The Caribbean’s second largest island is shared between the nations of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. The first Westerner to set foot on it was Christopher Columbus in 1492 becoming the launch pad for Spanish conquest of the Americas. While the two countries on the island share a relative common history, the partitioning of the island between the French (modern day Haiti) and the Spanish (modern day Dominican Republic) marked a defining turning point in the destinies of the two nations.
Today, the Dominican Republic is the wealthier and more stable of the two as Haiti has grappled with coups, civilian unrest and crippling natural disasters. It was however not always that way – in fact, just after the French took control of the western third of the island, Haiti experienced a massive economic boom as its western neighbor floundered.
The culture of both countries is a reflection of the peoples that occupied or ruled the island in the last millennium or so. As such, Hispaniola traditions are a rich blend of Taino (original inhabitants when Columbus arrived), West African (due to the slave trade), French, Spanish, Dutch and Middle Eastern. In the Dominican Republic, this multi-faceted culture is evident by the French ballet in Santiago and Cibao, Puerto Plata’a Anglo-Victorian architecture and the many Jews that live in Sosua more than half a century after fleeing Nazi Germany.
But perhaps nothing best demonstrates the global character of Dominican Republic culture than merengue – a music genre that draws on Caribbean and African rhythms. Merengue was originally confined to the country’s lower classes and only started to gain mainstream acceptance in the 1930s. From the 1960s onward, merengue began to assimilate elements of Western rock & roll as well as R&B. Other popular music genres in the Dominican Republic include pambiche (merengue but with milder rhythm and dance styles), bachata (a form of Cuban bolero music), salve and palo.
On the Haitian side of Hispaniola, the most popular music genre is compas. It combines Spanish and French music nuances with African drum beats and Creole lyrics. Compas is a form of Haitian Meringue, a distinct music style but that bears several similarities with the Dominican Republic’s merengue. Dominican merengue itself is also relatively popular in Haiti. Other music genres in Haiti include mizik rasin and the religious rara music.
Dominican Republic cuisine incorporates all major food types but it is heaviest on meat and starch, and lightest on vegetables and milk products. Most dishes are accompanied by sofrito, a mixture of local spices and herbs. Other popular meals in the country include mangu, la bandera, empanadas, chicharron, chimichurris, batata and tostones.
By and large, the dominance of particularly foods in a given area depends on the nature of the surrounding e.g. seaside towns and villages will be skewed toward seafood. That being said, pork is an integral part of meat meals as pig rearing is fairly widespread. The composition of Haitian cuisine is very similar to that of the Dominican Republic. Popular Haitian dishes include mayi moulin and banane pesee.