Nibble guest blogger Julia Fairclough shops and cooks with Haitian native Judith Laguerre; this post includes a cooking video for Riz au djon-djon.

Just one bite of Judith Laguerre’s okra étouffée releases a small explosion of flavor as a tang of lime, a hint of garlic and earthly cloves punctuate the meat, okra and tomato base.

Laguerre, a local who grew up in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, admits that Haitian food can be exotic—yet she is quick to point out the simplicity of Haitian cooking. “I rarely buy ingredients that contain preservatives,” says Laguerre (in photo at left). “We use knives to chop rather than a food processor. And we love our mortar and pestle—which we call a “balon”—because it brings out a spice’s true flavor.” Laguerre adds with a laugh, “My family knows I am cooking when they hear the grinding of my balon.”

One recent Sunday evening, Laguerre invited a few of us Nibble scribes over for a cooking lesson—and what turned out to be a lavish Haitian feast. Some how, while tutoring us and monitoring countless steaming pots, Laguerre recounted how Haitian food reflects Haitian culture and history.

From Haiti to Union Square
The rich amalgamation of flavors in Haitian cuisine speaks to the country’s turbulent history. Several foreign countries—including France, Spain, and Africa—have controlled Haiti at different times, introducing food from their native lands. This has shaped the kréyol cuisine, a mixture of French, African, Spanish and indigenous cooking methods, ingredients and dishes. The French influence is especially apparent; Haitians use techniques like gratinee and fricassee (the feminine past participle of “fricasser,” which means to cut up and cook in a sauce). A Haitian fricassee commonly features beans with oil, salt, thyme, garlic, cloves, green and hot peppers.

Although Haitian cooking is not hard, it takes a little patience and plenty of time. First you need to know how to shop for the ingredients. Prior to our cooking class, I meet Judith Laguerre at La Internacional Market in Union Square to do some shopping. Market owner Nora Cabrera (in photo at right), originally from Guatemala, tells us that she and her husband, Eduardo, opened the business to cater to Spanish-speaking immigrants in the square. Yet today, more Haitians come into the store than Spanish-speaking Latinos; so the Cabreras happily stock their shelves with just about everything necessary to make a fine Haitian meal. So many Haitians visit the store, Nora’s son Byron has learned how to speak kréyol while on the job!

Laguerre begins our informal tour of La Internacional by pointing out spices, explaining their importance in Haitian cooking. Laguerre likes to use sweet spices, such as nutmeg (best when grated yourself, she says), anise and cinnamon. She will add whole anise and cinnamon sticks to a broth or sometimes add a whole clove into fish and meat before cooking. Certain ingredients, Laguerre explains, are staples in nearly every Haitian dishes, including onion, garlic, thyme, cloves, black pepper, hot pepper and parsley. These ingredients provide a flavor base for just about anything, whether it is chicken, beef, pork or rice and beans.

The Haitian diet
The Haitian diet is based on starches like rice, corn, millet, yams and beans. Carbohydrates are taken in during breakfast and lunch, the two larger Haitian meals. Laguerre explains that this is because in Haiti the field workers need to get energy from rice, beans and plantains for a day’s labor. Rice is used myriad ways: plain or with vegetables or pureed beans; as a stuffing for a chicken; or as a dessert rice pudding with nutmeg, cinnamon and coconut milk.

The front shelf at La Internacional is well stocked with rice, as well as farine de banane (plaintain flour) and different corn meals, which Haitians cook with sweet spices, sugar and milk and call moulin mais; in Haiti this is often cooked over an open fire.

Beans also play a big role in kréyol cuisine, providing a great source of protein and less expensive than meats. Haitians eat white beans, black beans, beige beans, red beans, black eye beans, and pigeon beans. Laguerre maintains that dried beans—although they take a while to soak and cook—have more flavor and have less salt than the canned variety. Bulgar wheat is also popular and cooked in many forms. One dish mixes bulgar with meat and spices to form torpedo-shaped meatballs; this popular item, which is similar to kibbeh, was introduced to Haiti by Arab traders in the late nineteenth century.

Haitians eat a wide variety of vegetables, including carrots, watercress, spinach, collard greens, okra, cabbage, broccoli and chayote (a native Mexican plant and a member of the squash family). Sometimes a single dish calls for up to 15 vegetables.

As refrigerators are a luxury in Haiti, meat will often sit out for hours. To kill off any resulting bacteria, meat is often rubbed with orange and always overcooked. Most Haitians, even if they have lived in this country for years, still like their meat overcooked; what was a health necessity is now a culinary habit.

Often, malanga, a brown hairy tuber, and ñame (in photo at right), the “king” of tubers, are boiled and added to meat dishes. These curious looking tubers, which are loaded with energy-rich carbohydrates, are found in the far right aisle at La Internacional, in buckets on the floor. Laguerre says an easy way to make a great bouillion is to peel and boil the tubers along with a little watercress.

Making a Meal
When we head over to Judith’s house several days later, we find her tucked into her cozy kitchen, already cooking up a storm with her partner Pierre and good friend Marietta. We are welcomed by laughter and savory smells emanating from boiling pots on the stove.

Laguerre explains that it takes her at least four hours to prepare a proper Haitian meal so she had to get a head start. “Sometimes I think I should could change my way of cooking,” she comments. “But I can’t. We cook as we did in Haiti.”

One of the dishes Laguerre has prepared already is Creole Chicken, which is simmering in a pot with onion and spices. “Typically Haitians eat chicken on Sundays, as it is too expensive to eat every day,” Judith explains. “Sunday lunch,” she continues, “is the most important meal of the week. It’s a time for the family to be together, take a day off work, and relax for a long, tasty meal.”

Several of the other dishes Laguerre has planned for our meal are quintessentially Haitian, including the exotic black rice dish known as riz au djon-djon, fried plantains, and, for dessert, pain patate. Laguerre shows us how to properly clean the dried djon-djon mushrooms by removing the brown pieces of dead grass and dirt. She then steeps the mushrooms in boiling water, which she later strains using the black broth to cook the rice. The texture of rice is very important, Laguerre explains. Rice should never stick together, but fall off the fork in a soft, separated pile of rice grains.  Judith demonstrates how to make Riz au djon-djon in the Nibble cooking video below.

“In Haiti, djon-djon mushrooms are quite a delicacy,” Laguerre explains. “Often when people come back from visiting Haiti, they bring back some dried djon djons.”

Grown on the northern part of the island, the mushrooms are found on and under dead trees. In this country, typically they are sold only in areas with large Haitian communities, like New York and Miami. In the Boston area, you can buy a zip-lock bag full of dried djon-djon mushrooms at La Internacional in Union Square for about $3.50.

After the riz au djon-djon is ready, Laguerre’s partner Pierre steps in to demonstrate how to make fried plantains with expertise and considerable gusto. The trick, we learn, is frying the plantains once, smashing them flat between two small wooden boards, and then re-frying!

When we eventually sit down to eat, there are countless dishes, including the chicken, Riz au djon-djon, fried plantains and a salmon dish cooked with onions, peppers, parsley and tomatoes and spiced with cloves. There is also a bright salad with blanched carrots, beets, broccoli, red peppers, and white potatoes, lightly dressed in vinaigrette. As Laguerre explains, “color is very important in Haitian cuisine. We always want our food to look as good as it tastes.”

Although replete, we wisely reserved just enough room for pain patate, a dessert that falls some where between a cake and a pudding. (See Pain Patate Recipe here) Laguerre starts the dish by grating white sweet potato, which gives the flourless bread a thick creamy consistency. Other ingredients include fresh coconut milk, a small amount of mashed bananas and figs and a melee of sweet spices. This custard-like bread is dark, exotic and devilishly good.

We thank Judith and Pierre for not only for our Haitian food tutorial but also for a sumptuous spread we won’t forget any time soon. As we step outside, we hardly notice the bitter cold, so warmed we are by Haitian hospitality.