Haitian cuisine blends French, African, Spanish and Taino native influences from each of the cultural groups which have played a significant role throughout the country’s history. While it has similarities to Creole cuisine from across the Latin Caribbean, it also has its own, unique flavors and dishes.
Peppers and herbs are used to create bold African flavors, while spices like cloves and star anise add a warmth to Haitian stews. But there’s also a dash of French sophistication, together with Levantine influences due to the more recent Arab migration to the country. The Haitian flavor base known as épice forms the foundation of many dishes, comprising green onions, thyme, parsley, peppers and garlic.
Indigenous and Colonial Influences in Haitian Cuisine
The Taino people inhabited Haiti prior to European arrival and it was from them that the barbecue is believed to have originated. After Christopher Columbus arrived in the Americas, Spanish explorers reported seeing native Haitians roasting animal meat over a grill, with the rising flames and smoke giving it a distinct flavor. In fact, the word “barbecue” is believed to have been derived from the Taino word “barabicu”.
The Spanish were the first Europeans to colonize what became known as Hispaniola when Christopher Columbus landed at Môle Saint-Nicolas in 1492. Sugar plantations were established and the Taino people were initially used as slave labor, however, infectious diseases soon killed large numbers and slaves were shipped from Africa to carry on the work. They brought with them okra and the root vegetable taro, together with ackee fruit and numerous spices.
By the late 17th century, the French had acquired the western portion of Hispaniola (which would later become Haiti) and continued the cultivation of sugarcane, as well as coffee, cotton and cocoa. French cheeses, breads and desserts have survived as a legacy of this period, despite Haiti becoming an independent nation in 1803.
Popular Haitian Dishes and Snacks
One of the most popular dishes in Haiti is riz collé aux pois or riz national – rice with kidney beans – which is usually served with red snapper, tomatoes, onions and sauce. It’s sometimes accompanied by a meat stew known as bouillon which is made with goat or beef, together with potatoes, tomatoes and spices. Another variation of rice and beans in Haitian cuisine is sauce pois – a puree of either black, red or white beans which is usually served on top of white rice.
Chicken that has been boiled in a seasoned marinade then deep fried is served across the country, while pork is often slow-cooked with beans, squash and hominy to create tchaka. Pork also features in griot which sees it fried with scallions and peppers in a bitter orange sauce, while goat is fried with plantains in the dish tassot et bananes pesées.
Seafood in Haiti
When it comes to seafood dishes, conch makes regular appearances on menus, often grilled (lanbi boukannen) or served in a Creole sauce (lanbi an sòs lanbi kreyol). Lobster is also widely available in the coastal regions, particularly around Jacmel, while the crab and lalo leaf stew of diri ak fèy lalo ak sirik is a specialty of Artibonite.
Vegetable Dishes in Haiti
In terms of vegetable dishes, légume Haïtien is among the most widely eaten, with eggplant, cabbage, spinach, onion and other available vegetables cooked into a thick stew and flavored with spices, garlic and tomato paste. It’s usually served with rice, but occasionally with mais moulin (cornmeal porridge) or petit mil (cooked millet).
Yam, potato and breadfruit are other starches which feature in Haitian cuisine and are often served with a sauce made from tomatoes, spices and dried fish. Spaghetti is a popular breakfast food and usually served with dried herrings and hot dog sausages in a tomato sauce.
Street Food in Haiti
Ground beef, chicken, turkey, salted cod and smoked herring are all used to create Haitian pâté (patties), while fried akra fritters, marinad balls and bananes pesées are other popular fritaille snacks sold be street vendors. They are usually served with what is known as picklese, a condiment made from cabbage and carrots mixed with vinegar, Scotch bonnet peppers and spices. Another great snack on the run is Haiti’s spicy peanut butter which is delicious when slathered on cassava bread.
If you’re traveling to the southwestern tip of Haiti, then keep an eye out for the regional specialty of tonmtonm, a mashed breadfruit that is served with a spicy sauce of okra and meat, fish or crab. Or if you’re heading north to Cap-Haïtien, look out for poul ak nwa, a local chicken dish which features cashew nuts.
Desserts in Haitian Cuisine
Sugarcane has long served as the base for many of Haiti’s desserts, although granulated sugar is becoming more common these days. Shaved ice treats known as fresco are sold by street vendors across the country, with a thick and sweet syrup added on top, while pain patate can also be found everywhere. It is made using sweet potato, cinnamon and evaporated milk which is cooked into a soft bread, with the thick corn milkshake known as akasan using similar ingredients.
The Haitian town of Petit-Goave is particularly famed for its fudge, known as dous makos, while cashews are used as the base for the brittle-style treat known as tablèt nwa which is a specialty in the town of Cavaillon.
Haiti’s Caribbean climate results in an abundance of tropical fruits, with everything from mangoes and pineapples to coconuts and avocados widely available. Freshly squeezed fruit juices are a staple across the country, together with malt beverages made from unfermented barley and molasses.
International soda brands are sold in most of the larger towns and cities, together with the local soda known as Cola Couronne which comes in a fruit champagne flavor. Haiti is also well known for its coffee which is normally served strong and sweet.
When it comes to alcoholic drinks, Prestige beer is the most widely consumed lager, while rum remains one of the country’s most important exports. Rather than using molasses, Haitian rum is distinguished in that it is made with sugarcane juice and you can visit the distilleries to learn first hand about the production process.
Another popular Haitian spirit is clairin which is made from cane sugar and often used in Voodoo rituals, together with crémas – a sweet alcoholic drink made using rum, creamed coconut and sweetened condensed milk. It’s often flavored with cinnamon, nutmeg, anise and vanilla extract and drunk at festivals and celebrations.