Haitian cooking is influenced by African, European, and indigenous culinary traditions just like food from everywhere else in the Caribbean. As a result, few of the island nation’s favorite ingredients are unique to it; however, they are often used in unique ways. Below is a list of the most popular Haitian spices and what each contributes to Haitian cuisine.
Scotch bonnet peppers
Like its close neighbor Jamaica, Haiti prizes the heat of the Scotch bonnet pepper. Scotch bonnets are notable for their high level of heat as well as their strong fruity flavor. Scotch bonnets are the source of heat in Haitian dishes like soup joumou, which is made with beef and calabaza squash.
While nutmeg is native to Indonesia and has since migrated all over the world, it is especially popular in the Caribbean where it has become a major part of desserts and sweet breakfast dishes. In Haiti, nutmeg is used in dishes such as pain patate (a sweet potato and banana dessert) and the horchata-like drink called cremas. Nutmeg’s warm fragrance and nutty sweetness is a perfect complement to sugary puddings and creamy drinks.
While it is not an especially popular spice elsewhere in the Caribbean, Haitians are fond of star anise. It shows up in various recipes including ones for cremas and akasan. Star anise is pungent and gives its strong anise and licorice notes combined with hints of warm clove to the beverages above.
As in other West Indian islands, thyme is one of the more popular herbs in Haitian cooking. A relic of French colonialism, thyme gives its savory woodsy flavor to most of Haiti’s slow-cooked stews and soups. You will see it used in recipes for the chicken and cashew nut dish called poulet aux noix and soup joumou. It is also a part of the bouquet garni used to flavor tassot, the dish that consists of dry-fried beef or lamb.
As a fast and easy way to add flavor, bouillon cubes are widely used throughout the West Indies as well as in Africa and even parts of Asia. They can be used to enhance the umami flavor in a dish and to make up for a shorter cooking time by providing the same meaty complexity that you would get from hours of braising. Bouillon cubes are recommended for many stews and soups from Haiti.
An essential ingredient for several traditional Haitian dishes, cloves have a bitter and woodsy flavor profile with hints of allspice and mint. The pungent aroma can easily overwhelm other flavors if even a little too much of the spice is used. In Haiti, cloves are used for the national dish riz et pois. Cloves also flavor the molokhia stew called lalo and they are added to soup joumou as well.
The condiment known as pikliz is a pickle made with cabbage, onions, and hot peppers that can include various other ingredients. Pikliz is commonly served with heavy meat dishes and serves roughly the same purpose as salsa in Central America. It serves as an acidic element that can cut through the fattiness of a heavy meal. Some recipes require pikliz juice to be used as a marinade. For example, it is used for that purpose in the Haitian fried chicken called poul fri.