Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Joy of [Haitian] Cooking

Photo above by Ron Holt

One of the joys of our time in Haiti was getting to know Naomi, the head of the kitchen staff at Isaiah 61 House. Though timid in front of the big group, Naomi is warm and chatty one-on-one. She told me about her family, most of whom live in Port-au-Prince—her father is a pastor and her mother is a nurse (just like Robbie’s grandparents). She used to be a missionary for YWAM in Haiti and the Dominican, and seems to see her work at Isaiah 61 as a kind of ministry, too. She became my guide to Haitian cooking through our nightly chats in which she would graciously explain her delicious recipes to me. The recipes were fairly simple, but the more I learned about the process of cooking (both from Naomi and others), the more complex issues started to emerge.

Photo above by Ron Holt
Haitian cooking is traditionally done over a charcoal fire, with the coals having been made out of wood. A large pot is places over the coals, and food is either fried or boiled inside. This kind of cooking is preferred because it does not require electricity, which is spotty at best. Interestingly, the problem with the electricity is not that there aren’t electrical lines and infrastructure, but that the country does not produce enough of if to provide consistent power. In Jacmel, the city power is cut off every night, and there are frequent outages throughout the day. Those who are wealthy circumvent this problem by using generators. But the large mass of “everyone else” just goes without electricity and cooks on coals instead. All of the food preparation is also done by hand, with the most popular tool being the mortar and pestle, pictured on the left in the photo below. To me, this is another great example of the Haitian people’s flexibility and resilience, finding a pretty good work-around to help them survive—and eat tasty food in the process.
Photo above by Ron Holt
The significant downside to cooking on coals is that it uses massive amounts of wood. If you think about it, Haiti is about the size of Maryland and has approximately 9 million inhabitants. That’s a lot of people in a fairly small space. If all of them are using coal fires to cook on a daily basis, imagine how much wood is needed! The reality is that it is much more wood than the land can sustain. Deforestation is a huge problem in Haiti, as you can see in the photo below, from National Geographic. On the left is Haiti. On the right is Dominican Republic. The difference is drastic.

Photo above: Cobb, Charles E. 1987. “Haiti: Against All Odds.” National Geographic, Vol. 172, No. 5: 645-670.

Of course, this kind of environmental disaster did not happen overnight, and it did not happen just because of the charcoal industry. According to a Library of Congress brief, as of 1923, about 60% of the land in Haiti was forested. In 2006, less than 2% of it was. Some of the factors that contributed to this are hurricanes that toppled trees, unsound agricultural practices, and high levels of competition and population growth. It seems that poverty is also a part of this downward spiral—when a farmer is poor and desperate, his first priority will be doing whatever it takes to feed his family, even if it means using environmentally unsound practices. But then, the land gets degraded faster and becomes less productive, making it even more difficult for that farmer to make ends meet. And so the cycle of destruction continues. A discussion of this cycle of deforestation would not be complete without also looking at the political and macroeconomic factors also at work over time… tune in tomorrow for more on that. Did I mention that almost everything in Haiti is complex and multi-layered!

Photo above by Ron Holt
A notable exception to complexity in Haiti is the food itself. It’s generally fairly simple and delicious; satisfying and filling. The most common dish is probably red beans and rice, flavored with cloves. Another favorite is Haitian black bean sauce, which is served over rice or corn meal porridge (see recipe below). On special occasions, meat is prepared, and is usually fried. The meat itself may be chicken, goat, pork, beef (more rarely), and fish. The meal is sometimes served with a tropical juice, always prepared from scratch that day. My favorite was grenadja, or passion fruit, which happened to be in season while we were there.

Photo above by Ron Holt

It was a joy to watch Naomi and her kitchen staff at Isaiah 61 House preparing the food for dinner. They started early in the morning, bringing in the ingredients from the market—big bowls or baskets of fruit, potatoes, and meat. They would spend the whole day washing, peeling, sorting, grinding, marinating, stirring, cooking, and frying. All the while, they chat and tease each other in the kitchen. From time to time, the play would be put on hold temporarily as one or more of the women cried out to God in Alleluias, hymns, and prayers. The cooking, laughter, chatting and worship was interwoven seamlessly and naturally. It was just so good. I was struck by the richness of the simple and life-giving task of cooking—it showed me (again) how much time is God’s gift for relationships. What a blessing.

Naomi’s Bean Sauce (notably without any measurements!):

Combine the following, cook until soft, and blend (or grind in mortar and pestle) until smooth:
Black beans, washed and sorted
Green pepper
Salt and pepper
Cloves (the secret ingredient!)
Coconut milk

Bon appétit!

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