Consider the genius of those little chunks of fried pork known as griot, in which Haitian cooks proved that French, Spanish, West African and indigenous Caribbean influences could play together as happily in the kitchen as they never could in real life. The ingredients and techniques of no fewer than three continents — thyme, parsley and scotch bonnet peppers, marinating, braising and barbacoa-ing — combine to produce morsels of such sublimity they make an impression on every willing tongue, a brief one, as the pork swiftly dissolves and deliquesces, leaving behind sublime puddles of caramelized fat. Nao’s Caribbean Flavors leaves a more lasting impression, not in the least because the Westbury food truck’s griot takes Carline Jean more than a day to prepare.
“That’s why there aren’t too many Haitian food trucks out there,” said Jean’s husband Tony. “It’s not easy. The prep takes time.” Indeed, a disproportionate number of the country’s dishes involve 20-step recipes, hours of work, a careful balancing of ingredients and above all patience. There is a saying there: beyond the mountains, there are mountains. For both Haiti and its cooking, nothing ever seems to come easy.
LAUNCHING A LONG ISLAND FOOD TRUCK
After a few years and umpteen gigs at area food festivals, hospital parking lots and a semiregular stint on Prospect Ave., Nao’s (named for the Jeans’ three children, Niela, Naomi and Nia) had amassed quite a following and thoroughly outgrown its original wheels. So in 2019, the couple purchased a food truck three times larger, one which, owing to myriad delays, is only now making its debut, at Sunday’s Juneteenth Cultural Festival in Hicksville. It was the OG truck, technically a trailer, that Tony Jean was cleaning last August when a friend sent him a text.
“At first I didn’t believe it. Another earthquake? You’ve got to be kidding me,” he recalled. The 7.2-magnitude temblor — even stronger than the 2010 quake that killed more than 250,000 and left over a million Haitians homeless — had come just weeks after the assassination of the country’s president, Jouvenel Moïse (and would itself be followed by Tropical Storm Grace’s landfall just three days later). Most of the Jeans’ family members reside in the northern part of the country, far from the quake’s epicenter, but there are a few in the south, and the Jeans had no contact with them for weeks. Cell service was knocked out, the road to the area was destroyed, food and aid arrived only by helicopter.
“It’s almost like, how much more can Haiti take?” said Jean of a country he left when he was 6, one which, thanks to an insidious combination of centuries-long foreign exploitation and domestic corruption, remains one of the poorest in the world, with 60% of the population living in poverty. “Every time we stand up, something else tries to knock us down.”
The same might be said of the Jeans’ new food truck. The pandemic hit not long after they bought it, so for much of 2020 the couple kept the old trailer, towing it to a few gigs here and there while waiting out the crisis with the rest of us.
Meanwhile, their shiny new truck sat idle in a Hicksville lot, the Jeans not knowing when or if it would ever launch. It was during those dark days, as the catastrophes of his adopted country began to pile up, that a vision of a new Nao’s began to take shape in Tony Jean’s mind. He and Carline would serve Haitian food, yes, but also meet the moment more broadly. TV screens would showcase their home country’s music and natural beauty, and the truck itself would be wrapped from nose to tail in a colorful vinyl mural depicting the nation’s landmarks, history and — crucially — its indomitability. In the COVID era, thought Jean, all of us could learn something from Haitians, something they were only too qualified to teach: resilience in the face of mass suffering.
“A regular person might crack when something happens to them. Haitians will bend but not break.” Out of the experience of shared heartache, Jean said, comes the mindset necessary to endure it, an attitude of “there’s nothing you can’t survive, because we’ve survived so much.” Their business having survived COVID, the Jeans looked forward to finally unveiling their new truck last fall, only to face more obstacles, namely supply chain issues that delayed the arrival of new kitchen equipment. For several more months, theirs was a dream deferred.
ROLLING AT LAST
The Nao’s mural was created by Jean Esther, a childhood friend of Tony’s, and brings Haiti’s tenacious spirit vividly to life, depicting a statue of Toussaint L’Ouverture, who led an army of former slaves to defeat Napoleon and end French rule; the National Palace, still a symbol of independence despite being destroyed by the 2010 quake; the carnivalesque atmosphere at Marché de Fer, a large flea market in Port-au-Prince, the capital; and the country’s female entrepreneurs, who played a crucial role in rebuilding it after the first earthquake.
“We call it yautia,” said Carline in the food truck’s kitchen area, referring to the taro-like tuber that is grated, mixed with spices, shaped into finger-length fritters and deep fried to make akra, a flavorful snack that’s the dream of every hush puppy. Nao’s akra is dressed with the palatal alarm clock that is Jean’s pikliz, a crispy relish of cabbage, carrots, vinegar, shallots and thyme.
There is another saying, the angrier the Haitian woman, the better her food, a stereotype that Carline Jean gleefully defies. “People say the food is like their grandmother cooked it,” she smiled, loading a customer’s to-go box with a heavy scoop of diri djon djon, Haitian black rice, which owes its color and much of its earthy, nutty taste to what it’s cooked in, a broth of mushrooms native to Haiti. (Carline’s sister back home mails them to her.) She also makes a mean poul fri, a batterless yet juicy fried chicken. The secret to that, as with griot, is a long bath in a garlicky marinade.
The Jeans know firsthand that generosity is a powerful antidote to woeful times, and they’ve pledged to park their new food truck wherever it’s needed most. In the past, that has meant feeding veterans and front line workers, catering charity benefits and supporting a Haitian organization’s efforts to rebuild a cafeteria and medical clinic severely damaged in last summer’s earthquake.
It’s a big job for a single food truck — serving up fine griot while acting as an ambassador and relief agency on wheels, but Tony Jean wouldn’t have it any other way. “Every time I’m driving and pulling the food truck, it’s like I’m pulling the country forward,” he said, noting that Nao’s is even more popular with non-Haitians than expats.
Even as she heard this, Carline methodically loaded fried plantains one by one into a tostonera, flattening each into round discs and then throwing the whole batch back into the fryer. The air filled with a burning sweetness.
“When they come to the truck and see that it’s Haitian, the first thing they say is I’m sorry, based on what’s been going on,” said Tony. “The second thing they say is, I didn’t know you guys had such great food.”
For updated info on Nao's Caribbean Flavors’ whereabouts, dates and times, visit eatnaos.com. Sunday’s Juneteenth Cultural Festival is noon to 5 p.m. in the Hicksville LIRR parking lot, 125 W. John St., details at blacklegacypartnersllc.com.