Caribbean people love to compete, especially when it comes to food. When my daughter’s father claimed that Haitians make the best rice and beans of all the islands, I rolled my eyes. My own cultural pride had issues believing anything could be better than what Trinidadians call peas and rice, a flavorful dish using pigeon peas. But also, that’s a bold claim amongst some very stiff competition.
Then he taught me how to make diri ak pwa (also known as diri kole ak pwa) and I was officially schooled. Haiti FTW. Other islands, come at me. What makes Haiti’s take on rice and beans so special is the cloves, a staple spice in Haitian cooking, and the method of boiling the rice until most of the liquid has been absorbed before turning down the heat. This makes the rice somewhat grainy and more structured than most. Coconut milk, largely found in preparations in the south of the island, adds flavor and a subtle creaminess. In the north, the dish is more often made simply with water. Another trademark is tossing in a whole—not chopped, not minced, not sliced—Scotch bonnet pepper for its distinctive smoky taste without all the intense heat. You just have to pray it doesn’t split open while it cooks, and don’t forget to discard it before you start poking around! While cloves are often added loose (as in A Taste of Haiti by Mirta Yurnet-Thomas or on Haitian Dining With Marie on YouTube), sticking the cloves in the pepper is a trick he showed me to find the cloves easier.
Most recipes call for a chicken bouillon cube, but I don’t think it’s necessary, and without it you’ve got an extremely satisfying vegan dish. If you do crave that chickeny flavor, season with bouillon to taste when adding the coconut milk in step four. I prefer substituting olive oil at the end, instead of the more traditional margarine or butter, for the lighter effect. If butter is your thing, substitute a tablespoon for the oil in step six, and let it melt on top of the rice.
Diri ak pwa is sometimes made with other bean varieties such as black beans (pwa nwa), pinto beans (pwa bè), or pigeon peas (pwa congo). Annette Dor has a great recipe for diri ak pwa congo on YouTube. However, kidney beans (pwa wouj) are my personal favorite. They give the rice a beautiful reddish hue and have a buttery taste. Because kidney beans don’t need to be soaked overnight, it’s particularly worthwhile to start with dried rather than canned. I promise it is worth the extra effort. They have a firmer, richer cooked texture than canned beans do, which stands up well to the rice.
Lastly, don’t discount the crunchy bits of rice at the bottom of the pot. Haitians call this graten and it is a highly coveted byproduct. —Lesley Enston
- Prep time 15 minutes
- Cook time 2 hours
- Serves 4 to 6
dried red kidney beans
extra-virgin olive oil, divided
medium yellow onion, chopped
garlic cloves, minced
coconut milk, preferably full-fat
Scotch bonnet pepper (or habanero)
3 to 5
- Bring the beans, 8 cups of water, and 1 tablespoon of olive oil to boil. Continue boiling for 15 minutes, then lower the heat to medium-low and partially cover. Cook until beans are tender, 1 hour or so; check occasionally to make sure they’re submerged and add water if necessary. A properly cooked bean should squish between your fingers but not fall apart.
- Drain the cooked beans, reserving the cooking water. You should have at least 3 cups of the liquid—add additional water if needed.
- Rinse the pot, then set over medium heat. Add 1 tablespoon of oil, then the onions and garlic. Saute, stirring occasionally, until beginning to soften, about 2 minutes.
- Add the beans and cook for 2 minutes, then add the coconut milk. Stir to combine and bring to a simmer.
- Add the reserved bean water. Pierce the pepper with the cloves, then add this to the water, along with the thyme. Season with salt to taste. Bring to a boil, then add the rice. Continue boiling until most of the liquid has been absorbed, 15 to 20 minutes.
- Add the last tablespoon of oil, lower heat to medium-low and cover, cooking off the rest of the liquid, another 10 to 15 minutes.
- Discard the thyme stems and pepper, which usually float to the top. Fluff the rice with a fork and serve.