the rich and surprising Tastes of Haiti

Travel, cultural exchange, and experiences of the world often come back to me in memories of food

Sitting around a table or fire or under a mango tree in any sort of group setting enjoying, or experiencing “the new”, foods and flavors provides for a unique type of intimate human interaction. We find ourselves connected by food. It is no different for the area of Haiti we visit. The vibrant colors and flavors of produce grown in the fertile Artibonite Valley are surprising and wonderful. Harvest seasons rotate through tomatoes, okra, onions, cabbage, peppers, rice, corn, beans, mango, avocado, citrus fruit, taro, cassava, eggplant and many others. Spices and flavors tend to be simple, yet rich and hot!

One thing about Haitian Food: You will never forget it!

One of my most memorable Haitian moments connected to food was in the Kawo region located in the mountains overlooking central Haiti. Our group made the challenging and sun-drenched 7+ mile hike up, exhausting even to the most experienced hikers. Were greeted with the traditional cup of super-sweet fresh coffee to renew our weary bodies. It was amazing and energizing. We set up camp and settled in for a few days of living alongside our Haitian friends. My wife and I along with my boys, Gabe, 9 years, and Jon, 11 years, were part of our team. Jon had been here 3 years prior on his first journey to Kawo. For Gabe this was his first exposure to the amazing hospitality of the poorest mountain people in the world. The welcoming meal, our dinner for the night, began with the late morning slaughtering of a small goat. And then things got interesting as we discovered the resourcefulness of these incredible people.
I snuck into the “pantry” for a look see and found vibrant colored vegtables and ingredients set up for meal prep. As far as we could tell through Creole and hand gestures, they were going to use every part of the animal. The women butchered the animal with wonderful efficiency, setting aside the meat and bones. A bowl full of goat parts were about to be cleaned and set up for a rich and spicy tomato-based stew spiced up with hot chilis, onions, garlic, citrus fruit, and thyme.

Even the goat’s hide (seen here in the blue bucket later was hung on a nearby avocado tree and fleshed, scraped, and preserved for use. The process took all day and each woman had here job to do. This small goat would be the basis for several meals and feed many people.
With my general interest in food and cooking, I was kinda nosey and asking a lot of questions of the women. They found it funny that I (a man) was watching them and asking about ingredients and cooking techniques. My inquiries resulted in many smiles and some laughter. Men do not do this job!

When the cooking began in a couple different “kitchens” around the area, I visited another small structure and found what would be the center of the meal. The same woman who was fleshing and scraping the hide earlier in the day, see above, was cooking in a pot on a welded rebar rack using traditional hard charcoal. When you travel around Haiti you seen many large “tarp” bags filled with hard lump charcoal in markets along the road for sale and balanced atop the heads of women bringing them home for cooking fires. Our cook was using the same fuel to boil up the beginning of the meal.

Jon and Gabe were at my side when we peeked into the kitchen and saw it.

A full goat head.
Horns, ears, and all just boiling away. Our cook was prepping a stew of goat meat and brain. I’m not sure what happened to the two legs she was holding in her left hand, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they became some part of a different meal. Jon and Gabe were floored to see such a sight. I was also surprised, and a bit freaked out by our discovery of the dinner menu.

When we sat for dinner later that evening, we were presented the stew I had seen earlier. Our group crowded into a small dirt floor home set up with love and hospitality. The meal arrived and was prayed over. Fried plantains, pikliz (a spicy cabbage slaw), beans and rice, and the goat stew rounded up the menu. The red sauce was incredibly rich and flavorful, the shredded meat held an intense flavor unlike any other I had tasted. My first time having goat.

*Do not continue reading if you are squeamish!
Then I scooped a square piece of brain from the pot, easily identifiable. Both of my boys inhaled deeply as they saw me put it on my plate. “You’re gunna eat it?!” Yes, I was planning on eating what was presented to me for the meal, and since I had been so nosey earlier in the day if felt I really had no choice.  It had a texture of soft cheese and an iron flavor much like a rich game meat. The fatty sauce, thankfully, coated the small bite as I got it down. Our team leader, Dixie, laughed and assured me that I did not have to eat it all. As a matter of fact, we should all eat small portions because the remaining food will be stretched out to feed many people in the surrounding homes. The meal was a true experience of love, culture, and adventure.

The Haitian mountain people may be the poorest in the world as far as material goods, but in relationship they are the richest. They practice a hospitality like no other, they work as a community taking care of and supporting each other. They welcome in “Blancs” with humility and sacrifice to open their arms in so many ways for us. I will not soon forget this meal and I look forward to the rich and diverse foods and flavors of Haiti. I pray that someday you will have an experience like this that stays with you and reminds you of a people who serve with love and humility.
…Maybe not with the goat brain stew.

-Tony Robinson

Fun Fact:

Here’s a nice (and possibly controversial) culinarily tidbit. Some people say that barbeque started in Haiti. There are several stories about the origins of the word “barbecue,” but one says that it derives from the word barabicu, found in the language of the Taíno people (who were the natives of the land that is now Haiti) and the Timucua of Florida. Apparently the term entered European languages in the form barbacoa. Specifically, the Oxford English Dictionary translates the word as a “framework of sticks set upon posts.”
Gonzalo Fernández De Oviedo y Valdés, a Spanish explorer, was the first to use the word “barbecoa” in print in Spain in 1526 in the Diccionario de la Lengua Española (2nd Edition) of the Real Academia Española.

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