Montreal

Why Haitian Montrealers make 'freedom' soup on New Year's Day

Two-hundred-and-fifteen years after Haiti established its independence, a traditional kabocha squash-based dish called soup joumou remains a symbol of that triumph.

For Haitian community, a kabocha squash-based soup remains a symbol of anti-slavery movement

215 years after Haiti established its independence, a traditional kabocha squash-based dish called soup joumou remains a symbol of that triumph. (Antoni Nerestant/CBC)

For members of the province's Haitian community, Jan. 1 is about more than marking the new year — much more.

It's a celebration of their home country's independence.

Jan. 1, 1804 marked the culmination of a successful, decade-long slave rebellion against French colonial rule, establishing Haiti as the world's first black republic.

Two-hundred-and-fifteen years later, a traditional kabocha squash-based dish called soup joumou remains a symbol of that triumph.

Prior to this victory, African slaves may have been expected to prepare the soup for slave owners, but they were forbidden from tasting it.

That changed once the slaves overthrew the French and Haiti declared itself an independent nation.

So, every January 1, members of the Haitian community prepare and eat soup joumou to commemorate Haiti's independence.

"Haitians are so proud of their culture and their independence," said Paul Toussaint, the owner and executive chef of the Haitian and Caribbean eatery that bears his name at Montreal's new Time Out Market.

Toussaint moved to Quebec from Haiti more than a decade ago at the age of 18, so he's experienced this tradition both here and at home.

If you go to a Haitian Montrealer's home on New Year's Day, don't expect to eat anything else.

"On Jan. 1, you eat soup in the morning, you eat soup at noon and you eat soup before you go to bed," Toussaint said. "We use that soup to remind ourselves of what our heroes did for us."

Paul Toussaint is the owner and executive chef for the Haitian and Caribbean eatery that bears his name at the new Time Out market downtown. (Antoni Nerestant/CBC)

'Every year, it's my tradition'

Is it hard to make? That depends on who you ask. 

The kabocha squash is the star of the dish, but the list of ingredients is long. First, you need to have lots of chicken broth on hand as well as beef and potatoes, thyme, parsley and a bit of pasta.

Then there's the array of vegetables: cabbage, leek, celery, malanga, carrots, turnip, and herbs — just to name a few. 

Not to mention the hours of prep and cook time. 

Soup joumou is made with an array of vegetables: cabbage, leek, celery, malanga, carrots, turnip, and herbs — just to name a few.  (Antoni Nerestant/CBC)

Toussaint said the key to making the soup is enjoying the hours of prep and cook time along with everything that comes after it.

"It's not that hard; everything is hard, everything is easy so it depends on your skill and if you want to do it," said the chef.

"When I make it, I'm so proud because we're not supposed to have someone tell us what to eat and how to eat so every year, it's my tradition."

Joumou for you, too

If there's one part about the tradition that stands out for Toussaint, it's how the soup brings the Haitian community together.

Many households produce enough soup joumou to last a few days. But with friends and family coming and going bringing their own batches, days of soup joumou tasting could turn into weeks.

"Family will send you soup, so it's like a sharing day," he said. "We have to share that we are happy with our freedom, and we are happy with our independence."

The kabocha squash is the star of the dish, but the list of ingredients is long. (Antoni Nerestant/CBC)

This holiday season, Toussaint wants to share the taste of soup joumou with his customers. He plans on making the soup at his downtown restaurant available until February.

"The most important thing is to share tradition," he said. "It's the same here in Quebec because they show you how to make pâté chinois, they talk about poutine, this is their tradition.

"I know in Quebec, they love the Haitian soup."

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