What is served on Christmas tables around the world
Here comes Christmas, the time of year everyone most looks forward to, along with loads of lights, decorations, gifts and especially food, lots of food, tons of food. Every year millions of mums, aunties and grannies all over the world prepare, stuff, knead, fry, bake and dish out for days, so that meals on 24th and 25th December are not just large, they are perfect in every way.
Scratching beneath the surface, we discover that Christmas is a lot more than just lights, torrone [Italian sweet] and gifts and that, behind the shine of this glossy and slightly type-approved festivity, every country has its own cultural and culinary traditions, whimsical and sometimes unique, but which are all great to discover.
In Europe we are well-versed in Christmas dishes.
Great Britain is the homeland of stuffed roast turkey with all the trimmings, followed by huge helpings of Christmas pudding made of butter, brandy and full of candied fruit, raisins and almonds. Soundtrack: the Queen’s Christmas speech confers a certain solemnity to the proceedings (and the fatal blow to all, guests and hosts, after a very rich meal).
In Italy, especially in the south, Christmas Eve is all about fish, with special dishes such as stewed salted cod and fried eel standing out on super-long tables covered with all sorts of delicacies. Panettone, the Christmas cake traditionally prepared at home in Milan, is now a must in every part of Italy. In the best cases it is served with a hot mascarpone or pistachio cream.
Traditional habits and dishes can be unusual and out of the crowd, such as in Malta, where locals serve hot Imbuljuta tal-Qastan, a delicious pudding made from cocoa, chestnuts, cinnamon and tangerine rind. In Russia platters of raw fish and sturgeon caviar are knocked down with iced vodka (which actually happens all year round).
Portugal ranks in the Top 10 with Bolo Rei, a traditional cake that was started in the 19th century by the Confeteira Nacional, the official patisserie of the Portuguese royal family at the time. This cake is crown-shaped, sweet and soft, stuffed with raisins, almonds, nuts, hazelnuts and covered with glazed fruit and sugar crystals. Sometimes a small prize is hidden inside - the prize brings good luck (and hopefully biting into it is not too painful).
France wins the prize for the most refined Christmas cake - Bûche de Noël peeps out among scallops and lobster, foie gras and oysters. Inspired by the shape of a pine tree trunk (a good omen), Bûche de Noël consists in a fragrant biscuit pastry filled and coated with chocolate ganache. As is tradition in France, the best cooks produce their own version - be it by Pierre Hermé, Jean Paul Hevin or Sadaharu Aoki, every year you are spoilt for choice.
Is Christmas celebrated outside Europe? Of course it is. Not just in Australia, on the beach, in a bathing costume and wearing a Santa hat.
In the United States the prevailing mood is Anglo-Saxon, which means roast meat in the middle and family all around. It may be beef or pork roast (turkey is the star on Thanksgiving Day), served with home-made sauces and sides with squash, beans or sweetcorn. Dessert varies and depends on the origin of the celebrating family. Pretty much everything can be found - pfeffernusse (traditional northern European spiced biscuits), cakes with candied fruit, marzipan, panettone, squash cakes….
The Noche Buena (Christmas Eve) is the best time for families to get together in Peru, around a turkey stuffed with ground beef and peanuts, decorated with pineapple and cherry confit and served with roast potatoes. In Costa Rica they aim for something richer: suckling piglet, or lechòn, is roasted on a skewer for hours, checked regularly and turned while drinking Coquito, the Puerto Rican version of Christmas Eggnog, made with fresh coconut, condensed cow’s milk and a generous measure of rum.
Christian communities celebrate even in the countries where they are a minority. In India, instead of giving gifts, families celebrate this time of year with Christmas curry and sweet ravioli [dumplings] filled with coconut and sesame. Ethiopia has its own way of celebrating, on 6th January. Everybody prepares for Christmas for 40 days, eating only one meal a day, and a vegan one at that. On Christmas night, as a prize for the restraint shown, Doro Wat is served. This is rooster marinated in chilli pepper, garlic, cardamom and ginger and then roasted, cut into 12 parts that represent the 12 Apostles and served with 12 hard boiled eggs, which represent infinity.
Which country has the most absurd Christmas of all? Japan, of course. Historically the Japanese do not celebrate Christmas but in 1974 KFC (the major American fast food chain) sniffed a huge marketing opportunity after observing Japanese emigrants returning home at Christmas, with hampers bought in the new countries they lived in. So they thought of a “Christmas Chicken” campaign, inspired by Western traditions.
The result? 40 years on and Christmas bookings in KFC restaurants must be made weeks in advance, because everybody is queueing up for Christmas Chicken. Now entire families celebrate 25th December munching fried chicken wings and Kurisumasu Keiki (a soft strawberry cake), all washed down with wine and champagne.
Do you want to know how many calories you have just read? Best not think about - Christmas means turning a blind eye. Food means company and there is no time of year quite like this one to be together with your near ones and dear ones. We have an entire year to calibrate what to put in our plate but for now, merry Christmas!