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Why soup joumou, a Haitian symbol of independence, is enjoyed every New Year's Day

The dish is a staple of Haitian cuisine and has a long and meaningful history.
Soup joumou is a hearty squash-based soup. Joumou is a type of squash found in Haiti.
Soup joumou is a hearty squash-based soup. Joumou is a type of squash found in Haiti.Courtesy Medegine Guillaume
/ Source: TODAY

On the eve of the new year, Haitians around the world are preparing soup joumou, the beloved and traditional dish that's enjoyed on Jan. 1, which is also recognized as Haiti's Independence Day. Because of this connection, the hearty dish is sometimes called "liberation soup," a direct reference to the liberation of Haiti from France in 1804, making the Caribbean country the first Black republic in the world.

It's also the dish that sparked controversy and conversation earlier this month when Bon Appétit published a recipe excerpted from chef Marcus Samuelsson's cookbook, "The Rise: Black Cooks and the Soul of American Food: A Cookbook." Although the recipe was titled "Independence Soup" in the cookbook, it was labeled "soup joumou" in the print edition of the magazine's holiday issue and on its website.

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Marcus Samuelsson was named an advisor and guest editor of Bon Appétit earlier this year.John Lamparski / Getty Images for NYCWFF

Samuelsson, who was named an advisor and guest editor of the Condé Nast publication in late August, told TODAY Food in a statement, "The soup recipe on Bon Appétit was initially adapted from my book, The Rise. The headnote has been updated to reflect how it is described in full in my book, where it is included as an homage to the Haitian Independence Soup, soup joumou."

The soup recipe has since been updated on Bon Appétit's website with a new title, "Pumpkin Soup With Spiced Nuts." An accompanying editor's note reads, "We’ve updated the name and byline of this dish, and changed the headnote to match the excerpted recipe, which is chef Marcus Samuelsson's take on Haitian soup joumou, from Samuelsson’s cookbook ‘The Rise.’ We apologize for misrepresenting this recipe."

Recipe developer Yewande Komolafe, who was also initially credited for the recipe alongside Samuelsson, wrote an Instagram post on the matter and explained that she had "no part in writing or creating" the soup recipe in question.

So, what is soup joumou?

For Leah Penniman, the co-director and farm manager of Soul Fire Farm in Grafton, New York, who is of Black Creole ancestry, soup joumou is "a hearty, pumpkin soup with a kick." She told TODAY, "It's got a scotch bonnet spice and an earthy thyme flavor. And it's traditionally made with beef, but there's also vegetarian versions. So, (a) wonderful autumn dish that can incorporate many of the harvest vegetables in the region."

Leah Penniman of Soul Fire Farm holds a bowl of soup joumou.
Leah Penniman of Soul Fire Farm holds a bowl of soup joumou.Courtesy Neshima Vitale-Penniman

Haitian-born chef Stephan Berrouet Durand, who has worked on events with the Embassy of Haiti in Washington, D.C. among others, explained in an email to TODAY, "Well first it is a pumpkin soup, but this particular pumpkin is more used and prominent in the Caribbean and in Latin America. They call it kabocha squash (but) in Haiti we know it just as joumou, because it is the only variety grown there. The soup is very hearty with meats and vegetables. It's a labor of love as it takes a while to prepare. Usually you'll find beef with bones in it and a variety of vegetables."

Chef Ron Duprat, who competed in Season 6 of "Top Chef," told TODAY in an email that soup joumou is one of his favorite soups and declared, "There is no other soup that compares to it."

"The soup is bright, flavorful, hearty and rich," he continued " … Some of the ingredients include cabbage, carrots, turnips, scotch bonnet peppers, and of course the main ingredient, yellow squash. … Typically, soup joumou is made with beef stew meat (or chicken) and a lot of chunky vegetables."

Ron Duprat likes to enjoy soup joumou in the winter months and encourages others to try a bowl on Jan. 1.
Ron Duprat likes to enjoy soup joumou in the winter months and encourages others to try a bowl on Jan. 1.Courtesy Medegine Guillaume

What does soup joumou represent?

According to Berrouet Durand, the dish is a recipe that's passed down from generation to generation.

"Soup Joumou is a tradition in the Haitian community and culture. It's a meal that is enjoyed as a celebration for the new year, but more than that, it's an iconic dish that is deeply ingrained in our DNA as it also celebrates the day of our independence.

"So you will find this soup on every Haitian table, mine as well. So indeed I definitely grew up eating it in my household. It's an amazing soup/recipe. The soup is a staple in my house and as a matter of fact, we make it almost every Sunday."

He added, "The practice of drinking this soup is also associated (with an old tale) that (says) you will attract good luck for the new year."

Duprat grew up in Mare Rouge, Haiti and learned how to cook dishes like soup joumou from his grandmother. He explained, "Soup joumou is recognized as the soup of unity and freedom in the Haitian community. … My mother and grandmother made a big pot occasionally every Sunday and of course on every Jan. 1, Haitian Independence day. There was always enough soup for friends, family and neighbors to enjoy."

"When I share this rich, flavorful soup, it is my way of giving back to my community. Especially during these trying times, I have shared the soup with many first responders as well as family gatherings on Sundays. Soup joumou has become a soup of gratitude for all Afro descendants and foreigners across the globe. I am reminded of the sacrifice of our ancestors and everything that is associated with this soup. This soup keeps me connected to the Haitian culture now more than ever," Duprat said.

Penniman includes seasonal vegetables in her own soup joumou.
Penniman includes seasonal vegetables in her own soup joumou.Courtesy Neshima Vitale-Penniman

Penniman explained that, to her, the dish is a reminder of both oppression and freedom.

"The symbolism of this pumpkin being used to mark our (Haitian) liberation is very, very important so whenever I taste or as they say, sip the soup joumou, I have an opportunity to think about the resiliency of my ancestors and of oppressed peoples around the world to shake off tyranny and the ways that that can be connected with the fruits of the earth and our relationship to the land."

How do you make soup joumou?

"It is a recipe that usually takes quite a bit of time. First there is the preparation of the Haitian Epis or marinade that is going to season the meats which also helps to tenderize the pieces of meat. Those pieces are usually stuck to the bone so that they are usually a little tough," Berrouet Durand described.

Haitian Pork Griot

"Then you have to prepare all of the vegetables that will be incorporated in the dish. Carrots, leeks, onions etc. also take a little bit of time. So, when (it's the) first day of the new year, most of the preparation was done the day before so that they can start cooking very early. The family will usually gather after church to sit together and have the soup."

Berrouet Durand explained that the traditional beef can be swapped with other proteins, something he experiments with. But since it's a traditional dish with significant historical meaning, he added, "If you are getting away from ingredients and flavors of the original, you should not call it soup joumou."

"It is a very important recipe to our culture which is also tied into history," he continued. "Understand that the world evolves and I can certainly tell you that the way the original recipe was prepared back in 1804 as a celebration of our freedom and independence, the recipe has certainly changed with the addition of spaghetti for example. … as a chef I tend to play around with recipes and want to try new things, but my favorite modification maybe (is) using different proteins."

Soup Joumou

Duprat makes soup joumou with Angus beef but, he added, "In my recipe, I do not add bones, spaghetti or dumpling. I also make a vegetarian version for friends, family and for special events."

Soul Fire Farm's Vegetarian Soup Joumou

For a vegetarian take on the dish, you can make Soul Fire Farm's soup joumou recipe. You'll need one pound of kabocha squash, or Caribbean pumpkin, along with a variety of aromatics, vegetables and one whole scotch bonnet pepper, or another type of spicy pepper, and the pasta is optional.

EDITOR'S NOTE (Dec. 31, 2020, 3:27 p.m. EST): This article has been updated with a new introduction for New Year’s Day. A previous update on Dec. 18, 2020, 1:03 p.m. EST included quotes and a recipe from chef Ron Duprat.