The plum X'mas treats!

The plum X'mas treats!

Winter¦ holidays ¦ birth of the Christ child ¦ presents ¦ Yes, Christmas is here again! However, there can be no festivity without the inevitable Christmas fruit cake, can there?

Since the civilisation of man, he has felt the need to celebrate as a community from time to time. And since all of man's activities concern food in one way or the other, all his important events are inextricably linked with food. Therefore, festivals mean special food throughout the world. Honestly, when you think of festivals you celebrated as a child, you might have hazy memories of some rites and rituals. But I'm sure you remember the feasts that followed pretty well.

Who can forget the table groaning with all kinds of delicious concoctions, eating until you're bloated, napping, then eating again?

For me, Christmas used to be all about rose cookies or acchappam. You see, I'm Hindu and my best friend is Christian. When we were in school, for Deepavali, I would give her the sweet that was made at home, i.e., Mysore Rock, sorry, make that Mysore Pak. And on Christmas, she would give me their house Christmas special – chakkulis and rose cookies. Those days, chakkulis were available in the market, but not rose cookies, which were hard to make. My friend's family would make this very hard recipe only for this occasion, so I always looked forward to Christmas.

It is actually the same throughout the world. The food that is prepared to celebrate the birth of Christ is usually elaborate and labour-intensive. The ingredients used may be seasonal or special in some other way; they may be expensive, or part of the local culture. But the one thing common to all is tradition.

In England, nothing says Christmas like the plum pudding which is very hard to make, too. Here, the word 'plum' means raisin. The pudding, therefore, consists of many dried fruits held together by egg and suet, molasses or treacle, and spices. Traditionally, this pudding is made on or after a Sunday four or five weeks before Christmas. The day is called Stir-up Sunday, and everyone in the household is required to give the pudding batter a stir and make a wish. The stirring has to be done from east to west in honour of the Three Kings who visited Jesus after his birth in the manger. Small silver coins such as a silver threepence or a sixpence are also added. Once stirred, the batter is boiled in a pudding cloth or a basin, and steamed. It is then hung out to dry to enhance its flavour. Before eating, the pudding is re-steamed and dressed with brandy or whiskey, which is set alight upon serving. And those who get the silver piece (hopefully without breaking a tooth or choking on it) get to keep it. The British also enjoy mince pies, which are delicate little pies filled with a fruit and beef suet mix.

Most commonly, a good English Christmas dinner may feature a roast turkey, goose or duck. If it is a turkey, then its wishbone is used to make a wish. Two people pull opposite sides of the wishbone. When it breaks, the person holding the larger fragment gets to make a wish.

The British tradition of roast turkey, roast vegetables, and stuffing, with mince pies and Christmas pudding, is carried on in many of the old Commonwealth countries. However, when it comes to the lands down under, Australia and New Zealand, which celebrate Christmas in summer, it is common to barbecue meat and also eat seasonal fruit like cherries and strawberries.

Seasonal and local foods are also a part of local tradition. If you are in South Africa, you may be given mopane, which is a dish of fried Emperor Moth caterpillars which are harvested during the season, and is the traditional Christmas delicacy. Or if you are in Madagascar, do as the Malagasy people do, and feast on chicken and coconut stew.

And speaking of traditional, Greenlanders cherish Inuit dishes on this day, like muktuk, raw whale skin, or kiviak. The method of preparing kiviak is extremely unusual. To make this, first take 500 auks, or seabirds, and stuff them, feathers and all, into a hollowed-out seal's body. Then sew it up and seal it with grease. Now let it ferment for seven months. On the big day, serve the birds straight from the seal's body! Yum or what! It is also a custom in Greenland for the men to serve the women Christmas meal.

Anchor to the past

In the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, i.e., Poland, Ukraine and Lithuania, they have an elaborate meal of 12 meatless dishes on Christmas Eve to signify fasting, which is broken on Christmas Day. As a part of their Slavic culture, they honour their ancestors by setting a place at the table and dishing out food for them.

While lamb or mutton is common throughout the world, in Norway, a whole sheep's head is served salted and dried, smoked and boiled or steamed, for the Christmas feast. In nearby Sweden, they have a Swedish julebord or 'Christmas table', with glazed ham. Janssons frestelse (Jansson's temptation) is a potato gratin dish made with pickled anchovies, sprats or small herrings, which are a Christmas favourite. Meanwhile, in Iceland, they usually have laufabraud or leaf bread, which is a crisp flatbread. All these countries enjoy mulled wine called glogg.

On Christmas, the French usually eat a lot of oysters and foie gras. In Greece, they make a soup called avgolemono, which is a blend of chicken, lemon, eggs and rice, for the first course. If you are in Poland, you can enjoy bigos or hunter's stew, which is a wonderful dish made with various meats, mushrooms and cabbage. Pavo Trufado de Navidad is turkey stuffed with truffles, eaten in Spain for Christmas.

Ceia de Natal from Brazil is a turkey feast with a marinade made from champagne and spices. Meanwhile, the Puerto Rican national dish is the roast suckling pig known as lechon. It is made by slow roasting by turning on an outdoor pit. It is accompanied by eggnog made with coconut milk, condensed milk and rum. Lechon is also a must in Philippines during the festive season. And in Guatemala, an assortment of tamales, or spiced meat wrapped in dry corn husks and steamed, is the special of the day. A similar dish called hallacas, which are stuffed with a mixture of capers, raisins, peppers and various meats and wrapped in maize and plantain leaves, is enjoyed in Venezuela.

Sweets are the hallmarks of feasts, and so it is with Christmas, too. If England has its plum pudding and mince pies, Hungary has its beigli or poppy seed cake, and the Philippines has its bibingka or rice-coconut cheese cake and puto bumbong, which is purple rice with butter, sugar and shredded coconut. The French bake a traditional Christmas cake called La Buche de Noel, that resembles a Yule log. The Dutch and Belgians make a kind of gingerbread called speculaas with carved wooden moulds in images of characters and symbols of Sinter-klaas or Saint Nicholas. Vanillekipferl are vanilla crescents made with ground walnuts and covered with confectioner's sugar, enjoyed throughout Austria and Central Europe, while basler brunsli or chocolate-almond spice cookies are the specialties of Basel in Switzerland.

The Portuguese have a very special dessert called bolo-rei escangalhado or broken-king cake, which is a white, fluffy treat made with nuts, crystallised fruit, cinnamon and chilacayote jam. Greeks make a very traditional sweet bread called Christopsomo or Christ's bread, which they bake on Christmas Eve with the best of ingredients. Australians and New Zealanders usually celebrate with pavlova meringues with summertime fruit. The Danes make an almond-cherry rice pudding as a holiday staple, and traditionally add a small treat such as a tiny toy or a whole almond into the mix. The person who finds the treat in their bowl is rewarded.

Germans make a delicious version of fruitcake called stollen, made with rum, spices, and a sugary coating.
And of course, there is the tradition of gingerbread cookies, which actually originated in Germany, and are used for decorations as well as delicacies. A gingerbread house is called Pfefferkuchenhaus in German, and is decorated with candies, sweets and icing sugar snow. Finally, there is the cracker that is a ubiquitous part of the English Christmas. It is a segmented cardboard tube with candy and a prize in the middle and wrapped in bright paper twisted to look like an oversize sweet. Two people are supposed to pull it from either end. The cracker comes apart with a small bang or snap into two uneven parts, leaving one person with the candy and a prize, usually a small hat, a toy, a joke and a riddle.

Closer home...

The Japanese don't actually celebrate Christmas. But they do have a tradition of dining out… in KFC! You have to take out reservations in advance because the restaurant can be booked weeks in advance. You can even have expensive packages with table service and alcohol. And in the US, American Jews have a habit of eating in Chinese restaurants, mainly because all others are usually closed.
India too has its own Christmas traditional foods. Syrian Christian tradition is duck roast, homemade grape wine, and plum cake. Goans love to eat sorpotel, a thick curry made a few days ahead with pork and liver, and served with pulav or sannas or rice cakes. Meanwhile, Anglo-Indians love homemade ham and stew made with mutton or beef and vegetables. In all feasts, wines made at home from gooseberry, grape, ginger, lemon and even jackfruit are a must.

As for sweets, in addition to our usuals like gulab jamoon, jalebi and kheer, Christmas cake, that is fruitcake or plum cake, is very popular. In Odisha, a sweet called chhena poda is made with cottage cheese which is slightly roasted and soaked in sugar syrup, and garnished with cashew nuts. There is also Allahabadi cake, which is a traditional Indian rum cake, and mathri, a traditional flaky biscuit.
In Goa, Christians make consuada or sweets sent to neighbours. Goans make a rich egg-based multilayered sweet cake called bebinca, deep-fried coconut dumplings called neureos, a jelly-type pudding with jaggery and creamy coconut milk called dodol, a Portuguese cake made out of semolina with coconut milk called baath, guava cheese or jam called perad, soft coconut cookies called bolinha, a sweet made of chana dal called doce de grao, and small curls of dough deep-fried and sugar-glazed called kalkals, a variant of filhoses enroladas, a Portuguese Christmas sweet.

Anglo-Indian families have their own recipes for Christmas cake, which are usually handed down generations. The candied fruit to be used in such cakes - plums, currants, raisins and orange peel - are cut and soaked in rum or brandy a few weeks ahead of actual use.
There is one other Christmas tradition throughout the world when it comes to food – sharing! No one goes to great lengths to prepare their special, time-honoured recipes to eat by themselves. Sharing adds a taste, a spice, a piquancy that transforms a good meal into a great memory.

Christmas is a time to share good cheer, happy times and hope for the future. May your Christmas be full of cheer and sharing! Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you!

What are the countries cooking?

Ireland: Spiced beef

Iceland: Hangikjot  
(smoked leg of lamb)

Finland: Porkkanalaatiko  
(spiced carrot casserole)

Portugal: Lampreia de ovos  
(dessert in the form of lamprey made with almond, caramel and icing sugar)

Malta: Imbuljuta tal-Qastan
(cocoa-chestnut soup)

Canada: Chicken bones candy  
(cinnamon tootsie roll pops)

Argentina: Vitel Tone  
(sliced veal covered with tuna sauce and capers)

Ethiopia: Doro Wat on  Injera (spicy meat stew)

Russia: Zakuski (fishy appetisers to go with vodka)

Mexico: Chiles en nogada
(meat-stuffed, fire-roasted  poblano peppers covered in a creamy walnut sauce and
pomegranate relish)

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