The holidays are here. In many countries, the air is nippy and snow has fallen. Images of snowmen, reindeers, Santa, candy canes and Christmas trees are visible. Yuletide carols play in malls, singing of scenes such as: “chestnuts roasting on an open fire,” and our minds are filled with warm and fuzzy memories of past holidays. But it also brings us back vivid recollections of the food we feasted on. The holiday dishes laid out year after year in family gatherings most strongly remind us of home. Grand English traditions – For the British, the spread of roast turkey with chestnut stuffing, gravy, ham, roast potatoes, vegetables and pudding make up the classic Christmas meal. While roast turkey now takes centre stage in the dining table, this tradition only began in the 16th century, crediting King Henry VIII as the first monarch to eat turkey. In medieval England, it was a wild boar served as a main course. Serfs would enter the banquet hall carrying a platter with a boar’s head, in a celebration with flutists and grand gorging. It was not the King but literary figure Charles Dickens who made the turkey popular as the centrepiece for the holiday table. In A Christmas Carol, Scrooge anonymously sent his long-suffering clerk a prized turkey, popularising eating this fowl for the special holiday dinner. But it is the Christmas pudding or the plum pudding that is most iconic holiday food for the English.
Dating back to the 1500s, it is made with rich ingredients, even with the stipulation to use 13 ingredients in remembrance of Christ and his apostles. This steamed pudding is often made from flour, suet, sugar, dried fruit, spices and milk, allowing it to mature for at least two days to up to eight weeks.
The Christmas pudding even has its own day called Stir-up Sunday, before Advent, where families take turns stirring the pudding for good luck. It is popular with children for the charms or coins inserted into the pudding. Another dessert staple in England, France and other Francophile countries like Vietnam and Canada is the Bûche de Noël. It is a sponge cake rolled and iced with chocolate butter cream frosting to resemble a log used for the fire in the winter solstice festival.
Summer’s hottest feasts – As one carol goes, “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas…” – but most people living outside the Northern hemisphere can only dream of the cosy images of the winter months. While the English spread has been adopted in many countries, it has also adapted to the climate and traditions of these places. Australians, many of British descent, serve a similar traditional spread: they continue to make the Christmas pudding, but using silver coins instead of charms. With the heat of the summer months, the hearty turkey and potatoes are replaced with a more suitable shrimp on the barbie, and typically, Australians may opt for a refreshing fruit pavlova instead of the Bûche de Noël. In the outback, early settlers made damper, an unleavened bread baked over campfire coals. In 19th century Australian bush, many people shaped them as wreath or stars, and served them with butter, jam, honey or golden syrup during the holidays.
Surprisingly, the longest Christmas season in the world can be found in a tropical country – the Philippines. Filipinos begin celebrating Christmas as early as September, ending the festivities on the first Sunday of January. In this dominantly Catholic country, the farmers began a tradition of going to mass for nine days prior to Christmas. At the break of dawn, they feast on warm bibingkas. These are rice cakes made with glutinous rice flour, coconut milk and eggs, and baked on claypots heated by charcoals, sold right outside the church. They are slathered with butter, a sprinkle of sugar and served with grated coconuts. The churchgoers wash it down with salabat, a hot ginger tea. The tea is also said to enhance the voices of the choir singers.
Asia’s cool inventions Other interesting Christmas food traditions can be found across Asia. In Japan, fruitcakes and plum puddings are not popular. Instead, Christmas cakes are made with sponge cake, topped with whipped cream and strawberries. Even the roast turkey has morphed to suit the taste buds and cooking styles of Asians. Singaporeans love their Hainanese chicken rice. The roast turkey is often too bland for their liking. Addressing this problem, one hotel in Singapore introduced Hainanese turkey, employing the same cooking technique and spices for a much larger bird. In some Korean homes, they make a roast turkey but stuff it with kimchi-infused rice instead of the usual chestnut stuffing.
Share the treats – Gift giving reaches an all time high during the holiday season, and many choose to spread good cheer by giving edible presents. The most popular gift is the fruitcake, which has resulted in friendly jokes of the same fruitcake making the rounds of homes, re-gifted over and over. But there are more delicious options beyond the fruitcake, the Hungarians have szaloncukor, a fondant covered with chocolate and wrapped in shiny foil. They often hang these sweets as decorative ornaments on the Christmas tree. Holiday cookies shaped as stars, candy cane or Christmas trees are quite popular, too. It has been tradition to leave a plate of biscuits and milk for Santa Claus’ arrival, and for this, the Dutch bake speculaas and the Filipinos San Nicolas cookies to pay homage to dear Saint Nicholas. Packing your handmade biscuits into festive baskets tied with ribbons make for sweet gifts this season. To cap off all the festivities, don’t miss the cosy traditional holiday beverage, usually flavored with spices and served warm to ward off the winter chill!
Eggnog (recipe below), made mainly of milk, sugar, beaten eggs, is one popular choice, often laced with bourbon, brandy or rum. Another favourite is hot mulled wine or cider, prepared by heating with sugar and varying ingredients like allspice, nutmeg, cinnamon and citrus fruits.
Just as each country’s holiday tradition stems from different takes on similar roots, ultimately, it does not matter what food or drinks you serve. What brings the most holiday cheer will be creating and savouring these dishes with the most special people in your lives.
Egg Nog Recipe: Curl up in your pajamas with this perfect creamy beverage while you open your gifts with your loved ones this holiday season
Recipe (Serves Eight)
6 eggs, 3⁄4 cups sugar, 2 cups milk, 2 cups heavy cream, 1⁄4 cup rum, 1⁄2 cup brandy, 1⁄2 tsp ground nutmeg or fresh grated nutmeg
♦ In a large bowl, beat the egg yolks until thick. Add sugar.
♦ Use a wire whisk to beat milk and 1 cup cream into the mixture. Add rum and brandy, stirring constantly. Chill for at least three hours.
♦ Before serving, beat the egg whites with a wire whisk until stiff. Fold into mixture and add remaining 1 cup of cream.
♦ Sprinkle with nutmeg before serving
Words: Maida Pineda