Examining The Flavorful Haitian Cuisine
By Christopher Oriza
The Republic of Haiti is a developing country in the Caribbean region with a rich history and culture; the Haitian cuisine is no exception. Haitian cuisine primarily consists of a combination of flavors and spices from Africa and France. In this essay, I will first highlight a variety of foods apart Haitian cuisine. Also, I will examine the history food crisis in Haiti which has become a serious issue that affects nearly half of its population. Furthermore, I plan to discuss solutions to reduce hunger and malnutrition in a country with officially the most alarming levels of hunger in the Western Hemisphere. These alternatives serve to fight against this silent pandemic that affects millions of people in the country. This investigation could also serve as a foundation for other countries dealing with malnutrition by implementing those same alternatives to end hunger and establish food security worldwide.
Key Words: Food, Soup Joumou, Griot, Starvation, Rice, Haitian cuisine, Pikliz, Hunger, Malnutrition, Poverty
Manje Granneg ( Rich Man Food)
Pumpkin Soup is widely considered the most famous dish in Haitian history. It is usually eaten on January 1st to celebrate the Independence of Haiti. Originally, this dish was solely reserved for the whites, slave-owners, while the slaves who cooked it were forbidden from eating it. Subsequently, Haitians took part in eating it once they gained their independence from France in 1804. Soup Joumou primarily consists of variety of ingredients, such as vegetables, potatoes, noodles, beef and chicken based on dietary preference. It is a great dish to eat in the winter, particularly on January 1st, because of the spices that warm you up.
Griot is one of the most popular dishes in Haitian culture. It is usually complimented with a sides of fried plantains and pikliz which adds some spiciness it. The Pikliz (coleslaw) is a Haitian condiment that consist of cabbage, carrots, shallots, vinegar, and most importantly hot peppers which provide the perfect combination with meats and fried food.
Diri Djon Djon is arguably the fanciest kind of rice one would ever see. This delicate dish is primarily one of the best choice for the Haitian elite or the perfect choice for a real Haitian party because of the key ingredient “Djon Djon.” The latter word is primarily grown in the northern part of Haiti and relatively expensive for many to consume every day. Diri Djon Djon does not necessarily need to be complimented with sauce unlike regular rice and beans.
Lambi is probably the fanciest dish ever in Haitian society. It is very rare to see it on the dinner table of a regular Haitian household. This dish belongs solely to the “Manje Gran Neg” category which literally translates to “The rich man’s dish.” Conch is not readily available at most Haitian markets, which turn makes it expensive and unaffordable for a regular Haitian citizen. Its long cooking time also contributes to its delicacy and fanciness.
A standout amongst the most well-known dishes is “sos pwa” which is a bean puree. Sos Pwa can be made with almost any type of beans and is usually served with white rice, corn meal, or in a stew filled with vegetables, yams, and meat. This common meal contributes to the high starch-low dairy attributes of the Haitian cuisine.
Manje Moun Pov ( The poor’s food)
Diri Kole is a less fancy and nutritious version of Diri Djon. Thus, it is more common among Haitians because it does not cost as much as other dishes. Cooking time and budget would dictate its compliments. Since, many feel like its dry, it could be served with sauce viande (meat) which is a sauce filled with meat, or legumes, which is also a sauce with meat, but vegetables as well. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for many to eat it plain, for financial reasons.
Lam Veritab is one of the fruits that many Haitians, especially in most rural areas crave about. This fruit is actually more nutritious than rice because of the nutrients and vitamins that are embedded within. This explains why it’s French name, “L’arbre Veritable” which translates to, “True tree” argues that its fruit filled with many ingredients that the body needs to function optimally. It is also served with some meat sauce like Diri Kole.
Sweet Potatoes and Yams hold a special spot in the rural resident cuisine because of its richness in nutrients, vitamins, and properties that fight against gas, that they claim originate from over-comsumption of rice. Its reasonable price also makes it a go-to for them. Like Diri Kole, and Lam Veritab, sweet potatoes and yams are commonly served with a moderate amount so their consumers can feel full.
A Country With Two Worlds
As highlighted above, socioeconomic structures and financial resources have proven to be involved in every aspect of daily life, including food choices. The discrepancy and differences of food choices between the two main classes of the country become even more apparent. While the elite enjoys its fancy “Diri Djon Djon, Lambi, and Griot,” the poor is struggling to find anything to eat. As Louloune Vieux, a 19-year-old stated, “On a good day, we eat rice and sauce and some tom-tom, but that’s when I have enough cash to buy a basket of oranges and sell them all before sunset. Today I didn’t.” (Regan 2004,44). Hence, Vieux and others alike, find “flour and water porridge a common meal, so is sugar water” ( Regan 2004, 44). This diet deficiency leads to severe health defects in new-born children and adults as well. Malnutrition, chronic undernourishment, vitamin or mineral deficiencies which result in weakness, and heightened susceptibility to illness. In addition, Kwashiorkor (lack of protein), Marasmus (energy deficiency) and a poor immune system, are only a few of a multitude of illnesses associated with a poor diet for an individual which has been the case for many Haitians (Khan et al. 2017). Therefore, it is important to analyze the causes of food insecurity in Haiti and find tangible solutions to reduce hunger and help in need.
Food Insecurity in Haiti
A proper nutrition is essential for a healthy life. Yet, many people are struggling to find food while others are throwing food away. Unfortunately, many Haitian residents regularly face this reality. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), “3.8 million Haitians—almost half of the country’s population—go hungry every day. Twenty-three percent of all children under five suffer from chronic malnutrition, mortgaging the very future of Haiti” (Regan 2004,44). During the colonial period, Haiti was originally called Saint-Domingue, a prosperous French slave state which was also named the Pearl of the Antilles. From 1697 to 1804, Haiti turned into the second republic in the Americas. However, today, it is known as the poorest nation in the Western Side of the equator with also “alarming rates of hunger”. (Steckley, Marylynn, and Yasmine 2015, 179).
Malnutrition is largely considered one of the most devastating health concerns throughout the world, particularly poverty-stricken countries in Africa, South Asia, Latin America, and of course Haiti from the Caribbean. Although, hunger affects the entire Haitian population, those whom reside in the rural areas face even more gruesome challenges. Approximately, 75% of the country’s citizens live off $2 a day, while 50% of them end the day $1 richer (World Food Program, 2018). Essentially, many young children die of hunger because their parents cannot afford the necessary nutrients and vitamins to feed them. The lack of food availability, and most importantly, the lack of financial resources contributes greatly to the disheartening rates of starvation in Haiti. In other words, the lack of domestic production then leads to unemployment which in turn leads to starvation and malnutrition throughout the country.
Western European and North American countries have played a major role in current food crisis in Haiti. Their dysfunctional policies have kept the price of food artificially low and under mined farmers’ incomes in developing countries. Developing countries were once ranked net exporters of food, but over the past three decades, they have become large importers from developed countries. As recently as the 1970s, developing nations boasted a food trade surplus of $1 billion; by 2001, it had turned into a shortfall of $11 billion. In 1994, Haitian President Jean Bertrand Aristide chose to follow the World Bank’s suggestions and “adopted radical neoliberal policies that eliminated subsidies for fertilizers and other inputs and brought once protective tariffs on grains down to zero and five percent” (Regan 2004,45). Subsequently, foreign rice, corn, chicken, pork and different items routinely undersell Haitian items, yet at the same time cost excessively for some Haitians. Regan continues on by stating, (2004,45), “Six pounds of U.S rice sells for $1.45 wholesale, whereas Haitian rice sells for between $1.70 and $3.” Ultimately, these neoliberal policies have not only failed to revive the domestic food production but have also contributed to food insecurity through cheap subsidies at the expense of local food production.
Environmental Impact of the Colonial Period:
Presently, Haiti is known as the most environmentally degraded and food insecure nation in the Western Hemisphere with less than 1% of its landscape under dense forest coverage. Haiti’s prosperity in the 18th Century through sugar-exports contributed to devastating effects on the environment and land fertility. Saint-Domingue’s virgin forests quickly became displaced by cotton and sugar plantations. In 1701, as noted by Steckley, Marylynn, and Yasmine (2015, 184), “35 sugar mills were already at work and deforestation of the vast part of the Western half of Hispaniola (now Haiti) had ‘set in motion destabilizing ecological processes that ultimately would lead to some of the most severe environmental problems in the world” . Soon thereafter, the U.S occupation’s vision to integrate Haiti into the global market through industrialization led to further deforestation rates. Prior to the occupation, forest coverage accounted for to 60% of Haiti’s aggregate land region; this had tumbled to 21% by 1945 and to 12% by 1954. Several U.S-financed agricultural projects such as: the Haitian American Sugar Company, the Haitian American Development Corporation, and the Société Haitiano-Americaine de Développement Agricole resulted in the clearing of over 250,000 hectares of prime fertile land, “including the felling of nearly a million fruit trees and the forceful removal of 40,000 peasants from their land” (Steckley, Marylynn, and Yasmine 2015, 185). This massive reduction in land fertility serves as one of the primary causes of limited food production and food availability.
Inconsistency of NGOs:
For over half of centuries, international institutions and the World Bank have spent billions of dollars to address poverty and hunger. International donors have undertaken various initiatives such as food rations, land allocation, financial assistance to boost local food production and small-scale businesses. Yet, who has those programs benefited? The recipients tend to be corrupt authorities who oversee and distribute funds and assets, and proprietors who discretely extract those benefits for their themselves. Unfortunately, limited water access, terrible soil conditions, and the failure to secure credit have limited the crop yield in Haiti. Bigger companies usually benefit more farmers; however, the poor does not gain much directly from those governmental programs. For instance, a young farmer articulated that, “government agents don’t manage the Artibonite River and the irrigation system the way they used to, his hamlet and many rice fields are often flooded” (Regan 2004, 44). Political influence, diffused priorities, poor execution, social inequality, among other variables serve as impediments which refute the belief that more funding would eventually improve the deplorable conditions in Haiti.
Although, food insecurity and malnutrition are global issues, it is important to recognize that they must be primarily addressed at the local, national, and regional levels as opposed to the integration of neoliberal policies or through “the creation of some new global mechanisms”(Mousseau 2009, 76). Increased spending on food production would significantly reduce hunger in Haiti. Mali’s chairman of the National Coordination of Farmers Organizations stated, “investment in food production had led to an impressive 70 percent boost in rice crops in only one year” (Mousseau 2009, 76). While many would argue that excessive food production would collapse market prices resulting in lost income for farmers, nonetheless the implementation of “floor prices” (minimum prices paid to farmers for the production of certain commodities)” would prevent this collapse by supporting food production and productivity (Mousseau 2009,76). The absence of such a policy is not only a threat to small farmers’ incomes and livelihoods, but also represents a disincentive to invest in food production and supply local markets with their crops.
As previously noted, rural areas in Haiti have the highest food insecurity rates in Haiti. Thus, financial incentives such as low-interest loans and tax breaks, and physical infrastructure adjustments are practical alternatives to motivate successful private companies to build factories in rural areas. The Haitian government can facilitate economic growth by providing low-interest rates loans directly to local entrepreneurs who have demonstrated the ability and expertise to run successful businesses. To put plainly, a greater portion of the available developmental funds should be allocated be for commercial activities in the most deprived communities. According to Mousseau (2008, 79), “when looking at the major food crises over the past decade, the problem is not a matter of having stocks readily available, but rather the availability of financial resources and willingness of decision makers to act swiftly.” These policies serve as a foundation to improve the demand for food crops and boost commodity prices to levels that can financially sustain everyone including the most marginalized neighborhoods.
Many developing countries such as Brazil and Indonesia have been successful in diminishing hunger through sound and functional public policies. For instance, Mousseau (2008,80), stated that Brazil “has greatly reduced the prevalence of domestic hunger, with malnutrition in children under the age of five falling from 13 percent to 7 percent between 1996 and 2006” by supporting small farmers and the rural poor. However, in 2002, Indonesia decided to reverse the neoliberal policies recommended by international institutions to reduce imports through stricter policies and higher tariffs. Soon thereafter, “with more than 54 million metric tons of production, Indonesia had once again begun to export rice, and was able to provide emergency food assistance to the victims of the Asian tsunami” (Mousseau, 2008,80). Thus, trade regulations and tariffs on imports have demonstrated to be successful at reducing hunger rates and should be implemented and poverty-stricken nations including Haiti.
To conclude, food insecurity in Haiti, perhaps worldwide, have shown to be a fruit of a combination of factors such as political instability, environmental marginality, and, above all, economic powerlessness. However, food security is a fundamental human right and, as such, it provides a purposeful call to action for individuals at, local, regional, and national institutions to come together, unite, and create a future without want.
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