We All Do Christmas Differently—And That’s Something to Celebrate
What does your menu look like this year?
This article is part of our monthly issue "A Culinary Christmas Carol," in which we explore traditional and modern takes on holiday dishes from around the world. Using the framework of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come, we'll share fun recipes, last minute gift ideas, tips for cooking a small feast in case you're social distancing, and plenty of light-hearted holiday content for you to unwind with. Check out this link to find an overview of all our weekly topics, stories, recipes, and more.
Like many people from post-colonial countries, in my case Australia, my background is immigrant—all four of my grandparents were born in different countries. Our Christmas spread—a blend of Eurasian, German, Anglo-ish, and now Swedish celebration foods—has evolved, and keeps evolving, as a patchwork of family dishes and new traditions gleaned from wherever in the world we’ve called home since. But more often than not, it seems that what we’ve cooked, depending on where we were, and who was present, has been an effort to reach across distance—we’re a family split between two hemispheres and three countries so the holidays are often spent apart—this year, inevitably so.
The 24th, 25th, and 26th each have a loose culinary format in my family, with each day a tribute to different roots. For longer than I can remember, Christmas day has always been adventurous—but the variations on a waistband-stretching theme were non-negotiable. As if by tacit agreement, the British turkey found on so many Australian Christmas tables, stopped showing up at ours: One year it was roast ducks stuffed with wild rice and cranberries (contrary to my mother’s meltdown, the ducks she’d accidentally left defrosting in the sink overnight did not give the party of 12 salmonella). In another year, my aunty supplied Nigella’s controversially delicious Coca-Cola glazed ham. There was also the year my mum reconnected with her German roots—I can recall her, on a particularly sweltering Australian Christmas eve (the thermostat in the house clocked 95°F/35°C), wrestling a Stollen dough studded with fruit that’d been steeping in rum for weeks on the counter, the kitchen steaming with a liquor fug.
These days, Christmas Eve is an adopted smorgasbord of Swedish fare—in a nod to where my mum and brother now call home and where I tend to spend Christmas: meatballs made with pork and venison, buttery gravad lax from the market hall, deviled eggs, home-pickled herrings, and beetroot salad—dishes that now feel as homey to me as the others. Maybe this year we’ll finally make a Christmas pudding with whipped, brandy-laced butter and think of Melbourne. We will likely demolish a Pavlova of indecent size. My guess is my sister, back in Australia, will echo us and make Swedish deviled eggs on Christmas Eve, maybe sneaking some to her daughter, whose first Christmas I’ll miss.
By the third day of Christmas cooking, no one’s particularly hungry—and there are usually far too many leftovers—but we keep on cooking to stay occupied, and, I’d say, fortified, in the face of missing people. So over the years, what we call ‘Boxing Day’ is a nostalgic homage to Malaysia—a throwback to lively days-long Christmas celebrations spent in Malacca with my Dad’s extended family. I happily look back to heaping our plates on humid evenings from a buffet of my great aunties’ greatest Eurasian hits: fiery curry ‘devil’ (nicknamed for its kick), cottage pie with shiitake, a zingy pork ear, tofu and cucumber salad called sebak. This was followed by rounds and rounds of moreish pineapple tarts and slabs of sugee cake, a brandy-spiked almond cake, while I sat and watched the family dance to Country and Western choreography my coordination could never dream of. I always look forward to the 26th, where I test my attention span, watching my mum in Sweden prepare recipes she learned from my father’s grandmother and think of my extended family celebrating together—the whole settlement lit up like, well, a Christmas tree, and chiming with songs sung in Kristang, a Portuguese-Malay creole.
The best thing about Christmas food is that everyone does it their way—all around the world. In the spirit of celebrating these varied Christmas tables, tracing our heritage and our paths on our plates, here is a tiny snapshot of dishes from here and there—from Japan to Puerto Rico. Maybe some are already on your menu or maybe it’s a time for new traditions to be made.
What will you be cooking this Christmas? What traditions will you be reviving? Who will you be remembering? Where will your dishes transport you? Let us know in the comments.
Deviled eggs (Sweden + Nordic countries)
Kitsch has arguably made more than a comeback in food photography, and in Sweden, the Christmas smorgasbord has never stopped dishing up deviled eggs! There’s something undeniably festive about these all-in-one amuse-bouche, which are instantly elevated by adornments of jewel-like caviar and fronds of dill.
Other Swedish Christmas dishes include Mrs Jansson’s delight (a creamy potato gratin enriched by anchovies), pickled herrings spiced with cinnamon, cloves, and citrus peel; all-occasion Swedish meatballs, and rice pudding.
Fried chicken (Japan)
Though it’s not an official holiday in Japan, according to the BBC, 3.6 million Japanese families dig in every Christmas to a tradition that harks back to a local 70s campaign that marketed KFC as a turkey dinner alternative for foreigners missing home. Whether you want to make the switch entirely, with small businesses in need of our support more than ever, call up your local chicken joint, for a hands-off pre-Christmas feast that gives in more ways than one.
Seafood pasta (Italy)
Traditionally, in Southern Italy, Christmas Eve is celebrated with the poetically named “Feast of the Seven Fishes”—where anything from frittura mista (fried seafood) or pasta alle vongole (pasta with clams) can be expected. Take a cue and present a bowl tumbling with whorls of clam-scattered pasta as a centerpiece on your festive table. Shellfish are one of the most sustainable of the sea’s offerings, so it’s a good choice in a time of excess.
Across Italy, as in most countries, Christmas food varies from region to region and from family to family: You’ll find dishes like airy panettone (great for dipping in espresso on Christmas morning), vitello tonnato (veal in a creamy, anchovy-spiked sauce), pasta al forno (baked pasta), or tortellini served on Christmas day.
Anything in pastry—think beef wellington to mince pies—goes for a British Christmas. With more and more of us looking to cut down on meat or shunning it entirely, here is a graphic, vegetable-laden “Goodwill” pie by British vegetarian chef Anna Jones, which encases Christmas-y roast vegetables in a thyme-packed pastry—no one’s missing out here.
Pavlova (Australia and New Zealand)
This classic is often lurking on the Christmas spread next to a lesser touched steamed Christmas pudding (in my mind, a brilliant vehicle for my unlikely childhood favorite: brandy-whipped butter)—which is understandable when you consider that we celebrate in the middle of summer. If you’re in the Northern hemisphere, try a wintery pavlova like our cinnamony poached pear number.
What else do we eat on a warm Christmas day? Each year, I think Australians are a bit more adventurous with Christmas, eschewing the heavier British-styled fare common during my childhood and turning off the oven to accommodate more summer-appropriate dishes like grilled seafood spreads or anything that can be thrown on barbeque—be it lamb or a charred asparagus salad.
Leche flan (Philippines)
Flan is a national celebration food (our former designer Ivette is petitioning for an emoji) in the Philippines and Christmas is no exception. This glossy, picture-perfect dessert, made with egg yolks, sweetened condensed milk, and evaporated milk is a sort of cousin to crème caramel.
Other celebratory Filipino foods at Christmas time include lechon (a whole roast suckling pig), queso de bola (fried cheese dough balls), puto bumbong, (steamed sticky rice cakes), and a traditional hot chocolate called tsokolate.
Sorrel punch (Jamaica)
This is a rum-based punch made with sorrel-hibiscus blossoms, which come into harvest in November and December ginger, and warming spices. Spiced, fragrant, tangy, and punchy, the drink is often steeped overnight and served ice cold with citrus as a refreshing tipple.
Other dishes served at Jamaican Christmas celebrations include curried goat, Christmas ham with cherry, cloves, and pineapple, and rum-soaked fruit cake.
Coquito (Puerto Rico)
Coquito is a spiced coconut and rum drink from Puerto Rico, made with evaporated milk, sweetened condensed milk, white rum, cinnamon, nutmeg, and vanilla extract. The sweet drink is usually served after dinner—and I can see why.
Other dishes to look forward to at Puerto Rican Christmas include Pernil—slow cooked pork shoulder seasoned in adobo—served along rice with pigeon peas, and pasteles, which are fragrant banana-leaf-wrapped pockets of pork mixed with plantain or taro masa.
As we were talking in our editorial meeting about Christmas traditions around the world, Xueci explained the charming custom of apple-giving at Christmas in China. Christmas eve is translated in Mandarin as Ping’anye (平安夜, the evening of peace), which sounds similar to the word for apple or pingguo (苹)—spurning a tradition of gifting each other ‘peace apples’ at this time of year.
More celebratory dishes for your Christmas table:
Published on December 5, 2023