A few years back, my mom asked me to accompany her on a trip to Haiti as part of the humanitarian group, Every Mother Counts, a non-profit organization dedicated to making maternity and childbirth safe for all mothers around the globe www.everymothercounts.org. I hadn’t ever been to Haiti, and was excited to help while also experiencing the unique sights, smells, flavors and music of the Caribbean.
A country still in the throes of recovery from the 2010 earthquake, basic medical resources are still not available in most villages outside the capitol. After visiting hospitals in the city of Port au Prince, we brought medical supplies and education to remote birthing clinics and orphanages throughout the countryside. Spreading good cheer and positivity was also an important part of our mission; my mom even started a dance party with the children at one of the orphanages we visited.
Being a bit food obsessed, each day around noon, I wandered toward the smell of onions and peppers, finding the communal kitchen where the ladies of the village gathered to prepare the daily meal. I watched as they rubbed meats and chicken with fresh limes and then a douse of boiling water - a method of sanitation essential in a tropical country where refrigeration is not common. Even in areas where refrigeration is prevalent, this step is still performed and critical to obtaining authentic Haitian flavor.
A marinade was made with more lime juice and a fragrant blend of chilies, garlic, peppers, green onions and fresh herbs, a mixture known as Epis. Reminiscent of the use of sofrito in Spain, and mirepoix in France, Epis is a vital ingredient in most of Haitian cooking. Trying to stay out of the way, but wanting to take in as much as possible, one of the moms would inevitably hand me a cup of te jenjanm, a hot herbal concoction of dried ginger, star anise and cinnamon. As I sipped my te and watched the cooking unfold, the warmth of ginger and cinnamon mixing with the aromatics of the fresh Epis, the inspiration for this blend was born: Mama Manje. Manje, means both “to eat” and “food” in Haitian. Mama Manje contains ginger, star anise, cinnamon, chilies, onions, herbs and garlic - a combination of flavors and smells I experienced each day in the village kitchen. As in most things Spice Tribe, Mama Manje is a bit untraditional, but to me, embodies the essence of this lively place, and honors all the moms and caregivers I met while on this trip.