Traditional Christmas Cuisine in Cultures Around the World
Food is a huge part of Christmas tradition. Perhaps for Christmas dinner, you and your family enjoy a feast similar to that of Thanksgiving, with a carved turkey and comfort sides like potatoes and veggie casserole. Maybe you spend all Christmas Eve baking sugar cookies and gingerbread for Santa. These are common holiday traditions in North America, but have you ever wondered how other countries and cultures around the world celebrate December 25th in their own unique ways? The classic Christmas dishes and treats prepared and dined on in other cultures may surprise you! By the end of this article, you may even feel inspired to incorporate another culture’s traditional Christmas cuisine into your family’s typical holiday meal this year. Without further ado, here are a handful of some of the most interesting Christmas traditions involving food around the world.
Italian – Feast of the Seven Fishes
What better way to learn about authentic Italian Christmas traditions than by asking an authentic Italian-American home-chef herself? This past week, we had the pleasure of connecting with Alessandra DeNardo (@skinny_italian on Instagram) who helped us learn more about the foods that make an Italian Christmas so special.
Alessandra’s family – both maternal and paternal great-grandparents – are from all over Italy, from Bari and Naples to Molise and Basilicata. While Alessandra herself has grown up in the United States, the tradition of Italy has been passed down in her family through food. She’s also had the pleasure of visiting the beautiful island of Capri, and has kept culinary aspects of Italian culture alive through her kitchen over the years.
When it comes to Christmas in Italy, it’s all about the fish – seafood lovers, rejoice! Traditionally, Italians enjoy a “Feast of Seven Fishes,” though Alessandra’s family often incorporates more than just seven into their holiday meal, which consists of multiple courses and appetizers. The fish can be cooked in a variety of ways, including shrimp scampi, lobster tail, grilled tilapia, and more.
One of Alessandra’s personal favorite dishes of the Feast of the Seven Fishes is cold fish salad, a recipe likely passed down from her ancestors in Naples. The salad includes shrimp, lobster, calamari, lump crab, scungilli (conch), and octopus, each of which are cooked separately a couple of days in advance. Interestingly enough, the fish are only partially-cooked at first, and are then left to marinate in a mixture of garlic, lemons, parsley, and olive oil. The acidity in the lemons actually finishes the cooking process – neat! And guess what? Garlic and lemons are packed with antioxidants that promote healing and prevent disease, making this a meal that’s as good for your body as it is for your taste buds!
While this may sound like a mouthful already, it’s actually just the first course! The second course involves a pasta with fish sauce, which can be anything from linguini with red sauce di mare (“di mare” meaning “of the sea”) to a hearty lobster ravioli alfredo. The third course for her family is made up of a main course fish, often salmon, that is typically roasted. If you’re looking to prepare a main course fish yourself and are looking to cook the fish in a way that retains the most nutrients, try baking, steaming, or even poaching.
Perhaps most interesting is the “baccala salad” of dried salted codfish passed down from her grandmother that the family enjoys each year. It is certainly an older tradition, though a fascinating one – Alessandra’s grandmother used to rehydrate the codfish in the bathtub!
In addition to these stunning seafood dishes, Alessandra and her family also make fiber-packed escarole leaves stuffed with toasted pine nuts, chopped figs, pecorino Romano cheese and green olives. Anyone else’s mouth watering yet? And of course, no Italian Christmas would be complete without some Panettone bread, a cake-like bread baked with dried fruits and orange peel. Alessandra suggests serving it warm with butter alongside scrambled eggs as her family has done so, though if you prefer a more plant-based approach, we suggest using a plant-based butter or fresh fruit jams for topping. For those in the NYC area, she recommends grabbing a loaf at Eataly, Agata & Valentina, or Grace’s Market, and keeping an eye out in particular for the brand “Tre Marie.”
Food is a huge aspect of Italian Christmas tradition, and we are so excited to take what we’ve learned from Alessandra and try some of these dishes in our own homes this holiday season. If you do so yourself – don’t just tell us about it! Share your experience with Alessandra, too, through her Instagram, and check out her other recipes on her website.
Japanese – Fried Chicken
When you think of Japanese food culture, delicious sushi and thick udon noodles likely come to mind. For Christmas, however, you’ll be surprised to hear that families all over Japan dine on fried chicken for dinner. This unique tradition originated back in 1974, when Kentucky Fried Chicken launched a successful marketing campaign in Japan called “Kurisumasu ni wa kentakkii,” meaning “Kentucky for Christmas” (1). This campaign was such a hit with families all over Japan, from Nagoya to Osaka, that it has become a tradition that stuck ever since.
While KFC is a huge part of Japanese culture during the Christmas season, we at Cook and Culture aim to celebrate food that nourishes our bodies and our planet. To embrace this tradition in the healthiest way possible, we suggest giving this healthy, oven-fried chicken recipe a shot. What makes it so healthy, you might ask? The recipe contains no oil, flour, or buttermilk, and its coating is a delicious, nutritious combination of coconut flakes, almond meal, and natural spices. If that KFC crunch is what you’re craving, check out ifoodreal’s almond-crusted chicken recipe, another baked alternative which offers the satisfying crunch of fried chicken while simultaneously bearing the heart-healthy benefits of almonds.
French – Buche de Noel
The Buche de Noel, also referred to as the “yule log,” is a delicious French Christmas dessert made of sponge cake and chocolate cream. The sponge cake is decorated to look like an actual yule log, often topped with mushrooms made of meringue, powdered sugar to resemble “snow,” and pine tree trimmings for decor.
The trickiest part of making this decadent dessert is rolling the sheet of sponge cake without cracking it. The trick is rolling the sponge cake sheet with a baking towel and cooling it for a half hour in order to give it a natural “curl” once unrolled, frosted, and ready to roll back up into a log.
If you didn’t think it was possible to turn this chocolatey delicacy into something healthy, think again! We’ve got you covered with this show-stopping recipe from The Runner Beans for a healthier version of the traditional yule log cake. The milk chocolate and heavy cream typically used are omitted, and in their place is dark chocolate, as well as Greek yogurt. You can enjoy this Buche de Noel knowing the dark chocolate is aiding in heart function and blood flow, and the Greek yogurt is packing your gut with the most beneficial live cultures for proper digestion.
Polish – Kolaczki Cream Cheese Foldovers
This traditional Polish Christmas cookie holds a special place in my heart and makes a reappearance each year in my family’s Polish-American kitchen. Kolaczki cream cheese foldovers consist of two parts – a dough and a filling. The dough is a mixture of butter, four, and – you guessed it – cream cheese. Once kneaded into a ball then rolled flat, a square stamping tool is used to cut small squares out of the dough. In my own home, this is my mother’s role in the process. I take over the next step, which involves putting a small spoonful of fruit preserves or jams – we love cherry and raspberry preserves – in the center of each dough square. Two opposite corners of the dough are then folded over the center and gently pressed closed. Sprinkled with a light dusting of powdered sugar after baking and cooling, these Polish cookies taste as good as they look.
We were so stoked when we found this recipe for…drum roll please…vegan Kolaczki! This light and flaky treat calls for dairy-free yogurt instead of sour cream and eggs, and is complemented with a delicious apricot jam, though you can substitute this for any other fruit jam of your choice.
English – Figgy Pudding
If you’ve ever belted out “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” in those post-Thanksgiving car rides or listened (not-so-willingly) to the store speakers blaring it as you do your Christmas shopping, we guarantee you’ve heard the line about bringing us “some figgy pudding.” But what is figgy pudding, and where on Earth did it come from?
Technically, the soup-like plum pudding originated back in 14th-century Britain, and it was much more savory than it was sweet (2). Over the years, however, it became a sweeter, fruitier delicacy infused with alcohol, and is now enjoyed all over the world. It is particularly popular in Australia around Christmas time, and can be made with or without alcohol, in a crockpot, boiled in a pudding cloth, or through a myriad of other ways.
Looking to whip up your own figgy pudding this holiday season with a healthy twist? Check out one nutritional therapist’s recipe for paleo, gluten-free figgy pudding that will have you reaching for seconds…or even thirds! It’s even topped with sliced fresh figs, rich in both potassium and magnesium.
Nigerian – Fried Rice
Two huge party favorites in Nigeria, Jollof rice and Nigerian fried rice, almost always makes an appearance at Christmas time. Nigerian fried rice is typically prepared by stir frying seasoned, pre-cooked rice along with mixed veggies and cooked proteins, such as meat, chicken, or prawns (similar to shrimp) – yum!
Jollof rice, another classic Nigerian holiday dish, is a bit different from traditional fried rice. Popular throughout west Africa, this one-pot dish is not stir-fried, but spiced and stewed in a large pot. It is usually made with rice, tomato broth, poblano peppers, onions, and a variety of seasonings and spices. A smokier version can even be whipped up by cooking the mixture over an open fire, making it an even cozier dish to enjoy on those festive December nights.
Check out this recipe for easy Nigerian fried rice that you can make right at home with your choice of grilled or fried chicken. To make as nutritional as possible, we suggest opting for grilled chicken or even a variety of sautéed veggies! The more vegetables, the better, because who doesn’t love adding some color to their rice dish? If you’re feeling a bit more adventurous, try Jollof rice with this classic recipe from Food52.
Guyanese – Pepperpot
Heidi’s Bridge. “Guyanese Pepperpot.” Chatelaine, https://www.chatelaine.com/recipe/dinner/joy-of-cooking-guyanese-pepperpot/.
The South American country of Guyana celebrates Christmas with a unique, hearty stew often referred to as “pepperpot.” If you’re a fan of rich, spice-filled meat dishes, you’re guaranteed to love this. While a variety of meats can be used for pepperpot, those most commonly incorporated into the dish are beef, lamb, pork, goat, or a combination of these.
The main ingredient in pepperpot is a syrupy dark brown sauce called cassareep, derived from the cassava root. According to Brown Girl Magazine, “The dark brown color that the cassareep gives the meat might not be so appealing to the eyes, but the flavor is really quite unique” (3). The flavor is enriched even more so by the addition of cinnamon, cloves, orange peel, brown sugar, and any variety of hot peppers, though wiri wiri peppers are most commonly used. As you might have guessed, these ingredients create the perfect blend of “sugar and spice,” ideal for Christmas morning…or all throughout the day!
This recipe from Brown Girl Magazine for traditional Guyanese pepperpot is great for beginners. One last tip: Fresh, homemade bread pairs really nicely with this dish, and we’ve got a recipe for heavenly rolls that even our gluten-free friends can enjoy.
German – Christmas Goose
While Turkey is a popular fowl of choice for holiday dining in the United States, traditional German families prefer to have Weihnachtsgans – also known as “Christmas goose.” It is pronounced “vai-naxts-gahns.” The tradition itself is rooted in an old English legend that “Queen Elizabeth I was dining on goose when she heard that the British defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588, and ordered that all of England eat goose as well” (4). That tradition then spread across Europe and found a forever home in Germany.
This simple yet crowd-pleasing recipe for German roasted goose is our go-to. A traditional German Christmas meal focuses heavily on the bird, and therefore, only minimal side dishes are present so as not to “outshine” the Weihnachtsgans.
For Christmas dessert (and commonly enjoyed the night before on Christmas Eve), Lebkuchen – a special German cookie – will almost always be present. This soft, gingerbread-like cookie typically includes “a heavy dose of spices (cinnamon, allspice, anise, clove, cardamom, ginger, etc.), with surrounding players like citrus peel, marzipan, nuts, and chocolate” (5). We bet Santa Claus loves those! To get as close to the real thing without booking a flight to Germany this December, follow this authentic recipe for German Lebkuchen right in your own kitchen.
Where in the world will your taste buds take you this holiday season? With these culinary traditions and recipes from around the world, we hope at least one or two of them make it to your table this year. And who knows – perhaps a modified Buche de Noel or a healthy, oven-fried chicken on Christmas Eve will become your family’s newest tradition for years and years to come.
If you’ve enjoyed this post and would like to celebrate the art of good food on a regular basis, sign up for our newsletter at the bottom of this webpage and be the first to know when new blog posts, recipes, and reviews launch. Better yet, connect with us on Instagram @cookandculture and let us know about the holiday traditions in your family. We might even have a tip or two about how to make your favorite holiday meals even healthier.
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