Strongly influenced by African and French cuisine with a touch of Spanish and Indian flavor, Haitian food is vibrant and tasty. The island is laden with fresh fruits and vegetables and seafood is abundant. Starchy fruits and vegetables are daily staples, but leafy vegetables are consumed infrequently. Tropical fruits (mangos, grapefruits, papayas, and cherries to name a few) are eaten mostly as snacks or dessert. Black eyed peas and rice are staples of the diet and provide a rich source of vegetarian protein. Native cuisine makes ample use of chile peppers and favors extremely hot varieties to make flavorful and spicy sauces, particularly to flavor bland foods. Butter is the preferred cooking fat, and roux (flour and butter) is used to thicken stews and sauces. Haiti is know for traditional dishes such as banana-stuffed chicken called poulet rôti à la créole and barbecued goat with chile peppers.The most popular beverage in the Carribean is coffee, consumed at meals often with milk and sometimes with other flavorings like cinnamon, orange rind, or coconut cream. Juices from tropical fruits are also popular beverages. Teas of all sorts are common and are consumed for their therapeutic value.
The folk religion Voodoo originated in Haiti and is a unique combination of West African tribal rituals with Catholic beliefs and local customs. Traditional health practices are closely related to religious beliefs and there is special importance placed on flow of blood. For example, the blood condition febles occurs when there is insufficient blood or anemia due to poor diet, and it is cured by eating foods like liver, red meat, or leafy greens. Eating well, cleanliness, and regular sleep are considered essential to health. Foods are thought to have light/heavy and well as hot/cold characteristics and are eaten to maintain balance and good health.
Even before the devastating earthquake in early 2010 conditions in Haiti were harsh, but now they are far worse. As the country struggles to recover, food insecurity, lack of access to clean water, and worsening acute and chronic malnutrition are major issues. Children are left at a significant disadvantage in terms of growth and development. Rated on the Human Development Index, Haiti has the poorest life expectancy, literacy, education, standards of living, and child welfare compared to other countries in the Americas.
Pre-earthquake, only 40% of children 0-6 months were exclusively breastfed and only 32% of children benefited from appropriate complementary feeding practices. These low numbers could be due in part to concerns about breastfeeding, which may cause early cessation of nursing. One such belief is that a nursing mother may experience thickening of her milk which causes depression in the mother and impetigo in her infant. Another condition associated with nursing is move san in which the mother experiences fright or negative emotions, causing her milk to spoil and resulting in failure-to-thrive and diarrhea in her baby. Infants are sometimes given whole, evaporated, or condensed milk. Laxatives and purgatives may be used to remove impurities from the blood of infants and to prevent acne in children, a practice which may lead to nutrient deficiencies.
Calcium – Calcium is needed to build strong bones and teeth. It also plays a role in blood clotting, muscle contraction, and nerve-cell communication. In the long term, dietary intakes well below the recommended levels may impact bone development. Bones increase in size and mass during childhood and adolescence, therefore adequate calcium and vitamin D should be consumed throughout childhood into early adulthood.
Iron – Iron is necessary for oxygen delivery to cells and regulation of cell growth. Iron deficiency develops gradually and is commonly seen in women of childbearing age and children. A lack of iron results in an insufficient supply of oxygen to cells eventually causing anemia, fatigue, poor work performance, slow cognitive and social development in children, and decreased immunity.
Iodine – Iodine is needed for production of thyroid hormone. Deficiency of iodine can lead to development of an enlarged thyroid called a goiter, hypothyroidism, and mental retardation in children whose mothers were iodine deficient during pregnancy.
Vitamin A – Vitamin A plays a critical role in healthy vision, growth and development, and immune function. Vitamin A deficiency is common in developing countries and is often accompanied by zinc deficiency. Symptoms of deficiency include blindness, diminished ability to fight infections, decreased growth rate, and slow bone development. Vitamin A helps mobilize iron from its storage sites, so a deficiency of vitamin A limits the body’s ability to use stored iron. This results in an “apparent” iron deficiency because iron levels in the blood are low even though body stores are normal.
Vitamin B12 – Vitamin B12 is involved in energy production as well as converting the inactive form of folate to its active form. Without adequate vitamin B12, folate deficiency symptoms appear. Thus, vitamin B12 deficiency can cause secondary folate deficiency.
Vitamin C – Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant that helps produce collagen and aids in iron absorption. Vitamin C is important for a healthy immune system and plays a role in cardiovascular, neurological, and endocrine systems. Vitamin C deficiency sometimes causes a condition called scurvy, which results in a multitude of symptoms including bleeding gums, skin irritations, bruising, and poor wound healing.
Milk/Milk Products – cow’s milk (fresh, condensed, evaporated), aged cheeses
Meat/Poultry/Fish – beef, pork (including intestines, organs, variety cuts), goat, chicken, turkey, barracuda, bonito, butterfish, codfish, crab, conch, flying fish, gar, grouper, grunts, herring, land crabs, mackerel, mullets, salmon, snapper, tarpon, turtle, tuna
Eggs/Legumes – chicken eggs, black beans, black-eyed peas, chickpeas, kidney beans, lima beans, peas, red beans, soybeans
Cereals/Grains – cassava, cornmeal, couscous, oatmeal, short-grain rice, wheat
Fruits – acerola cherries, akee, avocados, bananas and plantains, breadfruit, caimito (star apple), cashew apple, cherimoya, citron, coconut, cocoplum, custard apple, dew berry, fig, gooseberries, passion fruit, grapefruit, guava, soursop, jackfruit, kumquats, lemons, limes, mamey, mangoes, oranges, papayas, pineapple, pomegranates, raisins, sapadilla, sugar cane, sweetsop, tamarind
Vegetables – arracacha, arrowroot, broccoli, cabbage, calabaza, callaloo (malanga or taro leaves), cassava (yuca, manioc), chiles, corn, cucumbers, djon-djon mushrooms, eggplant, green beans, leek, lettuce, okra, onions, palm hearts, peppers, potatoes, radishes, spinach, squashes (chayote, summer, winter), sweet potatoes, tomatoes, yams
Seasonings – anise, annatto, bay leaf, chiles, chives, cilantro, cinnamon, coui (chiles mixed with cassava juice), garlic, mace, nutmeg, onions, parsley, pimento (all spice), recao (culantro), scallions, thyme
Beverages – coffee (café con leche), teas, soft drinks, milk, Irish moss (seaweed extract), sorrel
Fats/Oils – butter, coconut oil, lard, olive oil
Sweeteners – grenadine, sugar cane products (raw and unrefined sugar, molasses)
Haitians typically eat 2 meals per day with snacks in between. Breakfast is small and may consist of coffee and bread, fruit juice, and an egg. The afternoon meal is large with an emphasis on starchy carbohydrate sources served with beans and a small amount of meat. Fruit is eaten as snack. Haitians may end the evening with soup or hot cereal. Special occasions and holidays are important and include many food traditions. For example, pumpkin soup (bouyon) is customarily eaten on New Year’s Day and offered to all guests who drop by for a visit.
The transition diet is one you develop to help bridge the gap between your child’s native diet and what eventually will become his or her regular diet at home. The transition diet often includes recipes and foods from the native diet. A good way to start the transition process is to ask exactly what foods your child ate in the orphanage or foster home, using that as a base for your cooking at home. As one parent put it, “I would encourage all parents to adapt the foods they present to mimic what the child had at the orphanage during the first months home. It is an easy adaptation that parents can make to create a more familiar environment during what can be a hard transition.” It may also be helpful to watch the caregivers feed your child at least one meal before returning home. Simple things such as the temperature or texture of foods may be important to your child. One mother wrote, “Our daughter was on formula at the orphanage but they gave it to her very, very hot. It took us a while to realize she wanted everything HOT and would cry hysterically if it wasn’t hot.” Even if you don’t know exactly what your child ate previously, incorporating native foods into his or her diet is a great way to help your child transition to a new culture, as well as preserve traditions from his or her first culture.
The most common orphanage foods in Haiti are rice and beans, spaghetti with tomato sauce, and sometimes peanut butter sandwiches. These simple foods are a great place to start when your child first arrives at home. One parent also noted,”“When I use thyme they say it smells like Haiti.” It may be common for Haitian children to have some difficulty with the textures of certain foods, especially vegetables.
Bananas and plantains in any form are very popular in Haiti. This dish is hearty and filling and is often served in the evenings for supper; however, it is so good that it could be served at breakfast or lunch as well.
1 green plantain
2 cups water
1 ripe banana
1 (12-ounce) can evaporated milk (or soy milk)
1 (12- or 14-ounce) can coconut milk (may use light coconut milk or 1 cup milk)
¼ teaspoon vanilla extract
3 cinnamon sticks
2 whole anise stars
pinch of grated nutmeg
½ cup sugar (white or brown)
½ teaspoon grated lime rind or ½-inch whole lime rind
Peel the plantain and cut into ½-inch slices. In the blender purée plantain pieces, 2 cups water, and ripe banana. Or grate the plantain, mash the banana, and mix both with 2 cups water to get a purée.
In a saucepan, add plantain purée and bring to a boil on low-medium heat. Add evaporated milk, vanilla extract, cinnamon sticks, anise stars, nutmeg, sugar, and lime rind. Cook for 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally so that it does not stick to the bottom of the pot. The consistency should be like that of oatmeal.
Recipe reprinted from A Taste of Haiti by Mirta Yurnet Thomas and the Thomas Family (Hippocrene Books, 2007)
For special occasions, try the Haitian specialty Poulet Rôti à la Creole. Find a recipe here: http://recipes.wikia.com/wiki/Poulet_Rôti_à_la_Creole
Find additional recipes for Haitian dishes at http://recipes.caribseek.com/Contributors/mirta-yurnet-thomas.shtml or purchase the cookbook A Taste of Haiti by Mirta Yurnet-Thomas and the Thomas Family. This book contains wonderfully authentic recipes and interesting background information about Haiti, its culture, and its people.
Kittler PG, Sucher KP (2008). Food and culture, Fifth Edition. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadworth. 275-296.
Escamilla RP, Dessalines M, Finnigan M, et al. Household food insecurity is associated with childhood malaria in rural Haiti. J Nutr 2009; 139: 2132-38.
Menon P, Ruel MT, Loechl CU, et al. Micronutrient sprinkles reduce anemia among 9- to 24-month old children when delivered through an integrated health and nutrition program in rural Haiti. J Nutr 2007; 137: 1023-1030.