I learned to cook by watching my mother. From a young age I was fascinated by what took place in and around the kitchen, and as soon as I was old enough to be of use I was roped in to help. I was started on tasks a 7 year old couldn’t mess up, like to pile epis or to wash vegetables and as I got older and more dexterous I was taught how to wash rice, chop vegetables. Eventually I was allowed near the stove and learned to make simple things like eggs, ramen noodles, and rice. In parallel I also learned more fundamental things like the steps and ingredients that went into seasoning meat, or how to make sòs pwa. But most of the things I learned wouldn’t get put into practice until I left home.
I learned how to cook by watching my mother, but I developed my skills away from home. Unfortunately I did not go to college in a place with a significant Haitian population, as such my cooking had to be about finding equivalents. Trying to adapt ingredients and borrow from what was around to recreate the flavours and smells that reminded me of home. Through trial and error I discovered things. Like for instance that Italian parsley tasted and smelled closer to what I was used to, that its nasty cousin cilantro tastes like soap (and belongs nowhere near food), or that scallions made a better substitute for our pwawo than leek. Armed with basic knowledge and the willingness to eat bad food that only a college student could have, I set about recreating my own version of the foods I grew up on. With each attempt my diri became less pat, and my sòs vyann got ever closer to striking the right balance of savoury, spicy, and acidic.
Along the way I also branched out and picked up things I liked from other cuisines around the world. When I ran out of epis or didn’t feel like making my own, I’d use jerk seasoning. A friend guided me through the process of making Jollof rice. I learned how to make chicken tikka masala, and discovered the marvel that is mafé. I never really questioned where or how these different foods existed in relation to the ones I had grown up with. To me they were things I liked, and while they didn’t necessarily have like for like equivalents with more typical Haitian food, they still procured a similar sense of comfort and warmth.
The question of how Haitian my cooking was never really occurred to me until my girlfriend pointed out to me that although my Haitian food looked the part and tasted good, it tasted different from home. Even with the ingredients being as close to being authentic as could be, something ineffable was still missing. The smell of sauteed epis was always close enough but not quite right. While it might be a stretch to say it bothered me, it still made me wonder if it would ever be possible for me to recreate the flavours my mother, grandmother, or aunts could, or if a good enough approximation was the best I could ever hope for. But I didn’t dwell on these existential questions too long, a man’s gotta eat. Not only was I more than capable of feeding myself, I actually quite enjoyed what I made, and so did those around me I got to share it with, the quest for unattainable Madeleines de Proust be damned.
Or so I thought until I discovered Jon Kung’s youtube channel. He’s a Chinese American chef who gained popularity on tiktok. In one particularly thought provoking video, he speaks of the struggle he’s experienced in developing an identity for his food as a third culture kid. Having split time between Hong Kong and the US growing up, and while training as a chef, he developed something of an identity crisis in his cooking. While the food he made was recognisably Chinese, he felt it could never measure up to the original. And at the same time it would continue to be othered and considered exotic/ethnic in America. He was able to make his peace with that fact by realising that his experiences, his training, and his background influenced his cooking in ways that might not be expected in the more traditional Hongkong cuisine, and that ultimately it wasn’t a flaw.
One of the things that struck me the most was his stated desire to make food “that tasted like home but different, that tasted like home but to two families that spoke two different languages.” This made me realise that my own cooking exists somewhere along that same spectrum. I make food that tastes like home but different. The places I’ve lived, the ingredients I was able to find, and my own personal tastes, curiosity, and experiments, have given my cooking some different flavours and textures that are familiar but not quite the same. They didn’t need to simply be approximations, they could be perfectly good and valid forms in their own rights. Sometimes I’ll use vinegar and lemons to clean meat instead of the more traditional sour oranges. There are times when I will cook beans in chicken stock rather than sautée them in epis when making diri kole. Every now and then, my spageti ak aransò will border on spaghetti alla puttanesca. I learned to cook at home by watching my mother, but I became a cook away from home. So now I make things that taste like home but different.
That being said, some may still wrestle with the question of what constitutes “authentic” Haitian food. How much can something be changed before it is no longer considered to be a derivative of some original exemplar but rather something else in its own right? While it may be difficult to draw a clear line in the sand, we all have some general sense of what looks, feels, or tastes authentic and what doesn’t. This was exemplified at the beginning of this month, when food magazine (and culinary gentrifiers extraordinaire) Bon Appétit published their own take on soup joumou that could be described at best as a profoundly misguided homage and at worse as whitewashed abomination and an affront to our history and culture, it was met with the unanimous agreement that whatever “that” was, it wasn’t soup joumou. An unintended repercussion of the moment was that it might’ve led to the one time this year (and perhaps in history) that Haitians (on the internet or anywhere) could be brought to an agreement about food.
Over the years, and particularly during this past one, twitter has seen many a debate unfold over what our best meals are, which ones most authentically represent us, and which ones belong on our plates or in the trash. What these discussions ultimately revealed (beyond some people’s questionable tastes) was that we all had our different conception of what Haitian food was. This could be based on a number of factors, from the more broad ones like geographical location where we grew up, to more specific ones like who cooked for us, in what context, and what their own tastes or culinary aptitudes were, in addition of course to our own preferences. Through a quick (and in no way empirical) survey I conducted, I noticed that for people who had been raised outside of Haiti, when bringing up Haitian food they tended to think of the kind of food that would be served at parties or special occasions, diri ak djon djon, griyo, bannann peze, pikliz. For others who were raised in Haiti the idea of Haitian food evoked more day to day things, meals like diri, sòs pwa ak legim, bannann ak aran, or even the smell and sound of sautéeing epis.
I won’t delve into any armchair psychology trying to hypothesise about the minutiae of the how and why behind the choices, but the overarching theme is that they are all things which bring forth some kind of emotional connection. And I’d venture as far as to say that this might be the best way we to measure authenticity, if measure it we must. Everyone’s moms, aunties, and grandmas do things differently. One might toufe their rice with butter, another with oil, while a third might swear off any added fat (but we can all agree to not use plastic bags to toufe rice right?). Maggi cubes and tomato paste might be sacred relics in one kitchen and anathema in another. The process of cooking, and its results, are as varied as the people who perform it. We try things, we forget things, we change things. But regardless or where it’s happening and who it’s done by, the thing that remains common to all authentic cuisine is that it creates or reinforces connections. It brings back memories, or helps create new ones. Those connections go beyond particular spices or condiments, and that is what gets passed down through family recipes more than lists of ingredients or cooking instructions.
Ultimately it is that genuine connection or lack thereof that we react to when we see food that strikes us as inauthentic or gentrified. When we see pecans floating in a bowl of pumpkin soup, we have no connection to it, no memories or stories tied to it. It is entirely conceivable that someone somewhere (preferably in their own home) may one day try to experiment by adding walnuts or almonds to their soup joumou and find that they quite enjoy it. It could very well become a permanent addition to their own recipe, and in that way gain its own authenticity (again in their own home). And while that may not be considered a traditional way of making soup joumou, it could in that context be considered authentic. I think that’s what Jon Kung is getting at when he says that “as long as you’re doing what you’re doing honestly you’re being authentic.” When you set out with the goal of evoking or recreating a feeling, what you make can be authentic even if you depart from the established way of doing things. So at the end of the day you can still make authentic Haitian food even if you ban jiwòf from your kitchen, use oat milk in your pen patat, or even make your pate kòde with jackfruit instead of meat, because the authenticity is more than the sum of its ingredients.
PS: we don’t have to add pecans to soup joumou though