Holiday Culinary Traditions From Around the World
Holiday foods are an edible link to the traditions that bind us. If you’re lucky enough to travel during the season of lights, food is one of the most immediate ways to participate in another culture’s celebrations. If you’re not traveling this year, an international holiday food listicle is the next best thing.
To get a better idea of how the holidays are enjoyed elsewhere, I’ve reached out to some of my farthest-flung friends. The resulting list is as eclectic (and wonderful) as the people who were kind enough to share their traditions with me.
“Sarma and česnica. That’s Christmas in Serbia,” says Alek, who was born in Belgrade and raised between Serbia, Slovenia, and the United States. “Sarma are stuffed cabbage rolls,” he explains, “My mother makes them with a mix of ground meat, like lamb or pork, spicy seasonings, and rice. Then she bakes them with tomato sauce, sauerkraut, and smoked ribs.” Variations of sarma are popular throughout Central and Eastern Europe. Česnica is a round loaf of bread, usually decorated with religious symbols, that is associated with a special Serbian Christmas ritual. Alek explains: “A silver coin is always baked into the česnica. Before the meal, every member of the family breaks off a piece. The person who ends up with the coin will have good luck in the next year.”
Tamales, Buñuelos, and Ponche Navideño (Mexico)
Tamales are a hallmark of the Christmas holiday in Mexico, where they’re served both at home and at markets and food stalls. Made with a corn-based dough called masa, tamales usually have a sweet or savory filling and are wrapped with corn husks or plantain leaves before being steamed. Tamales have been associated with special occasions and holidays in Mexico since pre-Columbian times. In fact, the Mayan hieroglyph for tamales has been identified on pots and other objects dating back thousands of years.
In Oaxaca, where Isaias has worked as a teacher since 2012, tamales are often filled with chicken and mole negro, a complex sauce made from chiles, spices, and chocolate. “Other foods that come to mind are buñuelos and ponche,” he says. ‘Buñuelos are large, round fritters sprinkled with cinnamon sugar and served with piloncillo syrup. In Oaxaca, it’s a Christmas tradition to serve them on an unglazed ceramic dish that you throw over your shoulder for good luck.” And to wash down all those Christmas treats? Ponche (pon-chay) Navideño, a hot, fruity punch served at Christmas time. Ponche is made from water flavored with dark piloncillo, or unrefined cane sugar, and spices like cinnamon. To this base, fresh and dried fruits like tamarind, guava, apples, prunes, and tejocote are added and cooked until the flavors blend together. The addition of alcohol like rum, brandy, or tequila, is optional.
Popular all year and especially during the winter solstice and Chinese New Near, jiaozi are dumplings which consist of a wonton wrapped around ground meat or vegetables and spices. According to legend, they were invented by a retired doctor during the Han Dynasty. Noticing that many village people’s ears had become frostbitten in the freezing winter weather, the doctor mixed stewed mutton with warm, fragrant spices like ginger, garlic, and spices. He then wrapped the medicine in small pieces of dough, shaped them like ears, and served the dumplings to the villagers in the lead up to the new year. In fact, according to the story, the dumplings were originally named “jiao'er,” meaning “tender ears,” and the tradition of eating them on the winter solstice persisted in the doctor’s honor. Tina, who lives in Bejing for work, writes: "Even today people say that your ears will freeze off if you don't eat dumplings on the Winter Solstice! There are a lot of regional traditions for the solstice and Chinese New Year, but jiaozi are definitely the most important. "
Seven fish, Panettone and Lentils (Italy)
Everything seems to revolve around food in Italy, and never more so than during the holidays. “I actually think Christmas Eve is a bigger deal than Christmas Day,” says Cristina in Rome. “It’s traditional to avoid meat in the lead-up to Christmas, so on Christmas Eve many families go all out with a big fish dinner that lasts until late into the night.” Do people take the Feast of the Seven Fishes literally, preparing a dinner with seven types of fish? “I don’t think most people do,” Cristina laughs. “In Rome, fried baccalà (salted rehydrated cod) is very common as a Christmas Eve appetizer. Some kind of pasta with fish is usually served too, and the main dish can be anything from baked salmon to tuna carpaccio to calamari.” For dessert? “Panettone (pan-eh-tone-ay), a yeasted sweet bread made with candied citrus peel and raisins. You really can’t celebrate the holidays in Italy without panettone.”
Another lesser-known Italian holiday tradition is to eat lentils and cotechino, a kind of sausage,on New Year's Eve. Why lentils? “Italians say they’re shaped like coins, so they represent good luck and wealth in the new year.” Cristina says.