Haiti’s first inclusion on Unesco’s prestigious intangible cultural heritage list is an item that is at once significant and seasonal. Joumou soup is traditionally consumed on January 1, which marks both New Year’s Day and the Caribbean country’s independence day.
When Haiti’s colonisation by the French came to an end more than 200 years ago, joumou – a soup traditionally cooked by plantation slaves for their masters – came to represent liberation, which is why it’s often referred to as “the bowl of freedom”, for while the delicacy was prepared by the slaves, they were not allowed to taste it.
Then on January 1, 1804, the first ruler of free Haiti, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, had his wife prepare joumou and serve it to the former slaves, as well as declaring it to be a message of defeat and the national food of the country’s black population.
Made with a base of turban squash (a winter squash akin to a pumpkin), which lends it its bright yellow shade, joumou comprises meat (usually beef), potatoes, hot chilli peppers and other winter vegetables such as turnips, yams and taro root. Modern-day versions usually include some pasta or vermicelli as well as a pat of butter. It is also common for people to make extra joumou and distribute it to those in need.
The soup achieving “protected cultural heritage” status is both a point of pride and a symbol of hope for the financially ravaged country.
“It is a great joy and a point of pride to see this project come to fruition … weeks before the Haitian independence day. It is an important gesture of recognition for the entire Haitian culture and identity, which will further strengthen its influence throughout the world,” said Audrey Azoulay, Unesco’s director-general.
In turn, the Haitian delegation to Unesco deemed the inclusion “not only a fabulous sign of hope and encouragement, but also a unifying call for a Haitian people currently facing an exceptionally difficult moment in their rich history”.
Members of the Haitian delegation further said: “A symbol of the rejection of a system of oppression and discrimination, of the struggle against colonisation and all forms of racism, the soup strengthens cultural identity, encourages coexistence and social cohesion and plays a unifying role.
"This heritage generates a strong sense of belonging to the Haitian nation, connects new generations with their roots and has become an expression of their dignity as a people.”