What I ate in Haiti.

Fresh whole fried tilapia from Lake Peligre .. caught that morning!

Actually, maybe we should start with what I drank in Haiti because that’s certainly where I always start (and end). I’m not even sure it’s appropriate to talk about food & drink on a blog about ending hunger and poverty with Heifer International but enough people seem to be curious about what I’m consuming that I’m indulging myself in this post. (Please feel free to tell me you think I’m a shallow bore if you feel like it.)

Alcohol is not hard to find in Haiti but it is expensive (really expensive – like $12 for a gin & tonic at a hotel). Ordering wine is a total crapshoot– tried it once and it was SO not worth it– so you’re probably well-advised to stick to beer.

The real Real Thing.

Prestige was yummy (and I don’t even like beer) at a mere $3/bottle (as opposed to the exorbitant $4.50 they were charging for Coca-Cola). However, the Coke was fantastic because it’s made with cane sugar syrup instead of the high-fructose corn stuff … and believe me, it makes a difference.

Coffee was thick, black & superb everywhere (my personal heaven). Fruit juices were equally amazing … absolutely fresh, and in flavors like mango, watermelon, papaya and grapefruit (to which Haitians add heaping spoonfuls of sugar, but I liked it tart enough to make you pucker).

Haitian grapefruit

If you like the food you are served on your first day in Haiti, you’re a lucky duck – because you’re likely to get that same dish at least once a day for the rest of your stay.

Here’s what it will consist of: a meat or fish (leg and thigh of chicken, beef, lambi– or conch, goat, or a whole tilapia fried with its head and tail still on) ; plantains fried in whatever; a few tomato slices that are no better than our grocery store models; and local rice (if you’re unlucky) with black beans.

Yeah, it's local.

Rice is ubiquitous in Haiti –which makes it all the more sad that we’ve just about killed off the rice industry  in the country with dirt-cheap imports from Arkansas that cost about ½ what the Haitian farmers can produce it for in their own fields. Unfortunately, local rice, even though I was trying super hard to like it, is not nearly as delicious as the imported kind  – (and I’ve never found a starch I didn’t like).

The creole sauce that is served on virtually everything is delicious; and the faux-kimchee ferociously hot cabbage slaw is similarly gorgeous – crunchy, fresh and so piquant I’m pretty sure no bacteria could survive in there so I ate a lot of it.

Every once in a while when I got desperate for something different, I’d opt for spaghetti bolognese which was always on the menu, but I was ashamed of myself in the morning.

Cashews and nuts are everywhere in the north; and in the south you can find fudge, just like at the Jersey Shore … but no, Snooki, it’s actually totally different.

Making douce macoss fudge

Making fudge (Note the tire/holder!)

Haitian fudge is striped with pink, like taffy, and made with what I am sure is child labor — but it tastes more like halvah in that sandy/sweet way than the chocolatey-buttery fudge of my childhood.

Speaking of sweets, there aren’t many in Haiti. The only chocolate fix I got was hitting my M&M stash hidden in my suitcase. Desserts were completely resistible, because I’m lactose-intolerant and can’t have ice cream, so that made it easy to say no.

Most importantly, despite the fact that Haitians have the lowest caloric intake in the Americas and 25-40% of Haitian children suffer from chronic malnutrition, we were never served a single meal but with total graciousness and generosity.

Making our gorgeous fish lunch in Lake Peligre.

By the time I left Haiti, I was sad to go but ready for a giant salad, a frosty cocktail, and a bar of chocolate.

Which oddly enough, didn’t taste as good as I thought they would.

I kinda missed Prestige.

Categories: Food, Haiti, Heifer International, Hunger, Photography, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 53 Comments

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53 thoughts on “What I ate in Haiti.

  1. Martha Radatz

    What a rich experience you’re sharing with us! This post was a real treat—-pun intended.

  2. An interesting insight into the food and drink of the country. Sixty years ago, on a rubber plantation in Malaya, my father banned the import of par-boiled rice for the estate. The locals preferred it to the homegrown variety, but he had noted the increasing deterioration in health of the workers as they became used to the more refined offerings. As a POW in Chiangi, he had experienced how a little can make a major difference to survival. In his case, those who picked the weevils out of their daily rice ration suffered more from protein deficiencies than those who didn’t!!
    Interesting the shift in your own taste bud preferences over a comparatively short period of time.
    I’d enjoy more observations like this along with the tales of Heifer’s work, they provide a background picture that fills in “local colour”.
    Enjoy your chocolate!!

    • Thanks so much for this thoughtful & historic perspective, Tricia!! I wish that imports of rice had been banned, too — because the fact that Haiti imports SO much of its food is directly related to the percentage of income families spend on it! I am really floored by the “weevil” protein … and yet, it makes sense. I think the answer is clearly better farming methods, good seeds, improved ag technology .. and a whole lot of Heifer trainings! THANKS so much for your comment!

      • It’s my pleasure, as I’m enjoying travelling with you. After 30 years of living in Africa, I know first hand some of the problems you’re seeking to alleviate through Heifer, and thoroughly approve and support your work and vision.

      • I’m taking that very much to heart, Tricia — and as somebody who has lived it, you know so much more than I do about the real issues and challenges! THANKS so much for your insightful comments!!

  3. I found this post to be every bit as fascinating as your others, and I’m not a foodie. The most interesting was about Coke and rice. I have so many questions. Again, I want more, more. Have you thought about writing a book?

    • Renee — I’m always thinking about writing a book but first I gotta get through this year! A few more interesting things: you basically can’t get a breast of chicken in Haiti because the chicken producers here in the States pay for the whole chicken with the sale of breasts and wings … so they dump all the legs/thighs in developing countries for dirt cheap. And that’s what you get. Also .. Haitians, despite the fact they live on a island, eat only 4.5 pounds of fish a YEAR — that’s far, far less than the world average. And it’s such a good source of protein! Anemia is rampant (about 60%) in Haitian children, which is really sad. THANKS for reading!

      • Excellent post, Betty. We brought home empty Prestige bottles when we moved back from Haiti–just for sentimental reasons.

        However, I cooked and ate a good many chicken breasts in Haiti. Depends on where you shop. Lots are available in expat-oriented grocery stores in Petion-ville–Giant, for example.

        Speaking of food–thought you might appreciate my posts about trying to prepare Thanksgiving dinner from Haiti. Actually, it’s a 3 part series, but the link to the 3rd is available at the end of the second post. This is definitely not my best writing, but it might interest you.

        Hope you enjoyed your salad!

        Hugs,
        Kathy

      • Hi Kathryn! Thanks for the expert comment, as YOU certainly lived there and I just visited — but I can’t WAIT to read about your Thanksgiving dinner prep in Haiti … sounds wild!! I wasn’t cooking at all or even going to grocery stores, so my impression of the difficulty of getting white meat was based on our restaurant experiences and conversations with High Pro, a Jamaica animal-food company that’s based in PAP… Where can I find your cool T-day posts??? (and yes, my homecoming salad WAS delish!!!)

    • Oh, Lordy, I meant to leave the links–story of my life.

      The first is called “The Butterball Challenge: Haitian Style:”
      http://reinventingtheeventhorizon.wordpress.com/2011/11/21/the-butterball-challenge-thanksgiving-haitian-style/

      The second–”Saint Sara’s Celery and a Broth Debacle Averted: Grocery Shopping from Port-au-Prince:”
      http://reinventingtheeventhorizon.wordpress.com/2011/11/23/saint-saras-celery-and-a-broth-debacle-averted-thanksgiving-grocery-shopping-from-port-au-prince/

      I think the real issue is that expats and the Haititian elite can buy just about anything in Haiti. It just costs an arm and leg, for the most part. The chicken breats weren’t as bad as a lot of other products, however. Most regular Haitians could NEVER afford the chicken breasts that their country’s elite dine on regularly. It goes to that huge disparity between the very rich and the frightenly poor, I’m sure you noticed. Most everything in Haiti is outrageously expensive–a three bedroom house in Petion-ville post-earthquake renting for 7,000 dollars a month.

      You might also find my interview with Baby Doc interesting. I spent some time with him the weekend before we moved home from Haiti. Hopefully, the posts won’t make you vomit, however, as I was disgusted wtih myself for finding him so “charming.” You should be able to search for those posts by going to my archives from March 2011 or by entering Duvalier or Baby Doc as a search term. Like the Thanksgiving posts–it’s a series in three parts. If you are interested and can’t find them, I will come back with links. I had to be careful what I asked and what I say in the posts, as the friend who took me to meet him still lives in Haiti and I didn’t want there to be any negative repercussions for him.

      Enough for now–

      Kathy

  4. I’m with Renee on this one. We love to read about as many aspects and perceptions of life in each country as you are willing to share! I can’t believe how much alcohol cost. Are you sure they weren’t just overcharging you…”the tourist”?

    • Hi Sherry! Well… I know that hotels are really pricey (we spent $100 a night in places that were really lame) but part of that is the UN occupation (particularly in places like Hinche) where the per diem is something like $300/day… so the prices are ridiculous. However, even overall … the typical rural Haitian family spends 60% of its income on food. And they are FARMERS. The really poor spend over 70%. Which is why Heifer’s mission to help Haitian farmers be more productive and efficient is SUCH a critical project.

  5. Another interesting and thought-provoking post. As others have said, the food of a nation says a lot, and you have captured this so well. :) I second the idea of a travel book.

  6. Betty: Would you do a post like this for every country you visit, please?

    • Darling Pattie — YES, i will! My friend Dave Anderson, who was the ace photographer/videographer on this trip, convinced me to write about the food, so I obliged. I guess it IS interesting – and i have to say, really fun to write!

  7. Also, would you consider how hard it would be for a vegetarian, not only to have full meals but to “pass” on culturally-relevant meat dishes without offending?

    • Oh honey, I am SO a vegetarian in places where I don’t want to eat the meat — like my upcoming trip to Peru, for instance, where they love LOVE guinea pig. Hmmm .. that will be an interesting experience, although in my last trip to Peru I was in a heaven because their favorite dish is chicken with rice AND potatoes. See what I mean about starch??

  8. OK, I’m gonna stop picking those weevils outta my rice. ;-)

  9. coke with cane sugar is heaven on earth! i don’t drink it in the states, but it’s a staple when i travel. thanks for reminding me of such a tasty memory. :)

  10. londerjean

    Loved your personal perspective on Haitian food/drink! Remind me to tell you the story about my mothers famous weevil chocolate cake! Cheers~

  11. Wonderful. I almost want to go there right now. The people serving you look fairly healthy, so they have jobs and $. They must have some sustenance else they wouldn’t exist. So surprising about the fish/island thing, no boats? I would try the coke, beer, fruit drinks and I love plantains. Probably have to put some of that hot mix on the rice for flavor, ha ha. Thanks.

    • Actually, Kim — the people in the country were almost uniformly very VERY slim. They are muscular and lean, because they walk everywhere, but particularly the men didn’t have an ounce of fat on them. People spend 60-70% of their income on food — which is pretty tragic. And much as I love hot sauce, there was very little that could make the local rice palatable… I am wondering if the grease they fried it in was rancid or what… had a very unusual taste! Even when washed down with Coke!! But the fruit was amazing –

  12. I find the limited fish in the Haitian diet to very puzzling and have to wonder why this is the case, and has this changed over time. What could be more appropriate when discussing hunger than the local foods. Please continue to share your dining discoveries as you travel, hungry minds want to know!

    • Hey, Chris – I will be writing about the whole fish dilemma and what Partners in Health, the Clinton Global Initiative and Heifer is doing to try to allay this situation … but you are certainly right. It is puzzling and disturbing when so many are going hungry! Love your “hungry minds want to know” line!!!

  13. Local food has a place on a hunger blog. Interesting about the fish. Why don’t they eat more?

    • Well, Moreplants — I think that fish is very expensive in Haiti, which puts it out of the price range of most people (it’s about $2.50 a pound) — and there is not the distribution of food around the country, due to a crap infrastructure and lack of refrigerated trucks.
      The fishing industry is also compromised by the runoff from deforested hillsides into the rivers and coastal waters, which has hurt fish stocks .. as well as the primitive technology (boats, nets, lines) that the fishermen are using. Because they can’t fish effectively, the catch is absurdly low…. but I’ll be writing about that!!

      • That will be an interesting post! (By the way, moreplants is my blog, and my name is Rebecca—I met you at the Dunwoody Community Garden with Pattie Baker once.)

      • Hi Rebecca! Sorry about calling you “moreplants” (although it’s kinda cute) … and of course, any friend of Pattie Baker is a friend of mine!!

      • No apology necessary. I really need to change my profile info!

      • amy

        One million every day????? Why aren’t they raising more chickens in Haiti?

  14. Ginger O'Neill

    Betty,

    Regardless of third world status, cultural food seems to unite all and heighten our appreciation for those that can make the simplest of meals, a celebration.

    Maybe those fresh fruit drinks are a possible export business in waiting.

    Hugs!

    Ginger

  15. amy

    Very interesting…….we used to say countries either have good beer or good wine—not both.These Caribbean countries seem to redefine what sweet is….Thanks 4 sharing. Amy

    • I like that saying, and I’m committing to exploring whether it’s true in ALL of my upcoming countries!! P.S. I have a similar theory of coffee-producing countries (if they grow it, they don’t seem to make it well) but Haiti, though a small producer, had EXCELLENT coffee!!

  16. I wonder if the food is the same on the other side of the island of Hispanola, Dominican Republic. Any idea?

    Ronnie

    • I think it’s quite different, Ronnie. For one thing, there’s a lot more food in the DR (Haiti imports one million eggs from DR a DAY, for instance) and the Spanish influence is very big — as opposed to Haiti’s French influence. I’ll explore more with my virtual son-in-law, whose from the DR, and get back to you!

  17. Good question, Amy — about WHY Haiti imports so much food, especially eggs from the DR. The short answer is that the agricultural sector has been compromised in every way — and that’s what Heifer is working so hard to rectify. Clearly, there is a need for the country to produce much more of its own food — it would be so much better for the health, economy & income of Haitians if they were able to do so!

    • amy

      I’m not being funny: Did you get a chance to check out the garbage cans to see what they’re throwing away?
      When I was in Cuba in 1985 at a conference a friend and I went out for a walk…the very friendly guards (or whatever they were…handlers?) asked us where we were going and we said that we were going out to check on the garbage cans….Was it Tito or Peron who first said that?

      • Well, Amy — that’s the first shocker. In the towns where we were, there weren’t any garbage cans, because there isn’t any garbage removal. In fact, in most of PAP, I would venture to say there is NO garbage removal… which makes you think: If I didn’t have anybody picking up my garbage, what would I do with it?? Most people try to burn it .. and that’s noxious for everybody to breathe … but seriously, it’s when you have to adjust your mind in such a fundamental way, you realize how we take SO much for granted here in the US. Thanks for your insight (and did you love Cuba??)

  18. Hi Betty, I’ve been working in Haiti for 8 years, and I haven’t seen any child labor in industry. There is a phenomenon called restaveks, which is child slavery in homes of the poor (not the wealthy, the poor. CNN did a nice piece on it). You are right on the fishing industries, that people cannot afford to buy fish, that the roads are so broken commerce is beyone difficult, and add to this that the waters are overfished. You are right about the leg quarters, that the cheap parts of the chicken are all poor Haitians can afford. They also eat a lot of hot dogs, chicken parts like necks, and pig parts like snout. A common food for breakfast is spaghetti. Again, cheap. Peanut butter (mamba) is common in Haiti and locally produced. It is fantastic. Peanut butter and honey are exceptional products of Haiti. A good honey brand is Sudmieleast out of Jacmel. The pickled cabbage is called pikliz (pick-leez) and it is most commonly served on tostones, together called banan pize. It’s wonderful. Did you know that Humane Society International is now operating in Haiti? They are working to educate the farmers about how to care for their livestock. Animals are on the lowest rung in Haiti and the new country director has been treating horses and donkeys with lifelong open wounds, sometimes to the bone, and will be doing a radio campaign on animal care.

    • Hi Gwynne! I’m so happy to hear from somebody who has been living in Haiti!! I didn’t see child labor per se — but I did see child workers in the coffee sorting collectives, and in the fudge making homes, although they may well have been doing “chores” or not working full time. I am aware of the restavek situation (and wrote about it on http://whatgives365.wordpress.com/2010/02/06 ) The mamba Peanut butter was great, as was the honey, and we had really good preserves as well, although that is expense. So happy to know about the name of Pikliz… thanks for that!! And I will definitely check out the Humane Society’s work there … that’s great to hear!! SO happy you wrote!

  19. Vivian Martinez

    Shalow bore? are you kidding?

    Food and drink can tell the whole story of a countrie´s culture…
    I am particularly curious about how people live in other parts of the world and one infallible question is probably.. what did you have to eat? or what do people usually eat?
    Food and drink is also what unites families around the table and also what makes people go out and work every day.
    And as obtaining food can be a goal in itself, it is interesting how decisions are made to reach that goal.
    Speaking of food choices and starches… so much has been said about how vegetables need to be in everyones diet and if farmers, like in Guatemala, have it so readily available, why is it that people are not concuming them as much? Remember we talked about this? well it came to me as news as well, but as Byron explained to us, farmers do not have that discerment and uncounsciously choose high calorie- high energy food since farm work is so demanding…
    Well I enjoyed it so keep on blogging about peoples diets around the world !
    By the way congratulations the visitor count: 8,190 and counting!
    Hugs,
    Vivian

    • Dearest Vivian (my fabulous Heifer translator on my trip to Guatemala) — You really are quite correct in that looking at what people eat really can tell you a LOT about their culture, their society and their family life.. as well as the particular struggles of the economy. For instance, I always find it terribly poignant that in our country, the cheapest food is the worst for you — and poor people in the USA are often simultaneously overweight and malnourished.
      I do remember Bryan saying that in Guatemala, people eat so much starch (in tortillas) because they are doing so much physical labor, they need the instant sense of fullness and the energy from the carbs… so vegetables become a luxury, in terms of fuel for their work. So interesting! In Haiti, they are doing a LOT of manual labor, too, and that’s where the high consumption of rice comes in (they don’t grow corn everywhere like in Guatemala) as well as fruit, since it’s ubiquitous. But protein is really hard to come by!
      THANKS for reading, Vivian .. and hope you are having a great time this spring!!

  20. Great post Betty. I thought the top photo was beef – my word that fish is deeeeeeeeep fried….
    Thanks to your readers for all the marvelous comments:
    Kathryn McC I look forward to reading your posts.
    Gwynne B: I didn’t realize that spaghetti was a cheap breakfast. Very happy to hear that Haiti produces it’s own local peanut butter and honey. At least some good news.

  21. Hi Rosie! Yes, I think the fish was definitely fried but it was still very fresh and yummy inside, although I ate the fish in creole sauce that wasn’t fried. It WAS so interesting how this post got so much action in the comments — just goes to show, people always like to talk about food!!
    xoxoox B
    p.s. the peanut butter (and all nuts) were supremely delish! as was coffee… AND all the fruits!!

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