This past Saturday night, in a banquet hall atop Marche Bonsecours in Old Montreal, 400 people sat together at long dining tables, as they've done here since the top-hatted days when it was still Canada's main public market. The building, overlooking the St. Lawrence, was designed to reflect "this river that ceaselessly shares its wealth with us." The wealth it shared with us on this occasion – the Montreal En Lumiere festival's annual convivial meal – was humble yet thick with promise: soupe au giraumon.
The dish, a magnificently dense and fiery kabocha squash soup truffled with shallots, scotch bonnet peppers and tender conch meat, is largely unknown to non-Haitians – but deserves far wider recognition. It's symbolic of the country's rebellion against colonial servitude, and Haitian families eat the soup every January 1 to celebrate independence. Too good to have just once a year, it's also served on Sunday mornings after church. (Really, though, it's good any time.)
Those trying it for the first time found themselves wondering what other Haitian riches they've been missing out on. Many, it turns out. "Most North Americans know very little about the vast array of dishes we have in our gastronomy," the evening's chef, Stephan Berrouet Durand explained after dinner. Durand, the president of the Haiti Culinary Alliance, had come to Montreal alongside other Haitian chefs to give an introductory crash-course on the country's wondrous, if underappreciated, cuisine.
Few diners at these events had ever encountered such specialties as griot de porc, smoked herring spaghetti, and riz djon djon (made with the country's indigenous djon djon mushrooms).
"People in North America don't really know about our cuisine yet, but they will soon," another visiting chef, Natasha "Chef T" Gomez, explained. "There's so much to discover." Her dinner took place on a -30 degree night inside a large transparent igloo in the Place des Spectacles – a suitably unlikely setting for people to sample bananes pesées (flattened, fried plantains) and pikliz (a spicy, tart and utterly addictive condiment that's like a coleslaw-hot sauce-lemon-relish).
"Haitian food is basically the same as Jamaican food or Cuban food, right?" was a refrain I repeatedly heard while reporting this piece. In truth, it's entirely different. And to begin understanding Haiti's cooking means looking at its history, Justin Viard, Haiti's consul general told me. Their dishes fuse elements from the traditions of the Taino people with those of the country's early European colonizers, Spain and France. The slave trade brought with it ingredients, techniques, and recipes from central and western Africa. Later waves of migration yielded Italian, German, American, Peruvian, even Arabic touches.
Haitian food today is an extraordinary mix of these different roots. Their repertoire boasts borderless concoctions like kibi (a Haitian version of Lebanese kibbe, those ground meat torpedoes), occasionally made with smoked herring, as well as Russian salad – beets, potatoes and carrots in a mayonnaise dressing. A key ingredient is the country's ricotta-like artisanal cheese, best eaten with cane syrup. Dairy plays an unexpectedly large role in Haitian diets, whether in café au laits, or their supremely delicious coconut blanc mangés, like those served at Marche Bonsecours.
There's something inspiringly forward-thinking about Haiti's ability to incorporate food from anywhere in the world into their own ethno-fusion farrago. Containing multitudes, Haiti's cooking is a kind of polyglot, multiculti, whole-earth language. It's strange that it's taken this long for the rest of the world to clue in – especially here in Montreal, which boasts a significant expat community. Of the total population of Haitians in Canada – 137,995, according to the last census – around 120,000 live in this province. As a result, excellent Creole restaurants abound, even though scant information is available about them online. (Torontonians looking to sample authentic Haitian cuisine should try Rhum Corner, by the team behind The Black Hoof).
A perfect introduction to Haitian cuisine is the griot de porc at Marché Méli-Mélo, a lunch counter in the back of a grocery store. (Their name, méli-mélo, meaning "hodgepodge," or "all mixed up," is a fine descriptor of Haitian cookery itself.) Griot consists of cubes of skin-on glazed pork shoulder that have been braised, confited, fried, and who knows what else. To order one is to experience the full spectrum of porcine texturality, bites that are simultaneously molten and caramelized, blistered and fatty, impossibly chewy in places, blissfully tender in others. It's the sort of dish that every tattooed hipster chef dreams of making. There's no point giving a recipe; Méli-Mélo's griot is the sort of alchemical meat-into-magic transformation no Maillard could ever explain – each piece slightly different, all of it coming together in a symphonic concatenation of pleasure. It's easy, it's hard, it's passion, it's regret, it's joy, it's struggle, it's all of it – in a Styrofoam takeout container.
It comes with spicy pikliz, fried breadfruit, and a three-person portion of the sort of rice with red kidney beans you'd find in New Orleans. Louisiana's version can in fact be traced back to Haiti, Chef T told me. "I been to Curacao, to the Dominican, to Saint Martin, to New Orleans – they all do rice and beans, but oh my god," Gomez exclaimed, fluttering her hand in front of her clavicle, "none of them are fluffy like our duri kole ak pwa rouj."
Some of the best rice to be had in Montreal is the ultra-crunchy gratin available at La Foire des Antilles. The lovely owner there (another grocery store, actually), Marie Andrée (Lélée) Kenol calls it "fond du chaudron," or bottom of the pot. Imagine the crispiness of Korean bibimbap rice taken to intensified tropical lengths.
I love everything else I've tried at La Foire des Antilles, from the pied de cochon to the legumes, a ratatouille-esque vegetable fricassee made with eggplant and chayote. Having lunch there the day after the Marche Bonsecours event, I sat at a little counter near the front window next to the store's audio-visual section. The video of a vodoun ceremony on the TV, with its rhythmic drumming, chanting, and dancing made for a fittingly trance-y backdrop to their turkey lunch special. Marinated in bitter orange juice and served in a deep red broth, it's as flavourful and cockle-warmingly satisfying as a homemade Burgundian coq-au-vin.
There are other delights to experience here, like lalo, a deep green stew made with mulukhiya (jute) leaves, usually only seen in Middle Eastern and North African cuisine. The greens shine in a Haitian context, especially when eaten with plain white rice and sauce au pois. They no longer stock Arabic-Haitian kibi, but they can now be special ordered by the dozen, with two days notice, from Casse-Croute Steve Anna. Haitian bouillon, a deep stock filled with rarely encountered root vegetables and tubers, is available on Saturdays at Fourchette Antillaise. Perhaps the most archetypically mixed-up Haitian dish is the Italo-Creole smoked herring spaghetti at Caraibouffe. Their goat tasso is rivalled only by that at Ange & Ricky on a good day.
A complaint about Haitian food is that the meat can be dry and tough. The cafeteria style set-up of most restaurants can aggravate this problem, meaning if you arrive too early, the braised meats may not be ready. Too late, and the dishes can be desiccated. The best time to show up is for a late lunch, especially on weekends. And speaking of the importance of timing, perhaps right now is the moment for Haiti's food, with its deep history, boundless inclusivity, and soulful flavours, to reach an audience even broader than that which formed it. Whether in its homeland or here in Canada, the brightness of Creole cuisine tastes like the future.
Where to eat
Marché Méli-Mélo, 640 Rue Jarry Est, 514-277-6409, melimelocaraibes.com
La Foire des Antilles, 8505 St. Michel, 514-728-6771
Casse-Croute Steve Anna, 3290 Belanger Est, 514-725-3776, bottinhaitien.com/restosteveanna/
Fourchette Antillaise, 5771 Gouin Blvd West, 514-337-9393, fourchetteantillaise.com
Caraibouffe, 5050 Côte-des-Neiges, 438-380-9903, facebook.com/caraibouffe.restaurant
Ange & Ricky, 195 Rue Jarry Est, 514-385-6094