Going out to eat Haitian food in Miami can take some preparation. You have to make sure to have cash on you, as the majority of Haitian eateries don’t accept any other form of payment. You should also prepare yourself mentally and emotionally for what’s in store: In my experience, many people working at the restaurants in Little Haiti aren't generally used to seeing non-Haitians dining at their establishments, and may not be used to dealing with the expectations that non-Haitian diners have.
Diners can expect to have good food at an affordable price—that is, if the restaurant has any food to begin with. You won’t know until you get there. I'll sometimes find myself ordering a dish only for the person at the counter to walk back to the kitchen to check that it's doable and reappear five minutes later, shaking their head. After turning down each of my requests for various menu items, they'll respond that nothing is ready, come back later, maybe tomorrow...
It’s not always like this, though. Sometimes I’ll get someone working the register who’ll crack a smile at me. If I'm lucky, the eatery will be full of families waiting to pick up stacks of steaming styrofoam boxes containing chunks of fried pork or fragrant stews served with mounds of rice and tangles of spicy pikliz slaw. (These are typically the telltale signs that I’m about to have a very good experience.)
At these ideal times, I order legim. This dish consists of a variety of vegetables slowly braised with meat until everything melts together. A well-made legim has a silky texture and a hint of sweetness from the sugars in the vegetables, which should have concentrated after cooking for hours. Subtly perfumed with cloves and thyme, with a gentle kick of heat from scotch bonnet chilies, legim meat is always fork tender.
This may be everyday fare for the eatery’s Haitian patrons, but for me it's pure bliss. I know I must look odd sitting in the rustic dining room alone, eyes closed and smiling stupidly as the savory flavors and nursery textures hug my palate.
And yet, I’m never quite sure of the perfect timing for visiting a Haitian restaurant. It doesn’t seem to be consistent. I tend to find my gastronomic reward only when my cravings transform into an almost spiritual yearning and the stars align in just the right way. It’s this reward that keeps drawing me into dingy storefronts in Little Haiti and North Miami—in spite of knowing that I’m always taking a gamble on how the experience will turn out.
Fortunately—through many trials and tribulations, and with the biggest hunger for Haitian food on this side of Miami—I’ve learned how to make legim at home. Through many Haitian friends and acquaintances, I’ve learned the secrets of thoroughly washing, scrubbing, scalding, and marinating the meat so that it’s flavorsome and tender. I’ve learned how to craft my own seasoning paste called epis (a flavor bomb of garlic, scallions, and herbs). I’ve learned the value of frying a bit of tomato paste to mellow its acidic flavor. And after many attempts, I’ve been able to prepare a pot of legim that conjures up those ethereal moments and memories I’ve had in Miami’s hidden restaurants.
For those times when the stars don’t align and I’m required to come home to an empty stovetop (and stomach), I have this recipe to sate my cravings.
- 1 to 1 1/2 pounds stew meat (like beef, pork shoulder, goat, or oxtail), cut into 1" chunks
- 1 lime, cut in half
- 1 1/2 teaspoons salt, plus more to taste
- 1/4 cup epis, recipe follows
- 2 teaspoons vegetable oil
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 1 cup green beans
- 1 large eggplant, peeled and diced into 1/4" pieces
- 1 1/2 pounds white cabbage, shredded (about half a head)
- 1 medium yellow onion, thinly sliced
- 1 chayote (see Note), peeled, pitted, and finely diced
- 1 green bell pepper, seeded and thinly sliced
- 1 medium-sized carrot, thinly sliced
- 1 bunch watercress, roughly chopped (about 2 cups)
- 4 cloves
- 1 star anise
- 1 bouillon cube, optional
- 1 scotch bonnet chili, pricked with a fork, optional
- 4 scallions, roughly chopped
- 1 bunch curly parsley, stems removed and roughly chopped (about 1 cup, tightly packed)
- 4 cloves garlic
- 1 scotch bonnet chili, or to taste
- 1/2 green bell pepper, deseeded
- 1 teaspoon dried thyme
- 6 cloves
- 3 tablespoons sour orange or lime juice (from approximately 2 sour oranges or limes)
- 1/4 cup vegetable oil
- 1 tablespoon salt
- 1 bouillon cube, optional
hit the road, snack
Have you ever tried Haitian food? Let us know in the comments below.