Haitian cooking uses a lot of limes. Not lemons; we never used lemons in our house as my mom is a firm believer in the power of the lime. We used it for cleaning, for medicinal purposes, as well as in food. Have a cut or a sore throat? Limes are good for that. Need to clean your meat? That’s what limes are for. How about juice or tea? Then you’re definitely going to need limes. Limes are the one thing I will always consistently have in my kitchen.
You’ll notice most of my recipes use limes for cleaning meat. I’m not sure where this tradition started, but the cleansing process is a very important step in Haitian cooking, and the lime is the traditional method for cleaning. This process was so ordinary to me, I was under the mistaken impression that this was how most people cooked.
It wasn’t until I moved to Seattle that I realized how much of life I took for granted. I ran in to people who had never even met a Haitian before, let alone had any Haitian food. I quickly realized that if I wanted Haitian food, I was probably going to have to make it myself. Unfortunately, in this new place, one of the most interesting challenges I faced was where to get my groceries. There were tons of grocery stores, of course, but not a single one of them seemed to sell all the items I was used to finding easily.
In New York (at least in Spring Valley and the places I lived in Brooklyn), if you walk in to a grocery store, you can expect to find key ingredients for Haitian cooking: plantains, scotch bonnet peppers, beans, rice, spices. Unfortunately, this isn’t the same in Seattle and so I had to find a way to make the best of my surroundings.
The good news is, I’ve been able to find most of the things I need or make substitutions, and what I learned will help me (and you) in finding these things a whole lot faster in the event I’m not in a town without a large Haitian population.
Finding limes was easy enough (although significantly more expensive); finding spices and decent vegetables took a little more work. And then I learned that almost everything I needed could be found at the nearest Asian or Hispanic market.
The food is different, so it never occurred to me that we might be using similar ingredients. Thankfully, I discovered that the basic ingredients were close enough to find exactly what I was looking for (or at least a decent substitution). I still can’t find scotch bonnets, but I can find habaneros; I may not be able to find djon-djon, but at least I can find rice and beans. And the next time I happen to be in a city where there aren’t a lot of Haitians, I know I can go to alternative markets to find what I’m looking for.