If you have just moved to another part of the world (or if you are planning on doing so), you are going to notice many traditions and customs you are not familiar with. In today’s multi-cultural, connected world, the entire planet seems to be celebrating something at this time of the year, be it Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or Three Kings Day. There are a host of other holidays, religious and secular, that most people are gearing up for.
Despite the cultural and religious differences between each of these feast days, and the risk of culture shock in trying to understand them, there is one thing that they all have in common: scrumptious, delicious food!
Let’s dive in to a variety of food traditions that we can all enjoy without any intention of getting thinner! (Even though that IS a New Year’s resolution most of us aspire to…)
1. Ukraine: Kutia
This is a sweet grain pudding, traditionally served as the first dish in the traditional twelve-dish Christmas Eve supper. Traditionally made of wheat berries, poppy seeds, honey, various nuts, dried fruit and raisins, milk or cream is also used. Nowadays, other ingredients like almonds and pieces of orange are added.
2. Hungary: Beigli
This is a real Christmas treat. Essentially a rolled up crust with lots of filling – walnut and poppy seed are traditional, but these days it is also filled with chestnut puree or even Nutella. Beigli can be found in any shop or bakery at this time of year.
3. Latin America: Buñuelos
These are basically fried dough balls, and they are popular as snack throughout Latin America and is a tradition at Christmas, Ramadan, and also among Sephardic Jews at Chanukah. They typically consist of a simple, wheat-based yeast dough – often flavored with anise – fried, and finished off with a sweet topping. Buñuelos may be filled with a variety of sweet or savory fillings.
4. Colombia: Natilla
This is a rich, custard-like dessert is traditionally served with the round, deep-fried buñuelos. Natilla is similar to “dulce de leche” (caramel), but it is thickened with cornstarch and made with panela, a dark molasses-like sugar that is a byproduct of sugarcane processing. Some recipes for Natilla include shredded fresh coconut.
5. Finland: Joulutorttu
Finnish for “Christmas tart”, Joulutorttu is traditionally made from puff pastry in the shape of a star or pinwheel and filled with prune jam and often dusted with icing sugar. They are also made with ricotta and butter. They are the epitome of Christmas food for Finnish families.
6. Israel: Sufganiot
It’s Chanukah at this time of year – the holiday commemorating how lamps in the ancient Holy Temple in Jerusalem burned for eight days on one day’s supply of oil. Hence, deep-fried doughnuts with all sorts of delicious filling are eaten to celebrate the holiday. While sweet jelly is the traditional filling, today they are filled with chocolate, strawberry jam, halva, caramel, vanilla cream, or even cappuccino cream. Some people might consider moving to Israel just for the food…
7. Chile: Pan de Pascua
This is a rich, dense spice cake, flavored with rum and filled with candied fruit, raisins, walnuts and almonds. Originally introduced to Chile by German immigrants, it is traditionally served with the spiced alcoholic coffee concoction called Cola de Mono (“tail of a monkey”), another Chilean holiday tradition, destined to make your Christmas a really jolly one.
8. France: Bûche de Noël
France is the home of gastronomic delights, and from where this delectable Christmas confectionary originates. Bûche de Noël is an elaborate creation consisting of a rolled, filled sponge cake (to resemble a Yule log), frosted with chocolate buttercream (inside and out) and festooned with meringue mushrooms, marzipan holly sprigs, spun sugar cobwebs and any other sort of edible decoration. Traditionally, Bûche de Noël is sprinkled with confectioners’ sugar to resemble snow.
9. Sweden: Saffransbullar and Pepparkakor
Saffron buns and gingersnaps, the traditional Swedish spice cookies. The saffron buns are sweet yeast rolls flavored with golden saffron and dark raisins. The gingersnaps traditionally served on St. Lucia Day (Dec. 13), are customarily cut in the shape of little men and women, pigs or hearts, and are often decorated with frosting.
10. Greece: Kourabiedes
These are a walnut-sugar celebration cookie most popular at Christmas. A shortbread-type biscuit served with a powdered sugar topping, it is usually made with ground almonds and sometimes has brandy, vanilla, “mastika” (a liquor with a sweet smell and flavor similar to anise) or rose water added. At Christmas-time, it is traditional to stick a whole clove in the top to represent the gift of spices that the Three Wise Men brought to Bethlehem.
11. Brazil: Brigadeiros
These chewy, fudgy, addictive chocolate fudge balls are traditionally, a simple mixture of condensed milk, sweetened cocoa powder, and butter, cooked to a fudge state, then formed into little balls and rolled in chocolate sprinkles. Good enough?
12. Germany: Lebkuchen
Also known as honey cake, Lebkuchen is a traditional Christmas cookie that resembles gingerbread. Main ingredients include honey, flour, sugar eggs and spices like cinnamon and ginger. These chewy cookies are the perfect holiday treat for the person who enjoys something sweet and spicy.
13. Australia: Pavlova
This is a light and fluffy meringue-style dessert with a crisp and crunchy outer shell and a soft marshmallow-like center. Named for the Russian ballerina, Anna Pavlova, who toured Australia and New Zealand in 1926, it is frequently served during celebratory and holiday meals. This dessert is usually decorated with fresh fruit and whipped cream.
14. Russia: Pirozhki
Literally a “small pie, Pirozhki are baked, stuffed, golden colored buns made from yeast dough and commonly contain meat (typically beef) or a vegetable filling (mashed potatoes, mushrooms, onions and egg, or cabbage). Pirozhki could also be stuffed with fish (e.g., salmon) or with an oatmeal filling mixed with meat or giblets. Sweet-based fillings could include stewed or fresh fruit (apples, cherries, apricots, chopped lemon, etc.), jam, quark or cottage cheese.
15. Phillipines: Bibingka
This is a rice cake made with rice flour, coconut milk, sugar, eggs and baking powder, and they are typically enjoyed during the Christmas season. The soft, spongy cake’s toppings include butter, sugar, cheese or coconut. The dessert’s texture can either be spongy or sticky. Bibingkas are usually enjoyed right after Midnight Mass where they are sold outside churches.
That concludes our culinary world tour of holiday delight. Here’s hoping you enjoyed the tastes and smells of cooking wafting from numerous foreign kitchens, and wishing you all an enjoyable holiday season, however you choose to celebrate it.