Around the world in Christmases
From æbleskiver to yema, Australia to Venezuela, we’re summing up the pick of the world’s traditional Christmas foods.
We may hold turkey, stuffing and Christmas puds close to our hearts (and mouths) when dining a traditional Christmas feast in England, but what does the rest of the world feast on at this time of year?
Much like us, Australia’s Christmas foods revolve around a stuffed bird or a glazed ham, mince pies and pudding. But as a compliment to the warm weather, seafood is a popular option (and likely to come off the barbecue).
Belgians regard 6th December as significant, marked at the Feast of St Nicholas and a celebration of his birthday. But the 25th doesn’t go untapped. A stuffed turkey takes centre stage on the table, but may be served with potato krokets rather than roast potatoes. For pudding, the Belgians will serve cougnou, a sweet bread served in the form of the baby Jesus.
In the Czech, the traditional dinner is served on Christmas Eve, and is usually a fish or pea soup, fried carp and a potato salad. Sweets include vánočka, a sweet bread served either as a side dish or a dessert and contains almonds and raisins. It is braided like a challah so carries a reputation for being notoriously difficult to prepare, and with that, comes superstition around the baking process for those who attempt it, such as jumping up and down as the dough rises. And, there are more nods to the baby Jesus in this dish too. If three braids are layered on top of one another it may be interpreted as the baby lying in the manger covered in cloth.
Turkey, duck, goose and pork are the choices for Danes, paired with boiled potatoes, small sugar fried potatoes, pickled red cabbage and brown gravy. A traditional dessert is the rather cosy-sounding risengrød, a rice porridge served hot with a dollop of butter in the middle, and sprinkled with cinnamon — perfect for those cold wintry days.
Finland takes the well-known Swedish smörgåsbord and celebrates with its own, the joulupöytä, or “yule table”. Celebrated on the 24th, the essential foods at the Finnish Christmas table are oven-baked ham, rutabaga casserole and a mixed beetroot salad, around which will be breads, fish, cheese, pasties and sauces. And Finland’s answer to a rich and fruity Christmas pudding is the Christmas loaf (joululimppu), a dark, sticky, sweet and sour spiced number.
Guatemala gives high regard to its dish, tamales, at Christmas. Made with cornflour and stuffed with any number of combinations including chicken or pork with a tomato-based sauce, it may also contain almonds, capers, olives, prunes and raisins. The tamales are wrapped in plantain leaves and then steamed or boiled.
A sweet delicacy enjoyed at Christmas is a buñuelo, or fried dough ball. A yeasted dough spiked with anise, the ball is deep-fried before being then covered in a rather delicious sounding syrup of brown sugar, cinnamon, and guava. Buñuelos are commonly served alongside powdered sugar, a cinnamon and sugar topping, or hot sugar cane syrup (piloncillo).
Fish soup is tradition at the Hungarian Christmas table, but depending on where in Hungary you are from depends on the recipe. There is Bajai fish soup and Szegedi fish soup, named after the towns the recipes originate from. The significant difference between the two is that noodles are added only to the Bajai version, but all soups are generally made with carp. And for pudding, it could be bejgli, a sweet pastry not too far removed from a yule log, filled either with walnuts or poppy seeds, along with raisins, lemon zest, or vanilla sugar.
Traditionally served on Christmas Eve, Icelandic Christmas dinner can see a spread of hangikjöt (smoked lamb), hamborgarhryggur (salted pork rib) and a variety of game such as ptarmigan stew, puffin (sometimes lightly smoked) and roast greylag goose. Béchamel or mushroom sauce, boiled potatoes and peas, pickled beetroot or red cabbage and jam are common accompaniments. Leaf bread, or laufabrauð, is a traditional sweet. A round, flat cake, it is decorated with leaf-like patterns then fried in hot fat.
Those celebrating Christmas in Japan do so on the 24th December, and quite likely, with… a KFC. Following a highly successful ad campaign by the chicken joint in the 70s, KFC thus became a national treasure, with Japanese families ordering their bucket to go up to two months in advance. Luckily though, tradition hasn’t fallen completely down the bucket, with its version of Christmas cake — a white sponge cake covered in cream frosting, and topped with decorative ‘Merry Christmas’-esque emblems.
Lithuanians celebrate on Christmas Eve with a 12-dish supper, representing the 12 Apostles. The supper features no meat, but instead focuses on fish such as carp. The dinner might include dishes such as red borscht (a vegetable sauce), mushroom or fish soup, sauerkraut with wild mushrooms or peas, and dried fruit compote and kutia. One of the most popular dishes are boiled or fried pierogis, or Polish dumplings, containing a wide variety of fillings, usually sauerkraut and mushrooms for Christmas Eve.
Another country where it’s customary to eat the celebratory meal on Christmas Eve, Mexican enjoy bacalao (dried salted codfish), romeritos (a green leafy vegetable resembling rosemary and often served with shrimp cakes), and even turkey, doused in a chili sauce known as mole. Buñuelos, a crispy fried treat sprinkled with syrup and sugar, is typically served with a hot drink.
Typically, pork belly is the choice for Norwegians, with redcurrant sauce, sauerkraut and akevitt, a spirit. But lutefisk (cod cured in lye), pinnekjøtt (dry-cured ribs of lamb), boiled cod, ham roast and turkey are also popular dinners.
There seems to be a widespread tradition of hiding metallic treats in Christmas puddings across the world’s nations. Norway and Denmark enjoy risking a choking hazard by hiding rings in their puddings, and Portugal is no exception. But the Portuguese step it up by also hiding a broad bean alongside their chosen token. The pudding in question is Bolo Rei, which translates to King Cake, is a large round cake with a whole through the centre, including raisins and crystalised fruit.
Saint Ignatius day is celebrated alongside Christmas, aimed at celebrating the pig. This means pork tends to take centre stage, cooked into many incarnations of its former self. Dishes include pork chops, schnitzel, meatballs and sausages. Luckily, dessert departs from pork, with a sweet bread known as cozonac, cookies, cakes and apple bakes.
England should take a leaf out of Spain’s book, and take turkey up a notch by stuffing it with truffle (pavo trufado). Other Spanish Christmassy delicacies include lobster, roast lamb, suckling pig and cod. And in true tapas style, all is accompanied by serrano ham, seafood, cheese and pates. The supposedly essential sweet in Spain at Christmas is turron, a nougat that comes in a variety of consistencies, ranging from soft to hard.
America’s Christmas fare has been mostly adopted from the UK’s customary. But ham, goose or roast beef may be chosen as the main meal since turkey is generally cooked for Thanksgiving one month earlier. But some of America’s history can influence its menu choices, such as the upper midwest’s Scandinavian influences which see the consumption of lutefisk (fish) or mashed rutabaga (white turnip).
Hallacas are the main part of the Venezuelan Christmas dinner. They are served with pernil de cochino (ham), ensalada de gallina (chicken salad), pan de jamón (ham bread), and dulce de lechoza (pavlova). Hallacas are a very in-depth dish to prepare, sometimes taking up to two days and often made in big batches to last the holiday season through. They are usually a mixture of pork, chicken, been, raisins, olives and capers, folded into a cornmeal dough, wrapped in plantain leaves, tied with string and boiled or steamed.