Looking for African influences in the Caribbean? Look no further than Haiti, where most of the population is of African descent. When the first Europeans came to settle in the land of the Arawak and Taino Indians, they brought oranges, limes, mangoes, rice, and sugar cane with them, but that’s not all they brought. They also brought African slaves and left them to work the sugar cane plantations.
“How did this come about?” you may ask. Well if you recall there was a man named Christopher Columbus who had a little something to do with the history of the Americas. Remember how Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492, well guess where else he landed? Quite the busy little beaver, the explorer discovered the already inhabited land and claimed it for Spain. Spain called it Santo Domingo, but Columbus named it La Isla Espanola (The Spanish Island later to be called Hispaniola). By the year 1520, the native Indians were almost completely wiped out from the hard slave labor the Spanish imposed upon them and the revolts of the people leading to executions by the Spaniards. Sadly the Taino’s have no tangible legacy in the form of an existing people in Haiti; therefore, Africans were shipped over to the island to work on the sugar cane plantations.
The Africans introduced okra, ackee (red and yellow fruit), pigeon peas, taro (edible root with a nutty flavor). By the year 1700, the French had taken control of Hispaniola and with the African slave labor still in place, they expanded their commerce to include coffee, cotton, and cocoa. Haiti went on to win their own independence in 1804 becoming the first African-American led republic in the New World.
Haiti, originally named by Taino Indians for its high ground, shares Hispaniola with their spanish-speaking neighbor, the Dominican Republic. Occupying just the western third part of the island, Haiti still remains highly influenced by the French in its language, culture, and food. French cheeses, breads, and desserts have been integrated into the Haitian lifestyle. Haiti’s cuisine is often considered French or Creole; however the Spanish, African, and French influence make for a smorgasbord of flavor and a truly historical and multi-cultural experience.
The difference between Haitian and other Caribbean cuisine in a word: Peppery
Method of cooking: Often slow coked and wrapped in banana or plantains and leaves for several hours. An African method of cooking is still employed today, using coals and placing them in a hollowed-out area of the ground. The food is then placed atop the coals with the leaves covering it for ultimate slow cooking results.
Try this at home: In the mood for a Haitian creole specialty, click here for a recipe for Haitian griot (fried pork).