Why UNESCO Called Haitian Joumou Soup Cultural Heritage
Image Credit: Joumou soup is a cultural heritage | Instagram - @djdoesdopeshit

Every year, on January 1st, most homes in the country of Haiti cook a very special dish called Joumou, or more correctly, soup Joumou. The soup is a reminder of and tribute to Haiti’s independence movement. UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) designated Joumou soup as intangible cultural heritage one year ago, in December 2021. UNESCO’s diverse list has 677 entries of cultural heritage from 140 countries (including 14 from India, including yoga, Vedic chanting, Durga puja, Ramlila, Kumbh mela, etc.) that range from pilgrimages and festivals to traditional arts, crafts, and food.

Joumou soup, or giraumon soup, is, according to UNESCO, "a traditional Haitian pumpkin soup made with vegetables, plantains, meat, pasta, and spices...a celebratory dish, deeply rooted in Haitian identity, and its preparation promotes social cohesion and belonging among communities."

Joumou (pronounced "joo-moo") soup was originally off-limits for the slaves in Haiti and was only consumed by the French plantation masters. Haiti had slavery from the 1500s to the early 1800s. The island was first taken over by Spanish colonists, who devastated the indigenous populations, working them to near extinction in gold mines. Later, slaves were imported from all over the Caribbean islands, which already had black slaves from Africa, to the island. When the mines were depleted, France took possession of the island. and the slave owners imposed harsh rules that also restricted what their slaves would and would not eat. By 1789, Haiti, which was known as Saint-Domingue at the time, had a population of 556,000—500,000 black slaves, 32,000 European colonists, and 24,000 free people of mixed race! By the mid-18th century, the colony was the most profitable in the world. For the slave owners and plantation masters. The life of a slave was much worse. Saint-Domingue was like a den of supervillains: The slaves cultivated squash, which is now central to joumou soup. The slaves prepared, cooked, and served joumou soup to their French enslavers and colonizers but were prohibited from having it themselves! The soup became a status symbol that reinforced the "superior" station of the whites who ran the plantations.

The slave owners were eventually overthrown by the Haitian Revolution, a slave uprising that lasted from 1791 to 1804. After several years of fighting, on November 18, 1803, the Armée indigène, or the indigenous/slave army, handed a defeat to the French forces at the Battle of Vertières. Haiti’s slaves gained independence from France and established a free country. Interestingly, the French authorities were reluctant to leave and had to be booted off the island that would be renamed Haiti. Many European countries ostracized Haiti because they feared a domino effect on their own slave colonies and plantations.\

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Haiti is the only country in history to gain independence through a successful slave revolution. January 1, 1804 was the day of freedom for Haiti, and nearly every Haitian home prepares Joumou soup on that date every year to celebrate their hard-won freedom. After the revolution, the former slaves were free to eat whatever they liked, a simple right that was denied to them by slave owners. Commemorating the freedom to have joumou soup every year is a reminder that Haiti’s independence was a fight for the most basic liberties. Many consider this the first meal of the year.

Over time, many new variations of the soup have been developed across the Caribbean islands and Latin America. One thing remains common, though: the preparation of New Year's Day's joumou soup is something of a community or family event. The ladies of the house oversee the activity while their children help prepare the ingredients. Local artisans create special aluminum utensils for the soup, and farmers harvest the vegetables that are specially grown for the festivities. 

The base ingredient in the soup is pumpkin, and the soup is made from pumpkin winter squash. Giraumon, a type of pumpkin, is the main ingredient. It also has celery, cabbage, greens, malanga (a starchy root), and beef. Many also add habanero pepper, onions, turnips, carrots, even a banana! The ingredients are mixed and pureed, then added back to the pan. Salt, lime juice, and herbs, as well as garlic, are added for taste. The soup is served hot with a slice of bread on the side. Joumou soup is eaten as breakfast, lunch, and/or dinner on January 1st and also consumed the next day to commemorate Ancestors’ Day, a holiday that honors Haitian revolutionaries on the 2nd of January.

These days, many Haitians also use pasta with the soup, with spaghetti and macaroni receiving more love of late. Fred Raphael, a Haitian chef and co-owner of two Haitian restaurants in New York, told the Smithsonian magazine, "(Soup joumou) is freedom in every bowl... (Haitians) fought for unity, just the same way we get all these different ingredients that come together and create this taste."