Before recently traveling to Haiti, I had little concept of Haitian food. Sure, I had a sense of what it could be: island-informed, African-influenced, of Caribbean character, maybe even a hint of French.
As with the country's language, Haitian food has a sense of the Crèole, that is a blend of influences. Mixed roots and spices, basic yet zippy, simple and grounded by the reality of the tropics and the back-story of its African heritage, yet touched with a hint of French complexity.
Take pikliz (spicy pickled vegetables), breadfruit, bergamot, watercress and even rum-infused power shakes. Throw in Haitian hot chocolate, grilled lobster, plenty of beans, avocados and a dash of hot pepper and you have an eclectic mix that took some sampling and digging to suss out not only the depth of Haitian table, but more importantly the underlying essence and nature of Haitian cuisine.
What was it like to eat everything that passed our eyes on the table and in the street? What was it like to eat in Haiti, the country that makes its home on the western side of the island known as Hispaniola?
We went to find out. Now let’s dig in. Bon apeti!
Haitian Main Dishes
For us, food offers one of the most enjoyable contexts through which to understand a place. As we seek out certain types of dishes, we find ourselves in new experiences of all sorts.
During our travels in Haiti we sampled food that ranged from street food to high end restaurants, and a bit of everything in-between. What you'll find below is an overview of all that we ate and discovered culinarily while in Haiti. We hope that it may lead you to your own eating adventures.
Poulet Aux Noix (chicken and cashew nuts)
A rich northern Haiti specialty of chicken cooked in a tomato-based sauce with cashew nuts that you'll most likely find in and around the town of Cap-Haïtien. Where to get it: Lakou Lakay Cultural Center in the town of Milot near Sans Souci Palace.
Mayi Moulen ak Sòs Pwa, Poul an Sòs (cornmeal with beans and stewed chicken)
Stews are common in Haiti. Served on top of either cornmeal or rice, they are hearty, too. What makes Haitian stews special is the hint of warm sweet spices like clove and star anise. Where to get it: An excellent example of Haitian stew can be had from the street food woman at the end of the alleyway at Atis Rezistans (Grande Rue in Port-au-Prince). A single portion ($2) will be enough to feed two hungry people.
Griyo (fried pork)
For meat-eaters, griyo is an absolute must-try traditional dish of Haiti. It is most often served with cabbage salad or better yet, spicy pikliz (onions and other vegetables marinated in a spicy vinegar sauce). Where to get it: If you're going out for a nice dinner, try the griyo at Quartier Latin in Pétionville. For a more low-key meal, order a big plate of griyo at Cinq Coins Restaurant (they sell it by the pound) in Port-au-Prince and side it with a cold beer or two. Perfect to share and enjoy with friends.
Lanbi an Sòs Lanbi Kreyol (conch in creole sauce)
Of all the fruits of the sea you can find in Haiti, conch seems to be among the most distinct to appear on restaurant menus. You can usually find it grilled (see below) or in a tomato-based creole sauce. Conch is a must-try if seafood is your thing.
Where to get it: Presse Café serves up a good version of conch in creole sauce, as does Quartier Latin.
Lanbi Boukannen, Woma Boukannen (grilled conch, grilled lobster)
As seafood lovers, we did a happy dance in Haiti for the availability and freshness of grilled lobster and conch. These are readily available in most coastal areas, but especially along the southern coast in and around Jacmel, Jacmel Cayes and Port Salut. Where to get it: Chez Matante restaurant on Gelée Beach near Les Cayes may take the “heaping portion” award where a $15 mountainous serving of delicious lobster and avocado slices is enough to satiate two people. Another place for delicious grilled seafood (including langoustine) is Vue Sur Mer near Jacmel.
Tassot/Taso (dried fried meat)
Tassot is spiced, dried meat that is then fried. You may also have seen this in Mexico or Latin American countries as well, as tasajo. In Haiti, you’ll most often find Tassot Kabrit (goat) or Tassot Vyann (beef) sided with fried plantains. The description defies its tastiness. Where to get it: This was another favorite dish at Lakou Lakay Cultural Center in Milot.
Mayi Moulen Kole ak Legim (cornmeal, beans and vegetable stew)
The legim (think legume) is the vegetable stew part. The cornmeal consistency is somewhere between polenta and cream-of-wheat (or cream-of-cornmeal, as it were). Where to get it: A delicious example of this dish can be found in Jacmel, past the airfield, right side on the road if you’re heading in the direction of Marigot. Go early as once they sell out for the day, they close the stand.
Diri ak Fèy Lalo ak Sirik (crab and lalo leaf stew)
A stew of crab and dark-green spinach-like lalo leaves. Rich and hearty. Traditionally, this is a specialty of Artibonite, the Haitian rice producing region. Where to get it: Get thee to the Marché en Fer in Port-au-Prince in the late morning to lunchtime. The woman between the food market and Vodou and crafts market cooks a big tin of it on weekdays.
Kalalou Djondjon (Haitian okra and black mushroom stew)
This is a sort of Louisiana-style gumbo made with okra and mushrooms, sometimes served with a kick of chili peppers. You can find it in some restaurants, but we experienced this dish stewed with chunks of pork and a healthy dose of crab legs (kalalou djon djon ak sirik ak vyann kochon) served atop white rice at a friend's house. (Sorry, that location is sworn to secrecy.)
Pwason Boukannen (grilled fish)
So many restaurants and seaside shacks serve grilled fish along the coast. We always asked for additional pikliz to go on top. So good. Where to get it: Our best fish feast was a heaping lunch portion at a simple beach-side stand at Pointe Sable in Port Salut. Great food, cold beers and a fitting view of the sea.
Sides, Starches and Condiments
Besides all the meat and seafood, rice, beans and tropical starches rule the table in Haiti. Note that fritay (fried foods) are often paired with spice and vinegar blends like pikliz (see below) to balance what goes into the digestive system.
Pickled cabbage and vegetables (onions, carrots, peppers, etc.), grated or shredded, served in a vinegar base and often dashed with chili peppers. A perfect compliment to fried and heavy foods. We became slightly obsessed with pikliz and were guilty of ordering extra portions of it everywhere we went. If you are sensitive to spice, be sure to taste before topping your plate.
Diri Kole or Diri ak Pois (rice and beans) or Mayi Moulen ak Pois (cornmeal and beans)
White rice cooked with beans or served with a bean sauce is very common throughout Haiti. Another variation of this includes Diri Blan ak Sos Pwa Noir (white rice and black bean sauce) or rice with a white bean sauce. Depending on the consistency the cook is after, cornmeal is often swapped for rice in these dishes.
Diri Djon Djon (rice with black mushrooms)
While white rice is usually served with a bean sauce topping (see above), diri djon djon is usually served on its own because of the distinct aroma and rich flavor of the jhon jhon mushroom.
Bannann (Plantains), Fried or Boiled
The most common approach to the ubiquitous Haitian plantain: fried plantains (bannann peze), which are often sided with any of the main meals mentioned above. Although perhaps not the healthiest option, they are also delicious topped with a heaping spoonful of pikliz. We were admittedly less excited by the boiled plantain option. Where to get it: The best bannann peze was at Vue Sur Mer Restaurant outside of Jacmel.
Lam Veritab Fri (Fried breadfruit)
Definitely worth seeking out. Sometimes you'll find fried breadfruit mixed together on a plate with fried plantains. The first time this happens, you'll say, “Man, I didn't know plantains could be so good.” That, my friend, is breadfruit. The consistency is richer and more distinct than a plantain, and the taste is quite different almost bordering on a starchy version of jackfruit. Good thing is: breadfruit is widely available; it probably ought to be consumed even more than rice given how prevalent it is in the country. Where to get it: Our most memorable was at the sprawling highway-side market at Saint-Louis-du-Sud, where the breadfruit lady topped ours with an ample serving of spicy pikliz. Yum.
When in season, avocado is plentiful and tasty. Get your fill, particularly as a side to various meat dishes and grilled seafoods. Pairs beautifully with a nice, tart pikliz.
We’ve experienced blended watercress dipping sauces (see Tap Tap Haitian Restaurant in Miami Beach), but nothing beats the mind-bending fresh mountain salad at Auberge La Visite in the mountains near Seguin, Haiti. Watercress was fresh-plucked from the ground at the foot of the waterfall we passed on the return from a hike to Pic Cabayo. It's then tossed with other vegetables and edible flowers, as in the salad pictured above.
Soup Joumou (pumpkin/squash soup)
Pumpkins and squash are quite common throughout Haiti. You may find pumpkin and squash soup on its own or — you guessed it — stewing in a pot of goat meat and other vegetables.
Bouyon Tèt Kabrit (goat head bouillon)
A hearty favorite in the hills just outside of Port-au-Prince. Trust us, it's much tastier than it sounds. We sampled this in places like Mare Rouge and Seguin, just outside of Parc National La Visite and Pic la Selle.
Breakfast in Haiti
Travelers in Haiti can find breakfasts with the usual suspects such as eggs, toast or cereal in hotels. However, if you wish to breakfast like a local, here's what you might eat.
Pwason Seche ak Bannann (dried fish and boiled plantains)
Particularly as you head south along the coast, you’ll see strings of morning-dried fish hanging on racks. Then they end up on your breakfast table.
Fwa Di ak Bannann (beef liver with plantains)
I joked with a Haitian friend that Haitian beef liver looked to me like dog food. OK, it was no joke. But as beef livers go, they are tasty for the copious use of spices like cinnamon and dashes of star anise. With this breakfast you likely will not need to eat until dinner — the following day.
Spaghetti for breakfast in Haiti? Yes, spaghetti, the breakfast of Haitian champions. It makes sense when you consider the importance of starting one's day with a hearty breakfast. For more on how this tradition came to be, read this article.
Jus Blennde (blended shake)
Jus blennde is a staple of the Port-au-Prince night street food scene. These shakes are essentially meal replacements so that people can eat something hearty, but perhaps not as heavy as meat, at night. The version I enjoyed (endured?) was made from approximately 15 ingredients including boiled potato, carrot, manioc (cassava), and breadfruit; banana, papaya, peanuts, sugar, vanilla and almond extracts, evaporated milk, ice, rum and a wedge of la vache qui rit cream cheese for good measure. If Popeye came from Haiti, this is what he would eat before he kicked ass.
Yes, you read that correctly. I could not bring myself to try it, but the idea is apparently a filling, easily digested liquid dinner, based on blending wet spaghetti, tomato flavoring and other goodies. The Godfather is turning over in his grave. Or is that his stomach turning?
A ground corn and cocoa shake specialty hailing from the seaside Haitian town of Les Cayes. Rich, sweet and heavy enough to keep you full for the whole day. If you are seeing a pattern of filling food here, you are beginning to understand the “why” that underlies the historical function of food in Haiti. Where to get it: La Cayenne Restaurant in Les Cayes.
Haitian Desserts and Snacks
Haitians have a sweet tooth, no two ways about it. It's not surprising considering the country's wide production of sugar cane. Here are a few of our favorite desserts and treats that we found across the island.
Mamba (peanut butter)
Haitian peanut butter is all natural. It's also a revelation. Northern varieties are purportedly six-times blended while those in the south are less smooth at four-times blended. What really sets apart Haitian peanut butter: spice. Yes, spicy peanut butter. You heard me right.
Spicy peanut butter varieties are made when ground peanuts are turned with a scotch bonnet or habanero pepper. After one taste of this, you’ll never look at the possibilities of peanut butter quite the same.
Dous Makos (Haitian fudge)
Native to the Haitian town of Petit-Goave, dous makos production looks a kind of taffy production where milk and sugar are boiled in log-fired cauldrons. The signature look of dous makos: the three stripes, beige, brown and pink. Where to get it: You'll find stands all along the road in Petit-Goave, but the best dous makos we sampled was at Chez Lélène Douce. Lélène's product is smooth and features hints of coconut and other flavors that set it apart. Also, Lélène's daughters are adorable.
Kasav (cassava bread)
In Haiti, cassava bread is less moist like bread and more dry like a cracker. The version we bought were stuffed with a not-so-sweet chocolate and paired with Haitian peanut butter. Cassava bread is an acquired taste and one that you come to acquire much faster when you are famished after hiking several miles in the hills.
But the best way to have cassava bread is fresh on the streets of Port-au-Prince with a dose of spicy peanut butter slathered on top. A wonderful — and local — street-side snack.
Tablèt Nwa (cashew ginger brittle)
Just like it sounds, where cashews and sugar cane are turned with ginger for a zip. You can find vendors selling it along the road from Les Cayes to Port-au-Prince, but it's a specialty of the town of Cavaillon. You can also find brittles around the country made with peanuts, sesame seeds, coconut, almonds and cashews.
Pain Patate (sweet potato cake)
If you come across sweet potato cake, give it a shot as it's made with sweet potatoes, bananas and spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, and vanilla. We had a very nice sweet potato cake, served in warm glaze at the restaurant at Habitation Jouissant in Cap-Haïtien.
Chokola Peyi (Haitian hot chocolate)
Haitian hot chocolate is a terrific experience, particularly if you endeavor to buy the relatively inexpensive ingredients and requisite tools at the Marché en Fer in Port-au-Prince. It's a fun process and enjoyable way to engage with different vendors at the market.
Haitian hot chocolate production begins by shaving a ball of pure chocolate with a Haitian grater — that is, against the holed and hollowed out side of a tomato can. Then simmer cinnamon sticks, star anise, nutmeg and fèy bwadin leaves in water (we've been told that whole nutmeg or mace is good as well). Add your ground chocolate, some sugar, some vanilla essence a tiny pinch of salt, and thicken it with some evaporated milk (don't skimp on this). Shave some of the rind of a green bergamot (a shriveled, pungent lime-like citrus fruit) for the final touch. Voilà! Not your average hot chocolate.
Learning to make Haitian hot chocolate — then consuming the fruits of our labors — in the hills above Port-au-Prince was one of our favorite memories of our time in Haiti.
The history of coffee in Haiti, including its near disappearance as an industry, is a shame. Haitian coffee is quite good and in terms of flavor, its Arabica beans can hold their own against competing Central American and African counterparts. Of the major brands available in supermarkets, check out Rebo or better yet, Selecto. If you really wish to go off the beaten path, try the local bean at Fondation Seguin grown in the hills above Port-au-Prince where they are trying to train local farmers in coffee production.
Given the prevalence of sugar cane in Haiti, it probably comes as no surprise that rum is the national spirit of choice. Although Haiti makes several types of rum, Barbancourt is the national standard dark rum that is available in a number of grades — most notably 3-star, a perfectly drinkable 4-year aged or 5-star, a perfectly smooth one-part spicy, another-part sweet 8-year aged. Although we rarely drink rum straight, we found ourselves doing this throughout our travels in Haiti. It's that good.
And it's no surprise that rum cocktails are everywhere you go in Haiti. Although rum juice punch is everywhere, our favorite is a rum sour with lime juice, sugar syrup, a dash of bitters or cinnamon, lemon or orange rind and often a cherry. We prefer it served in a plain, rather than sugar-encrusted, glass.
Kleren / Klerin
An unrefined spirit similar to white rum, kleren is distilled from cane sugar. We visited a family-run kleren manufacturer near Cap-Haïtien in northern Haiti to witness the process from start — pressing the sugar cane to get juice — to its multi-distillation chamber finish. The resulting white rum used to be called “guildive” as it was considered so strong that it would “kill the devil” when you drank it.
On the streets of Port-au-Prince, you'll find colorful flavored or infused kleren concoctions. Think “street rum pharmacy” whose outputs feature dubious medicinal qualities, look a little like kerosene, and quite honestly taste a little like it too.
No trip to Haiti would be complete without drinking a cold Prestige on the beach. Prestige, a relatively heavy American-style lager, is the ubiquitous Haitian beer of choice. For various reasons, including the climate and the brew itself, it's best served very cold. You may be able to find other beers in Haiti, including various lighter beers and malts, but Prestige is the most consistent.
A huge thanks to Jean Cyril Pressoir, our G Adventures CEO (guide) in Haiti. Cyril humored us and our desire for Haitian street food at just about every turn, shared his favorite spots and never tired of our endless questions about his country's cuisine.
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