THE WASHINGTON POST – Soupe joumou, the national dish of Haiti, is a unique blend of West African bonnet peppers, New World squash and classic French pot-au-feu.
After defeating Napoleon’s army in 1803, the formerly enslaved Africans in Saint-Domingue declared their independence on January 1, 1804, and founded the world’s first Black republic: Haiti.
The dehumanising characteristics of French bondage had forbidden the enslaved Africans from having the sumptuous squash soup they were forced to prepare and serve to their captors. To assert their humanity, the new citizens of Haiti celebrated their freedom by enjoying soupe joumou themselves. Every January 1, millions of Haitians in Haiti and throughout the Haitian diaspora delight in soupe joumou with family and friends as an act of perpetual restoration, communion and hope.
In his 2019 book, Capital and Ideology, French economist Thomas Piketty explained how France forced Haiti to indemnify French enslavers the modern equivalent of EUR40 billion (about USD49 billion). Haitians paid France for their freedom from 1825 to 1950, thereby incurring a public debt. Piketty further argued that Haiti’s forced payments to France is the cause of contemporary Haitian poverty.
The ensuing political instability in Haiti has led to approximately two million Haitian people living abroad in the United States, Canada, the Dominican Republic, the Bahamas, France and elsewhere as compared with 11 million in Haiti. I am one of those expatriates, living in New York.
Most Haitian immigrants find work as home health aides, taxi drivers, nurses, bus drivers, mechanics, housekeepers, nannies and in a host of other service positions. We take care of children, elderly parents, homes and communities everywhere we go. Yet, no matter where we find ourselves in the world on New Year’s Day, soupe joumou is one of the ways we heal and take care of ourselves and our own homes.
As a child growing up in Brooklyn, I was unaware of Haitian Independence Day. All I knew was that my mother made soupe joumou every Sunday. Before gentrification unleashed the Brooklyn brunch explosion, soupe joumou was the only Sunday brunch I had ever experienced. Always savoury, piping hot and served with buttered toast or crusty bread, it filled the soul.
My mother would wake up early to peel and chop root vegetables. I remember my grandmother making hers with chicken, while my mother varied the soup’s protein between beef chunks, ribs and my parents’ all-time favourite: cow’s feet. My siblings and I hated cow’s feet and would stage silent strikes by eating Cap’n Crunch or Apple Jacks. We had to draw the line and let our mother know that cow’s feet were not to be tolerated in the soupe joumou.
Thirty years later, whenever my mother serves us from her cherished tureen, we still tacitly agree that soup joumou served with stewed beef chunks tastes best.
Americans talk about comfort food and its ability to make people feel good. Haitians believe food should be eaten to kenbe nou, or to hold us through.
Soupe joumou, with its deep historic symbolism, encouraging people to remember the past while also welcoming the future.
Flavourful and comforting, soupe joumou takes some time to prepare and carries enormous symbolism for Haitians. It is a traditional dish served in festive tureens on January 1 to commemorate Haitian Independence Day. It is also a regular meal in Haitian homes on Sunday mornings, and appears on brunch menus at Haitian restaurants.
Whatever onions and potatoes you have on hand will work for this recipe, so long as they are at least medium in size. Be sure to leave the bonnet pepper uncut, otherwise the soup can easily become too hot to eat. The pasta thickens the soup and will soften the longer it sits (if the soup is frozen the pasta will soften even more). Some Haitians relish the opportunity to suck out the marrow from the bones; while others avoid the bones entirely.
Serve with buttered toast or crusty bread.
Storage Notes: Leftover soup can be refrigerated for up to four days and frozen for up to three months. (The pasta in the soup may thicken the broth and make it cloudy, but it does not affect the flavour.)
One pound beef stew meat
One pound beef bones
Juice of three limes, divided
One medium onion, chopped
Half green bell pepper, chopped
One bunch scallions, chopped
One head garlic, peeled and cloves
Quarter cup chopped fresh parsley
One tablespoon olive oil
12 cups plus one tablespoon water, divided, plus more as needed
One teaspoon kosher salt
Two tablespoons Creole or Cajun seasoning
One kabocha squash
Three medium potatoes, diced
Three medium carrots, chopped
Three ribs celery, chopped
One turnip, diced large
One large leek (white and light green parts only), halved lengthwise and sliced thinly
One whole green bonnet pepper, left uncut
One chicken bouillon cube
10 sprigs fresh thyme, tied with twine, plus more for garnish
One small head green cabbage, cut into one- to two-inch ribbons
Three-quarter cup penne pasta or other similar pasta
In a large bowl, combine the meat and bones with two-thirds (about four tablespoons) of the lime juice and let sit for 10 minutes. Rinse the meat and bones thoroughly.
In a blender or food processor, combine the onion, bell pepper, scallions, garlic, parsley, olive oil, one tablespoon of water and salt and process until the mixture resembles a paste.
In an eight-quart or larger stockpot, combine the meat, bones and the herb paste. Add the Creole or Cajun seasoning, stir to combine and let marinate for at least 10 minutes and up to 24 hours for richer flavour (if marinating for longer than one hour, cover and refrigerate).
Without peeling, cut the squash in half, then scoop out and discard the seeds. Cut the flesh into wedges to get a total of four to six large wedges. Place the squash wedges on top of the meat and add six cups of water. Set the stockpot over medium-high heat and bring to a boil. Cover the pot and cook until the squash is tender, 15 to 20 minutes. Transfer the squash to a large bowl and let cool slightly.
Using a spoon, scoop out the squash flesh and transfer it to a blender or food processor. Add two cups of water and blend until smooth. Pour the squash puree into the stockpot and stir to combine.
Add the potatoes, carrots, celery, turnip, leek and the Scotch bonnet pepper, if using, followed by four cups of water and the bouillon cube.
Add the thyme bouquet and stir to ensure that nothing sticks to the bottom of the pot.
Bring to a boil, then decrease the heat to medium-low so the soup is at a simmer, cover and cook for 20 minutes. Stir in the remaining lime juice. Taste, and season with additional salt, if desired.
If the soup gets too thick, add more water, quarter cup at a time, until it’s the desired consistency.
Add the cabbage and pasta, stir to combine and simmer until the pasta is cooked and the cabbage is tender, another 15 to 20 minutes.
Discard the thyme bouquet and the bonnet pepper, if using, and ladle the soup into bowls. Garnish with fresh thyme, if using and serve hot.