Having grown up overseas in in the bustling city of Shanghai, China, Christmas was always a foreign concept. It symbolized a mysterious yet exciting festival, complete with vibrant LED lights, whipped-cream snow, and, of course, endless days of feasting. I used to equate this exotic festival with the likes of Chinese New Year, where family gatherings seemed never-ending. Reminiscing about that concept of Christmas made me ponder the various ways individuals around the globe celebrated this holiday. What would Christmas dinners look like for a Portuguese or a Venezuelan? They couldn’t all be stuffing their mouths full of turkey and sipping on eggnog. Perhaps the familiar, Canadian Christmas edibles isn’t all there is to Christmas dinners. As cosmopolitan AU students, let’s feast our eyes on what other countries have to offer at the dinner table; who knows, maybe one day you’ll even get the chance to sample these delights.
Tamales de Navidad (Venezuela)
This integral part of the South American Christmas dinner features “masa” or corn-based dough wrapped in corn husk (as shown) or banana leaf. The dough can be stuffed with vegetarian and meat fillings that add a burst of flavor in the centre of the dough. After steaming the raw tamale, the wrapping is removed before it is eaten. This dish reminds me of my childhood favorite: lotus sticky rice as a dim sum item. Rich and full of flavor.
The Spanish, specifically the Milanese, prepare this sweet bread loaf during Christmastime. I’m personally a fan of the shape of these cakes, which are so aesthetically pleasing. The cupola shape, it’s proper name, is a cylinder packed with sourdough. The dough is light and fluffy without being overly rich or sugary. Rumor has it that the reason it has become a Christmas favorite among the Spanish was due to the affordable price of these pastries following World War II. Immigrants fell in love with the panettone and soon enough, it became a holiday tradition.
Not only do the Portuguese love these Christmas delights, they brought them all the way with them to Brazil (during the colonial era) and they are now enjoyed by locals in both countries. You might imagine these to be a sophisticated meat dish, but it is really a variation of French toast! To take this dish to the next level, the Portuguese add warm wine and honey over the toast, giving the taste of pure comfort.
While you can sample variations of sweet bread around the world for Christmas dinners, none quite beats the Cougnou, a bread baked in the shape of baby Jesus. Besides the Belgian, the French and Dutch have similar versions of their own. The bread is rich brioche-type bread sometimes mixed with raisins. Tradition has it that Cougnou are given to children on Christmas day and typically enjoyed with a mug of hot chocolate.
Vánoční rybí polévka (Slovakia, Czech Republic)
You might not be able to pronounce what you’re eating, but you’re sure to enjoy this traditional homemade Christmas soup. Fish and seafood is usually added to a broth and a cream base. The mixture reminds me of a variation of clam chowder except with Czech carp (or any of your favorite seafood item). Rumor has it that every year on Christmas Eve the same items, consisting of fish soup, fried fish, potato salad and apple strudel, are served.