Mais, Haiti's Iconic Staple, Sustains Miami

Marleine Jourdaine serves mais with banana and fish at Le Jardin in Little Haiti.
Marleine Jourdaine serves mais with banana and fish at Le Jardin in Little Haiti.
Photo by Sophia Esterle
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It's just after 8 a.m. on a weekday when the sun begins pouring into Bakery Café Restaurant (8250 NE Second Ave., Miami; 305-322-6127), a compact place at one end of an orange-stucco strip mall that's topped with a sloping Spanish-tile roof. Inside, 32-year-old Merline Toussaint's day is just beginning. Her jet-black hair is pulled into a tight ponytail, and her big brown eyes scan the yellow-and-green-painted place's steamer tables as she hustles large steel pans of steaming food back and forth from the kitchen.

The early hour means mais. The gritty corn porridge topped with anything from bean stew to steamed snapper has long been a breakfast and lunch staple in Haiti. And it's almost always on hand in Miami's scores of Haitian restaurants.

What appears to be a simple hominy mush is far more. After scooping a few ladles of the yellow slurry speckled with white dots, Toussaint motions to her right, where there are two bright-red trays, one of codfish and the other liver. Each is cooked down into a sweet, sticky stew with tomatoes, peppers, garlic, onion, and olive oil.

In one dish, the starchy, gently salty mais is just the thing to dampen the livers' metallic tang while letting the springy cubes of the offal's natural savoriness emerge. In the other, cod offers all the addictive, salty savoriness of a bag of chocolate-covered pretzels.

It's just what 43-year-old cab driver Joseph Toussaint (no relation to Merline) needs before hitting the street. "It gets me through the day," he says while clutching a Styrofoam container overflowing with the stuff. "I get enough so I have lunch, and that way I don't have to stop working."

Mais is an affordable, satisfying meal that can be endlessly modified and amplified to avoid unpalatable boredom. Even the spelling of its name isn't consistent. In some places it's "mais," and on other occasions it's phonetically spelled "mayi." The name of the porridge could be "mais moulin" (ground) or "mayi moulen." This flexibility has allowed the dish to be easily transferred from Haiti to Miami — and make it a breakfast as perfect as a sugary colada and a plank of butter-soaked toast.

Corn, which is the base of this dish, has sustained Haitians on the island for generations. It also was a staple of the diet of the Taíno, who inhabited Hispaniola for centuries before explorers, colonists, and slavers arrived. Later, when dictators and foreign interests decimated Haiti's agriculture, it was corn that kept everyone and everything moving. A decade ago, University of Puerto Rico researchers published a piece in the Caribbean Journal of Science that suggested corn had been grown on the island since at least 1060.

At some point, the island's inhabitants began grinding it up to make a filling meal. "It's something that you'll find in every home, almost every day," says 23-year-old Adeline Luna, who works the counter at Le Jardin Haitian Restaurant (195 NE 78th St., Miami; 305-244-7566). The restaurant, located just off Little Haiti's main drag, is a claustrophobic crayon-green space dimmed by the iron bars that guard the windows. A quartet of folding tables and chairs are scattered across the steamy room that a lone box fan struggles to cool. The specialty here is mais with whole steamed snapper ($8), known as pwason in Kreyol. The corn porridge is a touch more flavorful and substantial than others thanks to shreds of salted cod scattered and flecks of parsley and thyme, whose floral grassiness amplifies the nutty grain.

At this spot, cooks fill tall stockpots with heaps of broccoli, cabbage, carrots, and garlic. The vegetables are boiled into submission, and once a concentrated broth is obtained, forearm-length snappers are plunked in and poached until just cooked. The combination of the fish's buttery flesh and juices that spill out and into the mais makes it obvious why so many people return to such a dish day in and day out.

"For breakfast I like the mais epinard," says Jean Levoyan, a wiry 49-year-old who does maintenance at a Little Haiti co-working space, referring to the dish with wilted spinach. "But really, for me, the best mais is the mais you make yourself."

Levoyan adds that he and his wife often whip up a big batch Sunday and freeze some so they have enough to last all week.

Mais with vegetables, particularly the vegetable stew called legume, is yet another beloved iteration of this chameleon. It can be found at 3 Queens Restaurant (7625 NE Second Ave., Miami; 305-392-0731). Here, 50-year-old Mirlande Germain, who was born in Pétion-Ville, about a 40-minute drive south of Port-au-Prince, cooks the dish her mother began teaching her to make when she was 4.

There is no set recipe for this often auburn-hued creation that under Germain's care is rife with the sweet smell of slow-cooked carrots and onions, cabbage, squash, chayote, shallots, and watercress. Eggplant, another ingredient, disintegrates and becomes a thickening agent binding everything together while providing the meaty satisfaction of braised beef. The real secret, however, is the handful of Scotch bonnet peppers and clove tea powder that yield a spicy perfume.

When Germain was growing up in Haiti, her family didn't always have an abundance on hand. Sometimes eggplant was hard to come by, so legume was nearly impossible to render. "Still, we would put whatever we had into it and make it work," she says.

That utilitarian, by-any-means-necessary facet of mais is apparent near lunchtime back at Bakery Café Restaurant when Merline Toussaint lugs out a steaming cauldron of the inky bean dish called pwa. Here, black beans are cooked just until they become tender. Then, in an analog of Cuban frijoles, a portion of some are taken out, blended into a thick paste, and combined back into the aggressively garlicky beans with chopped scallions. And it's all spiked with distinctly modern ingredients: onion soup mix or chicken bouillon cubes.

Toussaint, who was born and raised in Cap-Haïtien and moved to Miami in 2016, claims a power punch of MSG is what makes the combination of pwa and mais good enough to eat every day.

"Back in Haiti, the only day we wouldn't eat it is Sunday," she says, noting that the first day of the week was reserved for the rich pumpkin stew called soup joumou.

Come Monday, she says, everyone was ready for another heap of mais, and whether it was swirled with wilted spinach, crowned with a whole boiled snapper, or laced with salt cod, it was just the thing to push them through the week.

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