- Review article
- Open Access
Valorization of pikliz: a spicy meal garnishment in Haitian cuisine
Journal of Ethnic Foods volume 8, Article number: 1 (2021)
The biochemical process of fermentation (zymology) is widely practical for foods and beverages. This metabolic process involves microorganisms (bacteria) and their enzymes in the preparation and preservation of foods. Many studies have shown that fermented foods and beverages have various documented health benefits to humans, such as being high in vitamin b, and, among other benefits, having atherogenic and anticarcinogenic properties. This communication discusses the significance of fermentation in Haitian cuisine by focusing on pikliz—a spicy fermented meal garnishment that is widely popular among Haitian dishes. This analysis provides relevant information on Haitian cuisine while examining the underlying mechanisms, compositions, properties, nutritional values, and potential health benefits of pikliz. This spicy meal garnishment represents the regional, ethnic, and national identity of Haitians living in Haiti and abroad.
Historical overview of Haitian cuisine
Prior to the Europeans’ arrival to the Caribbean island of Ayiti, otherwise known as Ayiti Quisqeya (present-day Haiti and Dominican Republic), the island was inhabited by the native indigenous people, called the Taino [1, 2]. At the time, the island (Fig. 1) was divided into five regions: Magua, Marien, Jaragua, Maguana, and Higüey, where each region was governed by a Cacique—Taino Chief. As Christopher Columbus took possession of the island in 1492, he renamed it to La Isla Española, which was later changed to Hispaniola . The Spanish ruled the island from 1492 to 1625, where later, the French received and established their colony in the western region, historically called Saint Domingue and is present-day Haiti (Fig. 1). The Frenchmen oppressed Haiti by creating a slavery-based agricultural system used to exploit the richness of the land. They did so by importing a vast number of Africans to the island and forced them to work as slaves under harsh conditions in various plantations (i.e., coffee, sugar, cocoa, tobacco indigo, and cotton among others). Nonetheless, the slaves revolted and gained their independence from France in 1804. Following the Haitian Revolution, the influences of the various ethnic groups who populated the island remained evident in the Haitian society—from the language to the cuisine.
The culinary blend of the African, French, Taino, and Spanish cultures helped to develop and establish the nature of Haitian cuisine  along with the later influences from Levantines, due to Arab migration over the years . For instance, the Taino natives first introduced barbecue, or barbeque (BBQ), to Haitian cuisine, then to the world. The Africans introduced okra, also called gumbo (kalalou), and other various vegetables roots (i.e., yam, taro, and cassava), fruits, and spices. As for Spanish influence, it is well known that the style and technique of Haitian cooking are similar to those of Latin America, but with many technical variations. Haitian food independently maintains a unique flavor compared to its Latin Caribbean counterparts.
Haitian cuisine is largely based on the liberal use of epis—an assortment of herbs and spices. A typical epis consists of garlic, green onion, thyme, salt, and pepper, all crushed to form a paste-like mixture. It is generally used to season and prepare all types of meat, seafood, légume (a thick vegetable stew), bean purée (sauce pois, sòs pwa), rice (diri kole; diri djon-djon), and Haitian spaghetti among other dishes. Although the form of epis differs among cuisines, its use is an essential requirement in Haitian cuisine, Creole cuisine.
Since typical Haitian religions, like Christianity and Voodoo, are important aspects of the culture, several dishes are typically prepared for religious gatherings and celebrations. The same applies to cultural holidays such as Haiti’s Independence Day, where the freedom from slavery is celebrated through pumpkin soup (soup joumou). Of all the mentioned dishes and many others, they are not complete until a lump sum of pikliz is accompanied beside each meal. While the origin of piklizhistorically remains unknown, this spicy meal garnishment represents the regional, ethnic, and national identity of Haitians living in Haiti and abroad. As the population of Haitians who reside outside the country continues to increase, they continue to represent and share their culture and cuisine to the world. In the USA, Canada, and France, where a majority of Haitians reside, the annual Haitian Food Festival is considered an important event for Haitians to share and celebrate the richness of their cuisine.
Pikliz and its process
The name pikliz (pronounced PEE-kleez) can be understood based on the word pickle and the French word piquer (meaning to sting). Pickle is derived from the Dutch word pekel and from the Northern German word pókel (both meaning brine). The pickling process preserves and extends the lifespan of food through a process known as anaerobic fermentation, where food is soaked in in a brine solution or vinegar solution for a long period of time . Meat, fish, eggs, and vegetables are commonly and historically known to have systematically undergone pickling. This process not only preserves the food, but it also affects the taste, flavor, and texture of the food. In various regions of the world, the term pickle is typically referred to pickled cucumber, egg, or onion. While the origin of pickling remains unknown, credit is given to the ancient Indus Valley Civilization of the Mohenjo Dara (Northwest of the Indian continent) about 2400 BC.
Pickling remains as one of the oldest methods used for food preservation, found in many parts of the world. Such process is said to have been brought to Hispaniola during the European exploration age, and emerged into Haitian cuisine in the form of pikliz. Pikliz is a condiment made from shredded cabbage and carrot mixed with an extensive amount of peppers (piment) and spices, all immersed in vinegar or lemon juice [7,8,9]. The nature of this process can be chemically explained by the production of lactobacillus plantarum; and of alcohols and acids which form aromatic compounds from leuconostoc mesenteroides during fermentation . These bacteria species, lactobacillus and leuconostoc, are associated with fermentation under salinity condition in high and low temperatures, respectively. The acidity media (pH 4 or lower)  and the antimicrobial properties of the spices  serve to preserve and kill most bacteria in the pikliz while enhancing its flavor during fermentation. Overall, the acidity and salinity of the solution from the vinegar and spices along with the temperature of fermentation regulate the microorganism species, which determine the final flavor of the pikliz.
This spicy fermented meal garnishment, pikliz, has long been prepared at the household level in Haiti; however, as the number of Haitians living abroad continues to increase, commercialization of pikliz on an industrial level has systematically increased (Fig. 2). Nowadays, pikliz can be purchased at major supermarkets in the USA, such as Walmart®, Publix Market®, and other regional supermarkets (Fig. 2). Altogether, pikliz remains the symbol of Haitian culture (Figs. 3 and 4).
Dissecting pikliz components
Cabbage, a member of genus Brassica and Brassicaceae (mustard family), is high in nutritional value . A 100 g size of raw cabbage (Table 1) contains vitamin C (44%), vitamin K (72%), vitamin B (35%); (Table 2) various minerals (i.e., zinc and potassium, 1-8%) and some of 103 kJ (25 kcal) of energy (Table 4) . The pickling process could improve the nutritional value of the cabbage (B vitamins) which is produced by bacteria . These vitamins are water-soluble and are necessary for cell metabolism. Cabbage can be prepared in various ways for consumption. This includes steaming, stew, sautée, braise, and pickle. The pickling method (Table 3) remains most popular for pikliz in Haitian cuisine; sauerkraut in Azerbaijani, Belarusian, Polish, Russian, Baltic states, and Ukrainian cuisine; kimchi in Korean cuisine; suan cai in Chinese cuisine; and curtido in Salvadorian cuisine and other Central American cuisines [17, 20,21,22].
Although cabbage has been cultivating around 1000 BC  in central and western Europe and introduced to America around the 1540s , scientists are not yet able to fully study the health benefits of cabbage. As the plant consists of sulforaphane and glucosinolate, phytochemical studies of cabbage to understand the health benefits and anti-disease properties of the plant are undergoing. The plant also serves as a great source of indole-3-carbinol . These compounds could stimulate metabolism from the production of detoxifying enzymes . Such cruciferous plant could also have protective effects against colon cancer , among other properties related to antioxidant , anti-atherogenic, and anticarcinogenic . These properties are subjects of ongoing biomedical research .
Carrot—Daucus carota sativus
Carrot is a root vegetable belonging to the Apiaceae family which consists of mostly aromatic flowering plants (i.e., umbelliferae). The word carrot is borrowed from French, carrotte, which first appeared in English in 1530. Carrotte itself is derived from Latin, carota, and from Greek, καρωτόν or karōton, with Indo-European root word ker- (meaning horn; head). This can be explained by the horn-like shape of this cultivar. Various colors of the cultivar have been cultivated around the world. This includes black, white, red, and yellow-orange carrots (Fig. 5) [30,31,32]. Historically, the plant has been cultivated for its taproots, stems, and leaves consumption. While the green leaves are edible, they are seldomly consumed by humans due to their toxic naturally occurring alkaloid compounds [33,34,35]. Modern day carrot plants are selectively bred for a less wood-texture taproot. The vitamin contents (Table 1), mineral contents (Table 2) and nutritional values (Table 4) of carrots make the root of this cultivar very effective for a healthy diet. The root is a great source of vitamins (B6 and K) and contains a significant quantity of vitamin A and beta-carotene (provitamin A carotenoids). Carrot roots can be prepared in various ways for consumption. The root is widely used in various cuisines and can be boiled, steamed, fried, chopped (carrotte julienne), or pickled (i.e., pikliz and sauerkraut); in addition to the preparation of juice, salad, broth (mirepoix) , and even sweet dessert (i.e., carrot cake and carrot pudding). Carrots, as an Apiaceae, contain polyacetylene (oligoynes, carbinoids) compounds which exhibit cytotoxic activities [37, 38]. These compounds, namely, falcarinol and falcarindiol (cis-heptadeca-1,9-diene-4,6-diyne-3,8-diol) show antifungal activity against mycocentrospora acerina and cladosporium cladosporioides . The latter compound is also responsible for the bitterness of carrot root . Meanwhile, other compounds such as 6-hydroxymellein , 6-methoxymellein, eugenin, 2,4,5-trimethoxybenzaldehyde (gazarin), or (Z)-3-acetoxy-heptadeca-1,9-diene-4,6-diin-8-ol (falcarindiol 3-acetate) are also present in carrots and in the leaves (pyrrolidine) .
While the repetitive idea ‘carrot is good for your vision and it will make you see in the dark’ is constantly being shared as a myth, such idea is only valuable to individuals who suffers from vitamin A deficiency. Such deficiency remains a major public health issue in developing countries . Intake of animal and plant sources, such as fruits and vegetables (i.e., carrot, apricot, papaya, mango, sweet pepper) rich in bioactive compounds could greatly reduce the rate of nutrition-related chronic diseases [44, 45] in these countries. This vitamin has major health benefits and plays an important role in vision, reproduction, bone growth, cell differentiation, and cell division [46,47,48,49,50]. Vitamin A regulates the human immune system as it helps to fight and prevent infections more effectively by the production of white blood cells, which destroys viruses and bacteria [46, 51,52,53,54,55]. As nearly half of Haiti’s population has no access to basic healthcare services and about 30-50% of the children are vitamin A deficient [56, 57], surprisingly, a high intake of pikliz could systematically improve their health. This idea is coupled with the aforementioned health benefits of the main constituent of pikliz (cabbage and carrot). The incorporation of carrots to rock buns—a traditional snack food in Ghana, is suggested to highly improve the nutritional value of the snack through the integration of vitamin A . This idea is based on efforts to minimize the vitamin A deficiency problem among Ghanaians. While only 3% of the vitamin (in the form of alpha and beta-carotene) is accessible from raw consumption of carrots, researchers have shown that the bioavailability of provitamin A could be greatly improved to nearly 40% from softening or breaking down the cell wall of carrots (i.e., cooking, baking, the addition of oil, fermentation) [58,58,59,60,61,62,63,64,66].
While the pickling process—fermentation of food items—remains very efficient in preserving food, many cuisines have incorporated such process in achieving fermented food with significant health benefits. The chemical nature of this process is governed by the production of lactobacillus plantarum, and of alcohols and acids which form aromatic compounds from leuconostoc mesenteroides during fermentation. The production of such beneficial microorganisms regulates and determines the final flavor of the food. The resulted fermented food is consequently enriched in various health benefits to humans as documented by many researchers. The effects of these benefits are crucial, especially to individuals with very little access to a well-balanced diet.
Fermented cabbage, pikliz as eaten in Haiti, remains a good source of provitamin A, vitamin B, vitamin C, valuable minerals, and contains anti-atherogenic, and anticarcinogenic, among other medicinal properties. Due to the many health benefits of pikliz, public health officials should teach and engage their communities with such information where basic healthcare services are not readily available . This meal garnishment will not eliminate nor solve their health problems, but the incorporation of pikliz, which is rich in bioactive (fermentation derived) compounds, could greatly reduce the rate of nutrition-related chronic diseases.
While Haitian cuisine is influenced by various other cuisines: from the Indigenous to the Africans, the flavor of Haitian cuisine remains independently unique to Haiti. This spicy meal garnishment, pikliz, represents the regional, ethnic, and national identities of Haitians living in Haiti and abroad. This analysis is subjected to serve as a contribution to particularly increase awareness of Haitian cuisine through the understanding of pikliz as related to its countless health benefits and social-cultural impact. Pikliz, the symbol of Haitian culture and cuisine.
Availability of data and materials
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Louis-Jean, J., Sanon, D., Louis-Jean, K. et al. Valorization of pikliz: a spicy meal garnishment in Haitian cuisine. J. Ethn. Food 8, 1 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1186/s42779-021-00077-5
- Haitian cuisine