Milan, 27 January 2022
Long-term readers of my blog will know that I have a love-hate relationship with Unesco (the United Nations Educational, Science and Cultural Organization in full), and especially with its World Heritage Sites list. This list is composed of actual, tangible sites (“brick-and-mortar” sites, as it were) from all around the world which have been judged to contain “cultural and natural heritage of outstanding value to humanity”. We’re talking about things like the Parthenon in Athens
or Angkor Wat in Cambodia
or the Grand Canyon in the US.
In several of my posts, though, I have frothed at the mouth about some of the other sites which have been listed, considering them to be unworthy of the honour. However, I do not propose to use this post to do more frothing on the subject. My focus instead will be a companion list which Unesco has compiled of so-called intangible cultural heritage. This has been defined as “the practices, representations, expressions, as well as the knowledge and skills (including instruments, objects, artifacts, cultural spaces), that communities, groups and, in some cases, individuals recognise as part of their cultural heritage”. In this case, we’re talking about things like oral traditions, performing arts, and traditional craftsmanship. Worthy examples of entries on this list are Bunraku puppet theatre in Japan
or sericulture and silk craftsmanship in China.
If any of my readers are unaware of which forms of intangible cultural heritage have been listed for their country, I invite them to go to the Unesco website on the topic. I’m sure there are also unworthy examples on the list, which – if I ever come across them – will cause me to start frothing at the mouth.
In any event, the reason I’m bringing all this up is that on 17 December last, I saw an article in the Guardian entitled “Culture in a bowl: Haiti’s joumou soup awarded protected status by Unesco”. Given my love-hate relationship with Unesco, I was intrigued to find out what the organization had been up to and clicked on the link. It turned out that the relevant Unesco Committee had just voted to include Haiti’s joumou soup on the list of intangible cultural heritage. “It is Haiti’s first inclusion on the list, and the country’s ambassador, Dominique Dupuy, cried as the announcement was made”, the article intoned. The article intoned about much more, showing that the Committee meeting had clearly been a love-fest between Ms. Dupuy and the delegates of the other countries sitting around the table – although as I read I doubted Haiti would be getting any increase in the development aid which its people so desperately need. Oh dear, the cynic within me, fed on years of watching the rank hypocrisy on show in UN meetings, was coming to the surface – down, boy!
Luckily, as I read on, the positive Me got the better of the cynical Me. To explain this, I need to clarify that “elements” (that’s Unesco-speak) on the intangible cultural heritage list which are food-related don’t get listed just because they’re food and yummy to eat. Otherwise, the list would be a mile long. No, to be listed, a foodstuff has to have a strong cultural value. This is just what joumou soup has, in spades, and it’s that cultural value which brought out the optimist Me.
Joumou soup is inextricably entwined with Haiti’s history as a former slave state. As elsewhere in the Caribbean, the planters in this French colony became immensely rich on the backs of a large population of African slaves growing sugar and coffee for them. The slaves were worked mercilessly and died quickly, so the slave population had to be constantly replenished from West Africa. Here, we have a picture of a slave market in the nearby island of Martinique.
The French planters also took African women as concubines and over time this created a population of coloured people, free but second-class citizens compared to the white planters.
The French Revolution started a struggle among the black and coloured people of Haiti, who took the Revolution’s message of Liberty, Equality, Fraternity seriously. Here we have a picture of their first leader, Toussaint L’Ouverture; he was captured and died in France.
The struggle, which towards the end turned really vicious with both sides committing atrocities, culminated in 1804 with the black and coloured people gaining their independence and throwing out the white population. They went on to create the first black republic in the world, with Jean-Jacques Dessalines their first head of government.
This story really resonates in this day and age of Black Lives Matter.
And what of joumou soup in all this? It became a potent symbol of the slave population’s freedom from servitude. Prior to 1804, joumou soup was prepared by the slaves for their masters but only eaten by the masters; slaves were forbidden to eat it. Naturally enough, the eating of that soup by ex-slaves and their descendants became a strong symbol of their continued freedom. And in fact, it is now a solemn tradition for all Haitians to eat joumou soup on 1st January, the country’s day of independence. Here we have Haitians eating the soup on Independence Day.
But what exactly is in this soup, readers might be asking? Well, the core ingredient of the soup, the one that gives it its name, is a variety of squash, the giraumon, which is found in the Caribbean.
The word “joumou” is probably the Creole version of “giraumon”, which is itself derived from “jirumum”, the name given to the squash by the island’s original Amerindian inhabitants, the Taìno. Therein lies another layer of cultural meaning in this soup, which no-one seems to have remarked upon. Christopher Columbus and his crew were the first Europeans to meet Taino people when he reached the Caribbean in 1492. We have here a rather fanciful engraving showing this fateful encounter.
At the time of Columbus’s arrival, the Taìno probably numbered a million or so and were the principal inhabitants of what are now the islands of Cuba, Hispaniola (shared today by Haiti and the Dominican Republic), Jamaica, Puerto Rico, the Bahamas, and a few other islands. By the late 1500s if not before, the Taìno had disappeared, killed off by a combination of forced labour for the Spaniards, starvation, and Old World diseases vectored by the Spaniards and against which the Taino had no resistance. Some historians have labeled this the world’s first genocide. The Taìno have left but a shadow of themselves, in the DNA of many of the islands’ modern populations as well as in words adopted into the languages of their destroyers to describe things they had never seen before reaching the Caribbean: tobacco, hurricane, potato, maize, hammock, barbecue, canoe, cassava, and many others. Joumou soup too carries the ghosts of the Taino.
But back to the making of this soup! The giraumon is pureed, which gives us something very much like the classic pumpkin soup.
To this core of pureed giraumon is added marinated beef. It is no doubt this ingredient which explains why slaves were forbidden to eat the soup. Meat, especially beef, has historically been the preserve of the rich and powerful, the elites. To these two base ingredients are added a host of others. All recipes call for the addition of root vegetables, although which ones precisely varies quite a bit: I’ve seen malanga, mirlitons, yams, turnips, carrots, potatoes (sweet and not), and onions listed in various recipes. I see here another layer of meaning in this soup, since it marries – probably without meaning to – vegetables from different parts of the world. Their use together in this soup is a reflection of the Great Columbian Exchange which took place after Columbus discovered the Americas and which I’ve written about in previous posts. Some of these root vegetables – malanga, mirlitons, some species of yam, potatoes – are native to the Caribbean or the wider American region, the others – turnips, carrots, onions – are Old World imports. Other vegetables are also added, the ones most often mentioned being cabbage, celery, and leeks – again, Old World imports. Pasta – Old World import – of various shapes are also part of the mix. This must be a modern addition to the soup’s recipe; I can’t see it being present in the soup eaten in 1804. Various herbs and spices are of course thrown in, parsley, thyme, and so on, along with pepper. And the cherry on the cake – as it were – is the addition of one of those hideously hot chilis which I so hate, although they do have the merit of originating from this region of the world. A Scotch bonnet or habanero chili are the most often suggested. The result of cooking all these things together looks like this.
As I say, I read about joumou soup on 17 December. I got all excited about it and thought we could try making it on 1 January in Los Angeles, where my wife and I were spending the end of the year with our daughter and her fiancé. I suggested it to our daughter, who is very much into cooking, but she had other plans for the cuisine of that day. So this dish is still to be tried in our household. We could wait until 2 December to make it. That’s the UN’s International Day for the Abolition of Slavery, which seems a very suitable moment to be eating this particular soup. But that’s a long way down the road; I feel we should strike while the iron is hot. I’ve read that many Haitians also eat joumou soup on Sundays, for breakfast. I’m not sure about breakfast but my wife and I could make it for a Sunday lunch. We could invite our son to partake. I’ll go and talk to my wife about it now. In the meantime, though, should any of my readers want to give it a go, I give below a recipe for making the soup; it’s a mishmash of a number of recipes I found online.
Bon appétit … and BLM!
Recipe for joumou soup
Joumou soup is meant to be a festive dish eaten by crowds of people, as attested by this enormous cauldron of joumou soup prepared somewhere in Haiti.
So I give here amounts required for a mere 8 people. You will of course adjust the amounts to your requirements.
- ½ kg stew beef (preferably chuck) cut into smallish cubes
- 2 limes
- 1 cup épis
- 10 cups broth (beef broth preferably, but chicken or vegetable broth will do)
- 1 kg squash, peeled and cubed (ideally, of course, you should use giraumon squash, but here it really depends on what is available to you locally)
- 2 carrots, peeled and sliced
- 1 celery stalk, chopped coarsely
- 1 leek, white and pale-green parts only, finely chopped (you can use scallions instead)
- 1 medium onion, sliced
- 2 small turnips, peeled and diced (if you can get it, use malanga instead)
- 2 potatoes, cubed
- 5 parsley sprigs
- 2 tsps salt, plus more if you want
- ½ tsp freshly ground black pepper, plus more if you want
- Pinch of cayenne pepper, plus more if you want
- 1 Scotch Bonnet chili pepper (habanero chili pepper can be used instead)
- 1½ cups of pasta (of a type like rigatoni or maccheroni; but if all you have in your cupboard is spaghetti, then use that broken into short pieces)
- ½ kg cabbage, sliced very thinly
Step 1: Make the épis. Épis is a blend of various herbs, spices, and vegetables which is used a lot in Haitian cuisine. You will be using it to marinade the beef. You can buy ready-made épis, but I am assuming that you will be brave and choose to make it from scratch. Well done! And this is what you will need for 1 cup of épis – you may not use it all up for the marinade, and can use the remainder in the soup.
- ½ bell pepper (colour of your choice), coarsely chopped
- 2 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
- 3 scallions, coarsely chopped
- ½ small onion, coarsely chopped
- Herbs of your choice. I suggest 1/2 cup parsley (leaves and tender stems), coarsely chopped, and 2 basil leaves. But you can consider partially substituting the parsley with cilantro and/or thyme.
- 3 tbsp oil (I prefer olive oil, but it’s your choice)
To make the épis, simply put all the ingredients into a food processor or blender and purée until smooth. Or if you’re feeling traditional – and have the equipment – use a mortar and pestle.
Step 2: You will now marinade the beef. Place the beef chunks in a large bowl. Juice the limes. Pour the juice (should be at least 3 tbsp) over the beef chunks and massage the juice into the meat. Add a good portion of the epis to the bowl and mix it well with the beef; the beef chunks should be well coated. Put the meat in a refrigerator and let it marinate: ideally overnight, at a minimum one hour.
Step 3: Next – ideally, as I say, the next day – take 6 of the 10 cups of broth and cook the squash in them over medium heat until fork-tender, 20–25 minutes. Purée the squash in the broth.
Step 4: In parallel, you will brown the beef. Place a heavy-bottomed frying pan or casserole dish over a high heat and add a little oil. When the pan is very hot, add the meat to the pan in batches. The oil should ‘sizzle’ as the meat is added. Cook the meat for 1-2 minutes on each side of the cubes.
Step 5: Add the browned beef cubes to the pureed squash. Top up with the remaining broth. Bring to a boil and simmer for 20 minutes.
Step 6: Add, the carrots, celery, leeks, onion, turnips, potato and parsely to the soup, bring to a boil, then simmer for 1 hour with a whole scotch bonnet on top. Remember that the whole scotch bonnet is there for flavoring not to make the soup “hot”. Make sure you don’t burst it as you stir the soup, and remove it at the end of the hour.
Step 7: Add the pasta of your choice and cook it until it is soft and tender (15 minutes or so).
Step 8: add the cabbage and cook for an additional 5-10 minutes; the cabbage should just become wilted. Taste and adjust for seasoning.