Haiti is a republic consisting of 10 departments and it shares the Hispaniola island in the Caribbean Sea with the Dominican Republic. The eclectic Haitian cuisine draws influence from West Africa, France, Spain, and native Indians, with some Lebanese and Syrian influences leftover from immigration in the 19th century.
Over 80 percent of Haitians live in poverty, and most of them are vegetarians because they can't afford meat. The main religions are Roman Catholics and Protestants, but regardless of their primary religious beliefs, more than half of the population practices voodoo. The main exports from Haiti include coffee, sugar, cacao, cotton, bananas, rice, fish, rum, and textiles.
The most important Haitian staple is rice, called diri, while other important grains include corn, millet, and bulgur wheat, which was brought to the island by Lebanese and Syrian immigrants. Besides rice, legumes play a key role in the Haitian diet, and different types of beans ensure that people don't feel they're eating the same thing over and over again – there's red, pinto, petite, Congo, pigeon, and black peas to choose from. In addition to rice and beans, peanuts add flavor and protein, usually in the form of peanut butter or peanut brittle.
Meat such as beef, goat, mutton or lamb is reserved only for the wealthy, while pork is occasionally eaten by the poorer locals. However, poultry is often used in Haitian cooking, mostly chicken, with duck, guinea fowl, and turkey making an occasional appearance in Haitian pots and pans.
Seafood is abundant, so most people that live near the coast include shrimp and conch in their diet, as well as dried, salted, and smoked fish. There's also an abundance of fresh fruit on the island, such as bananas, coconuts, papayas, pineapples, mangoes, mandarins, lemons, star apples, and oranges.
Most vegetables growing on the island have been brought from elsewhere – yams, sweet potatoes, cassava, corn, cabbage, beets, okra, carrots, tomatoes, bell peppers, and breadfruit provide a source of carbohydrates to the locals, apart from the classic Haitian square-shaped bread.
Essential Haitian flavorings include salt, black pepper, Maggi cubes, garlic, parsley, cilantro, thyme, Scotch bonnet peppers, djon djon mushrooms, and pikliz – vegetables that have been cut and pickled in vinegar with chili peppers. Fats include peanut and vegetable oil, shortening, or lard.
Typical Meals and Techniques
Due to the simplicity of Haitian home kitchens, the most popular food preparation techniques include frying, grilling, boiling, and sautéeing. Most people try to eat three meals a day, and the poorer people usually eat a combination of corn, yams, and red beans with their fingers, as there is often a lack of utensils for each person.
Breakfast is eaten very early in the morning and it often includes café au lait, mamba (bread with peanut butter), smoked fish, cornmeal porridge, rice puddings, and boiled plantains.
The lunch menu typically includes rice and beans (with ham hocks for the wealthy), peas, and wither chicken, goat, pork, or turkey, along with jars of pikliz or hot pepper sauce on the side.
Dinner is light and simple, often consisting of fried rice, boiled sweet potatoes, or sweetened oatmeal. Most locals eat at home, but if they're to eat something on the street, it would probably be griots (griyo), consisting of pork cubes that are fried and served in a lime sauce.
As in most other countries, special occasions such as birthdays, weddings, funerals, and official holidays provide locals with festive dishes.
On January 1, New Year's Day and also Haitian Independence Day, locals tend to eat soup joumou, a thick soup made with beef and squash. Before Lent, during the carnival-like feasts, beignets and similar fritters are usually prepared on the streets. On Good Friday, cooks prepare dishes featuring white beans.
When the Day of the Dead arrives on November 2, a voodoo feast known as Fete Gede is also celebrated on the same day, and a typical menu features macaroni and cheese, red beans and rice, baked chicken, fried red snapper, yams, cornbread, and thiaka (cornmeal porridge with red beans). Christmas is reserved for a big meal featuring griots, pikliz, fried plantains, and sweet potato pudding.