Holiday foods are possibly the best part of the season. Okay, family and friends are important, too…but over the years, we come to look forward to our favorite things to eat. Long after the gifts are opened and the decorations are down, we remember the food.
Research proves that food memories are powerful. It’s not the sugar cookies, but our association with them: Making them with our grandmother, leaving them out for Santa, eating them with hot chocolate after playing in the snow, or just the fragrance while they baked…
Holiday Foods Around the World
All over the globe, holiday foods define the celebration and heritage. Let’s look at a few traditions from other countries, starting with a recent and unusual way to commemorate the season:
Japan: Christmas Fried Chicken. The story goes that back in 1974, when the marketing folks at KFC realized that Japan doesn’t have any strong Christmas traditions–probably because only about 1% of the population is Christian–they saw an opportunity. Boy, did they succeed! “Kurisumasu ni wa kentakkii!” (Kentucky for Christmas!) has become so popular–almost 4 million families eat it–that people order their meals two months in advance. The meals come in a special “holiday” bucket and include a Christmas cake.
Italy: Panettone. Go to any grocery market in December, and there will be stacks and stacks of panettone, a tall sweet bread studded with candied fruit, chocolate, raisins, and nuts. Different varieties by different bakers, every family will go through several during Christmas season. It’s delicious for breakfast, afternoon tea, or to enjoy with Masala wine after dinner. With so many types and flavors available, I don’t know why you’d bake it yourself–the ingredients are expensive–but if you’re so inclined, here is the recipe.
Costa Rica, Mexico, Honduras: Tamales. Latin America loves tamales! Making them for Christmas is an important tradition, but the labor-intense treat is also a way for the females in a family to spend time together. They come together for tamaladas, tamale-making parties. Every family has a special recipe. One of the oldest holiday foods, they’ve been made since pre-Columbian times. As Latinos have migrated, tamales have come along. The corn dough is filled with meat and a spicy sauce, then wrapped in husks or banana leaves to be steamed. If you can’t find them at a local Latin market, gather a group and make your own.
Greece: Melomakarona. Fasting before Christmas is a common practice for Orthodox Greeks. So when Christmas morning arrives, they head straight to the table for these cookies soaked in honey and topped with chopped walnuts. Made from olive oil, flour, and honey–along with fresh orange, cinnamon, and cloves–you may consider adding these to your own cookie tray. Here’s the recipe!
Kourabiedes is another Christmas favorite in the Mediterranean area. A shortbread made with almonds, they’re rolled in powdered sugar while still warm and decorated with a single clove. Also called “Greek Wedding Cakes,” there are variations around the world.
U.S. and Canada: Eggnog. Sometimes holiday foods–and beverages–have roots in another country. In this case, Britain…going more than 1,000 years. Apparently those jolly Medieval Monks created it to stay warm. Also called milk punch, the spiced egg and cream drink was originally spiked with ale or sherry. It made its way to the U.S. in the 18th century. Today, you’ll find the non-alcoholic version in the refrigerator section of your grocery store. But if you’re going to indulge in a cup of 300+ calorie holiday cheer, do everyone a favor and make it yourself. Really.
France: La Bûche de Noël. Notice the resemblance to a Yule log? That’s because this classic is supposed to be just that. Starting in the Iron Age, Celtic Brits gathered at the winter solstice to party and celebrate the return of longer days. They would decorate logs, soak them with wine, and set them on fire. The practice slowed down as fireplaces got smaller, didn’t really stop until the mid-1940s. Leave it to the French to replace the log with an elaborate cake, starting in the 19th century. If you’ve got loads of time on your hands, here’s Julia Child’s recipe. I recommend letting your bakery do it for you.
Peru: Spiced Hot Chocolate. How great is it that churches all over the country take donations to start making hot chocolate in December and handing it out to those in need? It’s often served with Panettone…two holiday foods at once! If you think hot chocolate comes in white envelopes or from a recipe involving Hershey’s powder–topped with a marshmallow–you may want to consider buying a bar of “drinking” chocolate and whipping up the real deal. Trust me, you’ll never go back.
How about all your favorite holiday foods…at the same time?
Finland: Joulupöytä. Can’t decide what to serve? Take a cue from the folks in Finland. Joulupöytä means “Christmas Table,” similar to the Swedes’ smörgåsbord. Fish, ham, root vegetable casseroles, cheeses, and desserts. Pickled herring? Niin, varmasti! (Yeah, sure!) Gingerbread, rice pudding, and pastries. Mulled wine, too!
Wherever you live, and whatever your favorite holiday foods are, enjoy! Best wishes for a happy holiday season!