the cabbage, carrots, onion and salt and toss to combine. Let stand for about 15 minutes; the salt will wilt the vegetables.

Crush the cloves, allspice and peppercorns lightly with a mallet or the back of a heavy skillet and add to the bowl. Let stand for another 15 minutes, or about 30 minutes total for the vegetables and spices mixed together.

Put the mixture into a quart jar, including any liquid. Add enough vinegar to fill to the top, and stir to combine. Cover tightly and let stand for at least 24 hours and up to 48 hours before using, then refrigerate. Makes 1 quart.


RealCuisine Recipe
Haitian Red Beans and Rice (Diri et Pois Coles)

Rice and beans are ubiquitous throughout the Southwestern U.S., Mexico, Central and South America, well as the Caribbean and other parts of the world. The beans differ – black beans, pinto beans, kidney beans, pigeon peas, etc., but the preparation is essentially the same. Cheap staples that provide healthy nutrition are combined with aromatics like garlic, onion, and pepper to make it flavorful. A small amount of meat, often smoked, used whenever possible or for special occasions contributes more flavor than nutrition. I’ve read many such recipes, and made lots of them. What struck me most when reading Haitian versions was that the proportion of beans to rice was so much smaller: even a protein source such as beans is a scarce enough commodity that it’s used sparingly. Most Haitian recipes call for two cups of rice to one cup of beans. I reduced it to one cup rice to one cup of beans, and the proportion of rice to beans was still much, much larger than any other I’ve ever made – but still plenty tasty. I also doubled the amount of meat, for its flavor.

  • 2 c. dried kidney beans
  • 1 c. chopped ham or bacon, optional
  • 2 T. vegetable oil, bacon fat, or unhydrogenated lard (if not using the bacon)
  • 1 1/2 c. chopped onion, not super-sweet
  • ½ c. celery, chopped
  • ¾ - 1 c. chopped bell pepper, green, red, yellow, or a combination
  • 1 seeded and minced Scotch Bonnet pepper, or other hot pepper, or more or less, optional
  • 1 T. minced garlic
  • 2 c. rice
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Wash the beans well, and remove any small stones or debris. Cover with water that’s two inches above the beans and let stand overnight. Alternatively, cover as above and bring to a boil over high heat for one minute. Remove from the heat and let stand for an hour, then proceed.

Drain the beans. In a large pot, cook the ham or bacon over medium heat until it’s slightly crisp and has rendered most of its fat. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside. Add additional oil or fat if there’s not enough in the pot, and then add the onion, celery, peppers, and garlic. Cover the pan, and let the vegetables “sweat” for a few minutes until they are softened. Uncover the pan and continue to cook until the vegetables are lightly browned. Add two quarts of water and bring to a simmer, stirring up any browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Add the beans, cover the pot, and cook until the beans are completely tender but not falling apart, about an hour.

Remove the pot from the heat, stir in a teaspoon of salt, and let stand a few minutes. There should be at least 1/12 – 2 inches of liquid on top of the beans; if not, add sufficient water. Return to the stove and bring to a gentle simmer. Stir the rice into the beans, cover the pot, and return to a simmer. Cook for 15 minutes, or until the rice is completely done. Season with salt and pepper (it will need more salt) and let stand at least half an hour before serving.