Here, fragrant epis does double duty as a marinade and a salsa
When I traveled to Miami in January 2018, I just knew I was in for an amazing food experience. I’d spent weeks researching all the spots I wanted to hit, creating a who’s who list of the most highly recommended stops for the best mojitos, cubano sandwiches, coffee, plantains and ceviche. Day after day I’d wander into different restaurants and bars in iconic neighborhoods like Little Havana, Wynwood, and Coconut Grove — only to keep leaving disappointed.
The service was always thoughtful and attentive, but the food and/or drinks missed the mark. I had just resigned myself to spending the next few days of my trip hanging out at the beach and doctoring my mojitos with a bottle of Bacardi I’d purchased in town when I overheard a group of friends talking about Little Haiti. I canceled my lunch reservations, shook the sand off my toes, and hopped in a Uber straight for Little Haiti.
The driver dropped me off in front of Chef Creole’s, where I ordered a lobster tail platter and a mango smoothie. What arrived at my table was a masterpiece. A massive juicy lobster tail bathed in butter and Creole seasonings, stewed black beans cooked in a fragrant epis — think the Haitian version of the New Orleans “Holy Trinity” — and tender bits of rice. To the side of my plate was a heap of pikliz, a spicy and sour cabbage slaw that helped to cut through all the richness of the food. One bite of Haitian food and I was hooked. It was easily the best meal I had during my time in Miami.
When I came home, I could not get those flavors out of my head and set out to recreate my experience at my own dinner table. I looked up tons of epis recipes until I found a version that I loved. I also learned how to make pikliz — now, there’s always a jar in my refrigerator.
This Haitian fish taco recipe takes everything I loved about my meal at Chef Creole’s and makes it both accessible and easy to make for a quick dinner. In truth, I’ll never miss out on an opportunity to turn any dish into a taco (you can take the girl out of California…). Here, the epis is used as both salsa and a marinade for the fish. Traditional pikliz calls for sour oranges and scotch bonnet peppers, but if you can’t find either of those ingredients, a combination of lime juice and vinegar works, and habanero peppers make an appropriate substitution.
This recipe will make more epis and pikliz than you’ll likely need, which is a good thing because both work well in other dinner staples. Use it to jazz up simple beans, tomato sauce, roasted pork, or grilled steak. The pikliz is delicious eaten straight out of a jar — as I did hourly when I was pregnant with my daughter — but it’s also amazing on avocado toast, barbecue, and even salads.
Haitian Fish Tacos with Pikliz Slaw
Serves 6-8 (makes 12-16 tacos)
For the pikliz:
2 cups premade cabbage slaw mix
½ red or yellow bell pepper, thinly sliced
¼ yellow onion, thinly sliced
2 scallions, sliced (white and green parts included)
2 large garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
1 tablespoon kosher salt
¼ cup lime juice
⅓ cup white vinegar
1 tablespoon fish sauce
½ scotch bonnet pepper, cut in half (if you can’t find a scotch bonnet, a habanero will work)
For the epis fish:
½ cup parsley, chopped
½ cup cilantro, chopped
1 green bell pepper, seeded and chopped
½ small onion, chopped
3 sprigs thyme, stems removed and discarded
2 scallions, sliced
⅓ cup olive oil
3 garlic cloves
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar or lime juice
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon chicken bouillon
2 pounds flaky white fish, such as tilapia, red snapper, halibut, or arctic char
12-16 hard taco shells
First, make the pikliz:
Step 1: Place the cabbage slaw, bell pepper strips, onion, scallions, and garlic cloves in a medium bowl.
Step 2: In a separate bowl, mix together the salt, lime juice, vinegar and fish sauce. When it’s well combined, pour it over the cabbage mix and toss well.
Step 3: Add the scotch bonnet or habanero pepper and taste the mixture for seasoning. If you prefer more spice, add a whole pepper. Or if you’re really into spice, add two. If you want your pikliz a little saltier, add another teaspoon of fish sauce or salt until you reach the desired seasoning.
Step 4: Set the pikliz aside in a glass jar or a sealed container and refrigerate until ready for use. It can be made ahead of time and stores well for about 2 weeks.
Next, make the epis fish:
Step 1: Add all of the ingredients except for the fish into a blender or food processor and pulse until a smooth, wet-sand texture develops.
Step 2: Slather the fish filets with a few spoonfuls of the epis seasoning, reserving about ¼ cup to use as salsa for the tacos.
Step 3: Marinate the fish for at least 30 minutes and up to 12 hours in the refrigerator. Once it’s done marinating, preheat the broiler to 500 degrees or as high as your home oven temperature will go.
Step 4: Brush the excess epis marinade off the fish and place the filets on a parchment-lined sheet pan. Broil the fish on the top rack for 12-15 minutes (depending on how thin your filets are) or until the flesh is firm and golden. The fish should be cooked through but still tender and moist. Remove the fish and turn off the oven.
Step 5: Using the residual heat of the oven, bake the taco shells to crisp them up, 3-5 minutes. Fill each one with a spoonful of cooked fish and top with pikliz. Use the extra epis as salsa for additional flavor.
Ryan Shepard is an Atlanta-based food and spirits writer. She loves Mexican food, bourbon, and New Orleans.
Louiie Victa is a chef, recipe developer, food photographer, and stylist living in Las Vegas.
Recipe tested by Louiie Victa