For some, Christmas without roast turkey and all the trimmings would just not be Christmas. But, the turkey doesn’t always rule the roost at Christmas dinners. Across the world, Christmas is celebrated with unique festive dishes that reveal rich local history and quirky twists.
Words: Li-Hsian Choo
In Japan, all they want for Christmas is Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC). So popular is KFC over the festive season that the fast food chain’s Christmas Party Barrels (that can come with cake and champagne!) can be ordered up to two months in advance. It’s a national tradition that dates back to an insanely successful advertising campaign in 1974, which that Westerners celebrated Christmas with a chicken dinner – the slogan was Kurisumasu ni wa Kentakkii! meaning ‘Kentucky for Christmas!’. According to the company, total sales for December 23, 24 and 25 typically equal to half its normal monthly sales.
A former Spanish colony, the Philippines is a predominantly Catholic country that has some of most exciting Christmas celebrations in Asia. Festivities officially begin on December 16 with the first of nine consecutive dawn masses. Street vendors outside churches offer many Filipino favourites such as tsokolate (drinking chocolate) and puto bumbong, a coloured rice dish flavoured with coconut and brown sugar that is steamed and served in a bamboo tube. After Simbang Gabi or the midnight mass on Christmas Eve, the main meal called Nocha Buena is served family style and usually consists of a dozen or more dishes including a cured ham or roasted pig centrepiece, as well as queso de bolo (edam cheese) and oxtail stew.
A type of rice cake called bibingka is traditionally eaten during the Christmas season too. The word bibingka is said to come from the Hokkien (a Chinese dialect) root word bi (米) that means ‘uncooked grain’. The traditional preparation is very time-consuming. A specially made terra cotta container lined with a large banana leaf is placed over preheated coals before the mixture (rice flour, eggs, sugar, clarified butter and coconut milk) is poured in. Another banana leaf is then laced on top and covered with more preheated coal. The end result is a soft and spongy flat cake that is slightly charred on both surfaces and infused with the unique aroma of toasted banana leaves. Toppings such as butter or margarine, sugar, cheese, grated coconut, pinipig (pounded unripe rice grains), pineapple, and salted duck eggs are added. Common types of bibingka are bibingka galapong (from rice flour), bibingkang malagkit (from glutinous rice fl our); cassava bibingka (from cassava flour); and bibingkang Mandaue (from Mandaue City in the Philippines traditionally made with tubâ, an alcoholic beverage made from palm sap).
EID MELAD MAJEED
Contrary to popular belief, Christmas is observed in some Middle Eastern countries too. It is estimated that there are over 10 million Christians living in the Middle East, mostly in Egypt, Lebanon and Syria. Some small Arab Christian communities can also be found in Iraq and Turkey. The Christmas dinner menu varies in each Middle Eastern country, depending on what ingredients are available or native to each region. Some evergreen festive favourites include hummus, baba ghannouj, spinach fatayer, stuffed grape leaves, roast turkey with pomegranate stuffing, couscous, green beans with pine nuts and steamed asparagus with lemon. Dessert, usually consisting of seasonal fruits, is one of the most anticipated courses of a Middle Eastern holiday meal. There are some standard Middle Eastern sweets that are perfect for the holidays like baklava – a rich layered pastry filled with chopped nuts and sweetened with syrup or honey.
During this season, Christians around Indonesia get ready for their annual mudik (Christmas homecoming). After Christmas dinner, many Indonesians enjoy klappertaart, a Dutch influenced dessert that literally means ‘coconut cake’ or ‘coconut tart’. This pudding – made from coconut, fl our, sugar, milk, butter and eggs – is said to have been introduced during the Dutch occupation of Manado in North Sulawesi. There are several different ways to cook klappertaart and some locals say that it is most delicious when eaten cold.
Kouglof is a Christmas favourite in France that can also be spelled gougelhof, kougelhof, gugelhupf, kugelhof, kugelopf or kugelhopf (spelling variations from Germany, Austria, Czech Republic or Romania – do you feel dizzy yet?). The recipes for this are aplenty, varying from one country to another and one family to the next. Kouglof is a slightly sweet brioche common in Alsace (a region in the Eastern part of France) that is usually enjoyed all year long as a dessert or coffee cake. Over the years, this bundt cake has evolved into a typical Christmas treat. It is made from soft yeast dough that is garnished with almonds, raisins and cherry brandy, before being baked in a glazed earthenware mould or bundt pan to give it the shape of a crown or a turban. Legend says that the three kings or biblical Magi were the creators of the kouglof. Another says that Queen Marie-Antoinette made it popular in France after she imported it from her native Austria.
Pork vindaloo is a speciality served with pride in every Christian home in Goa, India at Christmas, New Year’s and Easter. This dish is a confluence of indigenous Goan and Portuguese cuisines. Vindaloo or vindahlo is derived from the Portuguese dish, carne de vinha d’ alhos, a dish of meat, usually pork, cooked with wine and garlic. Vin stands for vinegar, hence the term vindahlo. As potatoes are known as aloo in India, the dish was renamed vindaloo here. Indians adapted the dish to local taste buds by adding spices and using malt vinegar instead of red wine (alcohol is not typically used in food preparation in India). Unlike its Western cousin, authentic Goan vindaloo is neither a fiery hot dish nor a curry. It is meant to be mild and tangy (from the vinegar), and is really a pickled pork dish. It is usually served as a main dish with rice or bread.
Christmas festivities in Sweden begin on December 13 with the celebration of St. Lucia’s Day – when the eldest daughter of the family, dressed in white and wearing a crown of lingonberry branches, would serve her family St. Lucia Day buns (lussekatts) and coffee. The celebration continues for two weeks and culminates on Christmas Eve with a julbord (the traditional Swedish Christmas smörgåsbord), a buffet that includes an assortment of cold and warm dishes. Jansson’s Temptation or Janssons Frestelse is a standard dish in this julbord and is basically a potato gratin flavoured with pickled sprats or anchovies. The taste is meant to be ‘creamy with a tiny hint of the ocean’. The recipe dates back to the forties at least, and is said to have been named after Pelle Janzon, a food-loving Swedish opera singer of the early twentieth century.
December is one of the hottest months of the year in Australia. So, Christmas comfort food consists of favourites like cold cuts and chilled wine. It is common to find people grilling turkey and other meats, as well as seafood on the Barbie (barbecue). Another thoroughly Australian tradition is the Christmas damper, a soda bread in the shape of a wreath that was first made by colonial Australians travelling in the bush. Dinner, usually hosted outdoors, is concluded with pavlova, a popular Aussie dessert consisting of meringue filled with whipped cream and topped with fresh fruits.
Christmas in the UK is not complete without mince pies. These dessert pies evolved from spiced meat pies that were a medieval Christmas tradition. Crusaders returning from the Holy Land during the eleventh century brought home a variety of oriental spices. These spices were cooked together with fruit and mincemeat (usually minced mutton) as a preservation technique. It was important to add three particular spices – cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg – to these ‘Christmas pies’ to represent the three gifts given to the Christ child by the Magi. It was also thought lucky to eat one mince pie on each of the 12 days of Christmas. Chain stores and brands frequently leverage on the popularity of these Christmas staples. One year, Sainsbury’s stocked mince pie ice-cream that was promoted as ‘Christmas on a spoon’. Heston Blumenthal previously created mince pies for Waitrose that came with pine-scented icing sugar in sachets to be dusted on the pies, so they would smell of Christmas trees. Tesco has also introduced mince pie-flavoured crisps. Other English Christmas favourites include roasted parsnips, brandy butter, Christmas pudding and trifle. The Christmas meal in England is usually served in the early afternoon on Christmas Day, a modern tradition that allows for the meal to be finished by the airing of the Queen’s Christmas speech at 3.00pm.
TABLE OF PLENTY
Different flavours evoke the joy of Christmas around the world, bringing the season’s blessings to the table in a wholesome and thoroughly mouth-watering way.
PECULIAR CHRISTMAS FOOD TRADITIONS
When making the Christmas pudding, every member of the family is to stir the mix clockwise while making a wish. A coin is sometimes added, and is said to bring wealth to whoever finds it in their serving.
Thirteen desserts representing Jesus and the 12 disciples are a holiday tradition in Provence, France – with the first four desserts representing monastic orders that rely on charity : Raisins (Dominicans), dried figs (Franciscans), almonds (Carmelites) and hazelnuts (Augustinians).
GERMANY, SPAIN AND MICHIGAN, US
A tradition of hiding a glass pickle ornament in a Christmas tree and challenging children to find it is said to originate from Germany, but actually derives from a wounded Bavarian-born, pickle-loving soldier in the American Civil War. There is a parallel legend in Spain involving two boys and a pickle barrel, and also an annual Christmas pickle celebration in Berrien Springs, Michigan, which bills itself as the Christmas Pickle Capital of the world.
As part of an Italian Christmas season tradition, carbone dolce – a rock candy that looks remarkably like coal – is left behind for bad children by La Befana, an old witch who supposedly was asked directions by the three wise men and regretted not joining them on their journey.
Originally stemming from a pagan tradition, the Lithuanian 12-course Christmas dinner known as Kucios is highly ritualised with many beliefs surrounding the meal, including one that states how ill fortune will befall anyone who leaves the table before the Christmas meal is complete.
On December 23, El Festival de los Rabanos (the Festival of the Radishes) happens in the plaza of Oaxaca city, during which delicately-carved radish figures of dancers, conquistadors, historical figures, and even whole miniature buildings made with radishes adorn the square. The festival dates back hundreds of years, and the town now awards a cash prize to the sculptor of the best radish vignette.
Beginning in early December, Peruvian churches hold Chocolatadas, where organisers use money donated by townspeople to bake panettone pastry and make spiced hot chocolate in huge kettles to serve to the less fortunate.
On December 28, Spain celebrates Día de los Santos Inocentes (the Day of the Holy Innocents), where bakers put salt in their cakes in place of sugar to fool children.
The traditional Christmas dessert in Sweden is risgrynsgrot (rice pudding) that is served with a single almond hidden inside – the receiver of which is entitled to an extra gift.
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