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.

À table!



Bangkok, 22 November 2015

I was in Vanuatu recently, which, for those readers not familiar with the Pacific, is one of those many little island states that dot the Pacific Ocean, like Tuvalu or Palau or Kiribati. I was there on business, for reasons which are too long to explain here. In any event, as is my habit, when I had a little bit of spare time I went down to the local market in the capital, Port Vila, to see what fruits, veggies, and other local delicacies they might be selling.

market port vila

Much of what I saw was familiar, although I don’t think I’ve ever seen taro before (those neat little bunches behind the potatoes)


and I’ve definitely never seen sea grapes, which is a kind of seaweed if I’ve understood correctly (no idea how you eat them).

sea grapes

Sweet potatoes fall into the category of the known. Nevertheless, I did pause in front of them and go dreamy.

sweet potato market port vila

It wasn’t so much for the sweet potatoes – I’m not a great fan of this tuber, to be honest – but rather for its story here in the Pacific. Let me explain.

As previous posts attest, I have a great interest in the movement of foodstuffs around the world, so whenever I go to markets I always mentally map how the fruits and vegetables (and sometimes meat) must have originally ended up on the counters before me. True to form, I went through the same exercise in that market in Port Vila. Much of what I was seeing was brought into the Pacific Islands from the West, either brought along for the ride by the original inhabitants of the islands when they migrated out of South-East Asia, or through later regional trade between the Pacific Islands and South-East Asia, or even later through the colonial masters when they took over the islands. But the sweet potato was different. As I’m sure my readers know, the sweet potato originally comes from northern South America and possibly Central America. So how did it make it to the Pacific Islands? Well, it could definitely have come with the Spaniards after they conquered Latin America and set up a long distance trading system between Mexico and the Philippines – and in fact, at least one type of sweet potato was introduced to the Pacific Islands this way. It could also have come from the other direction, via Europe – and this is indeed the way that the Portuguese introduced the sweet potato to this part of the world, mostly to the islands of South-East Asia rather than the Pacific itself, as they sniffed around the area for spices. But there was another route of introduction of the sweet potato to the Pacific Islands, one which is much more fascinating, and this was by the Pacific Islanders themselves, who sailed all the way to South America and brought the sweet potato back with them (and may have left the chicken, although this is much debated). Since I’ve been talking about maps, here’s one which summarizes nicely the spread of the sweet potato in the Pacific:

map of sweet potato spread

The blue line is the Spanish introduction, the yellow line is the Portuguese introduction, and the red line is the introduction by the Polynesians. The evidence for a Polynesian introduction is archaeological (remains of sweet potato in Polynesian tombs datable to a time long before the colonial period), linguistic (as the map shows, there is a definite similarity between the Polynesian/Melanesian name of the sweet potato and its original South American name), and more recently DNA-related, through comparison of gene sequence mappings of the DNA of South American varieties with old specimens kept in European herbariums collected during the first trips of exploration by James Cook, Louis de Bougainville, and others.

The map also shows the most probable route taken by the Polynesians to reach South America, via Easter Island. But now, let me tell you, East Island is far away from South America. It’s about 3,500 km far away. And on the other side it’s far away from other Pacific Islands. It’s about 3,600 km far away from the islands of French Polynesia, which are the closest biggish islands. Yet, the Polynesians sailed these vast distances – and not on some big comfy ship running on oil and crammed full with the latest navigation equipment but on a boat like this, powered by sail, and where they could only rely on their reading of stars, cloud formations, sea swells, and bird flight patterns to navigate.

polynesian ship

This picture clearly romanticizes the vessel. It must have been a cramped, dangerous voyage. Many times, the ships must have got lost at sea – James Cook writes of coming across a boatful of Polynesians in the middle of nowhere, who had been driven off course by a storm and were asking where they were.

This is a modern version of one of these ships, built in the 1970s,

modern polynesian ship

which clearly shows the unique aspect of their design, the use of two hulls. In fact, this design inspired modern ocean-going catamarans and eventually the truly amazing catamarans that now race in the America’s Cup.


These beauties can go up to 80 km/hr, but a more typical speed on a modern ocean going catamaran would be 15 km/hr. Doing a little maths here, it would therefore take a modern catamaran about 10 days to sail from Easter Island to South America. So if luck was with them, if the winds stayed steady and did not get too boisterous, if there were no nasty storms to drive them off course, the Polynesians probably would have had to last 10 days-two weeks out in the Pacific before hitting South America, which seems doable. Getting back, though, must have been considerably harder. I mean, on the way there, the Polynesians just had to hit South America, which is kinda big. On the way back, though, they would have had to hit these tiny specks in the ocean, specks which on top of it were much further away – taking the trade winds out of South America would have meant their having to aim for the French Polynesian islands for their first landfall, and these are 8,000 km away, or something like three weeks’ sailing if all went well.

But some Polynesians made it to South America and a few others made it back, with the sweet potato in tow. Because of these very skillful and very courageous sailors, I was looking at sweet potatoes in the market at Port Vila. No wonder I paused and smiled when I saw these not very tasty tubers.


Port Vila market: (in
Taro, Port Vila market: (in
Sea grapes: (in
Sweet potato, Port Vila market: (in
Map of spread of sweet potato in Pacific: (in
Polynesian ship:×422.jpeg (in
Modern Polynesian ship: (in
America Cup boat: