Certainly, the entire world has been anxiously anticipating a New Year full of hope and promising new beginnings given the wretched COVID-19 pandemic has a strangle hold on all things in our daily life. It was holiday food however that grasped our attention and provided an escape to the trappings of an unconventional and lonely old year. Good riddance 2020!
Despite calls from medical experts to stay away from traditional holiday gatherings, many families preferred to feast together on diverse foods rooted in their unique heritage. According to reported upward spikes in COVID-19 hospitalizations in early January, it appears the norms of unified traditions during a holiday meal were not sacrificed this year. The ethnic melting pot that is America delighted in symbolic fare that imparts good fortune, health, and joy throughout the coming year. Families came together to share their ancestor’s foods, extend their traditions to the next generation, and celebrate the simple things in life – the joy of being together. Here are a few holiday delicacies from around the world, some featured during week-long spiritual festivals.
The 2021 Lunar New Year for the Chinese starts on February 12, it’s the year of the (Metal) Ox and no one person will be missing from the traditional “re-union” dinner during the Spring Festival that runs for an entire week. Sweet glutinous rice cakes (nian gao), dumplings (jiazi), sweet rice balls (tang yuan), braised shitake mushrooms and longevity noodles (yi mein) will adorn tables in a family-style setting. Each one of these delicious entrees is wholesome and all-natural intended to delight tastebuds but not expand waistlines.
Hanukkah, yet another ethic festival also referred to as the Jewish festival of lights is celebrated for eight days and nights between November and December (December 10 through 18, in 2020), depending on the Gregorian calendar. Oil plays a major role in the food that is prepared during the celebration, given the miracle that occurred during the rededication of the Holy Temple of Jerusalem in the 2nd century, when one night’s supply of oil lasted eight days. Foods fried in oil are the mainstay of the week-long religious holiday, especially latkes (potato pancakes), sufganiyot (Israeli donuts) and a variety of dairy foods. Several symbolic elements, from lighting of candles each night, singing special songs, such as Ma’oz Tzur, and reciting the Hallel prayer, are intertwined in spiritual renewal while nourishing the body with the purity of oil.
Known as a celebration of the “first foods of the harvest”, Kwanzaa is a longstanding holiday of cultural affirmation inspired by sub-Saharan African harvest festivals. The celebration’s week-long pinnacle is called the “Feast of Faith” (a Karamu Ya Imani) and is held on December 31. Entire generations of family enjoy traditional African cuisine. The primary dish of the night is a one-pot stew, filled with a mixture of Ghanaian groundnuts, African stewed black-eyed peas, Cajun jambalaya and Creole gumbo. The table is often laid with a few symbolic foods: the mazoa, fruits and vegetables symbolizing the bounty of the harvest (usually foods emblematic of the African diaspora, such as fried okra, candied yams, squash, sweet potatoes and fried plantains), alongside the muhindi, ears of corn representing each child still remaining at home.
In the Netherlands or Holland, festivals take a backseat to the Christmas holiday period. It’s a special time of year when Dutch children receive gifts on December 5th a day called Pakjesavond (meaning “presents evening”), separating gift-giving from Christmas day. Thus, having two distinct and separate holidays featuring a variety of foods. Sweet delicacies rule the holiday season, especially a traditional kind of oil-fried donut ball with raisins called oliebollen (also the special treat of New Year’s Eve), Christmas stollen (round bread with currents and raisins – a recognized German pastry treat with a Dutch dough twist), almond pastry rings, tons and tons of marzipan and chocolate Christmas rings.
Other typical Christmas treats with spices, dried fruits, sugar, almonds and white flour are; Kruidnoten (ginger nuts), Kerstkransjes or ‘wreath cookies’ (used also to decorate the Christmas tree), Kerststol (a fruited Christmas loaf), Speculaas (spiced biscuits), Appelbeignets (Dutch apple fritters), with a pairing of special libations to wash down the sugar called Advocaat (egg-yolk liqueur) and Bischopswijn (Dutch mulled wine).
As much as food is celebrated during Christmas, the real excitement in the Netherlands is in the special preparation of the food called eating “gourmetten” – a hot plate on which diners place a set of mini pans containing their choice of meat or vegetables. Venison, goose, hare, or turkey with plenty of vegetables and Kerstbrood (Christmas bread) are the preferred entrees. There is no lack of dining entertainment while simultaneously cooking and eating in such traditional Netherland’s fashion. Cheers to Sinterklaas (St. Nick) for coming early on Pakjesavond.
On the other side of the world in Latin America, even though the Christmas food traditions vary by country and are not connected to festivals, there are shared delicacies across country borders. The likes of cazuela de ave, a chunky Chilian chicken stew seasoned primarily with a spice mix including coriander, and paprika powder is mainstay. Tostones, green plantains that are peeled, sliced, fried, flattened and fried again are also found on holiday buffets. The salty, tasty chips are mostly used to dip, scoop, push, shovel, dunk, and generally to enjoy with the delicious flavor of the many entrees served. Not to be forgotten, holiday Tamales are also a traditional Latin American food found in many countries. They are made with both sweets and meats to complement the array of flavors in the appetizers adorning holiday tables prior to the main entrée being revealed.
Lechón, (baby suckling pig) is commonly prepared for many special occasions however it is the featured holiday protein – think turkey on Thanksgiving. Traditionally roasted in a pit in the back yard, it is often cooked in an oven to expedite drooling appetites. Beyond using an oven or digging a pit, the sacred and highly revered method of roasting via “La Caja Azadora” or “Caja China” (Chinese Box – literally a portable oven) is still maintained. The historical method allows for the slow cooking of massive amounts of meat in a manner that keeps it juicy and flavorful. Used primarily in Peru and Chile, Caja China emigrated to Cuba in the 19th century by Chinese laborers. Many in Latin America celebrate the storied approach to holiday meal prep and make it the centerpiece of families coming together.
Not to be outdone by the Dutch, Latin American holiday meals feature plenty of sweets and an array of desserts. Arroz Con Leche, rice puddings are found across all Latin American countries, even though recipes vary greatly between borders given a preference for either, boiled or baked, and the regional varieties of milk and spices available. And, with dough being a primary ingredient of ethnic holiday desserts around the globe, fried dough fritters call Buñuelos are also a traditional Christmas dish sprinkled with cinnamon and drizzled with piloncillo syrup (boiled sugar juice). All these delicious goodies are washed down with refreshing mixed drinks that bring about holiday cheer like Coquito, similar to eggnog with rum.
As much as the authenticity of ingredients, flavors and food preparation traditions are celebrated with crowds of family all over the world, nowhere in world is the prospect of a new year bringing good luck and prosperity literally connected to food than in my native homeland of Greece.
The heralded vasilopita sweet bread-cake features a hidden coin which brings year-long good luck to the receiver. Cut and served in the presence of all family members and friends on New Year’s Day, the dessert is the culmination of a 40-day Christmas fast and the symbolic start to a festive new year. January 1st is the name day celebration of St. Basil (Vasilios – the Great Martyr 329 AD) whom the dessert is named after. On the same day, the Orthodox celebration of the Epiphany or Theophany, the manifestation of Christ through his baptism brings hope and an enthusiastic optimism for a new awakening in a new year.
No matter what our individual beliefs are or our spiritual and religious affiliations, it is certain that food not only nourishes our body’s need for living, it also connects us to our heritage while defining our legacy. What was your favorite holiday dish and what memories did it conjure?
May 2021 bring you all, sustainable health, and exponential prosperity in all your endeavors. “Kali Orexhi” (bon appetite in Greek) for an amazing New Year.