A Taste Of Christ­mas

The fes­tive feast is an in­te­gral part of what makes Christ­mas… well, Christ­mas!

Expatriate Lifestyle - - December Traditional Christmas Treats - Words by Karin Chan Photo by Hil­ton Kuala Lumpur, In­ter­con­ti­nen­tal Kuala Lumpur, Sun­way Re­sort Ho­tel & Spa and Aloft Kuala Lumpur Sen­tral

Roast turkey, Brussels sprouts, Yule log, fes­tive fruitcake… it’s not a proper Christ­mas cel­e­bra­tion with­out a spread of tra­di­tional dishes. Many of our en­dur­ing mem­o­ries re­volve around food and Christ­mas is no ex­cep­tion, which is why ev­ery­one goes on a wild turkey chase and searches for ‘best Christ­mas pud­ding recipes’ start trend­ing on Google from late Novem­ber on­wards.

But who crowned these dishes the kings of the Christ­mas din­ner ta­ble any­way? Why is turkey the bird of the moment when Yule­tide rolls around? Why do we eat mince pies and fruitcake? Let’s look at some of the most pop­u­lar sea­sonal sta­ples and find out why they’re en­trenched in Christ­mas tra­di­tion.

Let’s Talk Turkey

The star of most Christ­mas menus, turkey is said to have been in­tro­duced to the UK in 1526. King Henry VIII was the first to eat turkey on Christ­mas day, but turkey only be­came pop­u­lar for Christ­mas in the 1950s. This is when re­frig­er­a­tors be­came widely avail­able and farm­ers re­alised that tur­keys were more eco­nom­i­cal than cows or chicken, which pro­duce milk and eggs.

Ev­ery star needs its sup­port­ing actors and turkey is usu­ally ac­com­pa­nied by stuff­ing, giblet gravy and cran­berry sauce. Stuff­ing refers to the com­bi­na­tion of bread cubes, vegeta­bles, fruit and nuts put in­side a turkey for flavour. It can be made on the side as well, but it’s more flavour­ful if stuffed in the turkey as it soaks up the fat and other liq­uids as the turkey roasts. Stuff­ing and all the dif­fer­ent sauces bring out the best in the meat, which can veer to be­ing quite dry and bland oth­er­wise.

Some fam­i­lies serve roast beef or prime rib as well, ei­ther as the main dish or as a sec­ond meat dish. Roast beef be­came a pop­u­lar Christ­mas al­ter­na­tive to turkey around the 1570s. From the 20th cen­tury, it be­came a sym­bol of pros­per­ity at Christ­mas­time; the rich ate beef while the poor ate goose.

An­other sta­ple is glazed ham, thought to orig­i­nate from a Norse tra­di­tion of be­seech­ing Freyr’s favour for the New Year. Ev­ery fam­ily has their own se­cret recipe for cook­ing and glaz­ing the ham; tra­di­tion­ally maple honey and mustard is used, but in re­cent years Coca Cola has gained pop­u­lar­ity.

Pop­u­lar sides in­clude sea­son-ap­pro­pri­ate vegeta­bles such as parsnips, pota­toes, pump­kin, car­rots and Brussels sprouts, all of which keep well in the cold. Love them or hate them, Brussels sprouts be­came a Christ­mas es­sen­tial be­cause they ripen dur­ing win­ter and are near im­per­vi­ous to frost. Tip: fry with ba­con for best re­sults.

Once meant to sa­ti­ate hunger dur­ing a time when meat was scarce, York­shire pud­dings prob­a­bly started ap­pear­ing around Christ­mas­time when it be­came trendy to serve roast beef in­stead of turkey for Christ­mas. The savoury pud­ding’s place on the Christ­mas ta­ble is con­tentious; purists be­lieve it should only be served with roast beef (and usu­ally also think roast beef shouldn’t be on the Christ­mas menu) while oth­ers hap­pily serve it along­side turkey to soak up giblet gravy.

Bounty Of The Sea

In other parts of the world, peo­ple cel­e­brate Christ­mas with seafood in­stead of meat. The rea­sons for this are myr­iad but sim­ple: seafood is eas­ier to get for sea­far­ing na­tions, it’s in-sea­son in places like Aus­tralia, and its rep­u­ta­tion as a lux­ury del­i­cacy makes it a cov­eted end-of-year treat in France.

The Feast of the Seven Fishes is also a ma­jor rea­son why seafood is pop­u­lar at Christ­mas­time. It’s said to orig­i­nate from the Catholic tra­di­tion of not eat­ing meat on certain holy days; since Christ­mas Eve was one of those days, Catholics would eat fish in­stead. Ital­ians in south­ern Italy and Si­cily, as well as those liv­ing in Amer­ica, ob­served this tra­di­tion by eat­ing seven dif­fer­ent seafood dishes.

Why seven? An­swers in­clude seven be­ing con­sid­ered ‘God’s num­ber’, the seven Sacra­ments of the Ro­man Catholic Church and even the seven days that Mary and Joseph took to travel to Beth­le­hem. Many house­holds are known to serve up to 13 dishes. Of the dishes, bac­calà (salt cod) is most fa­mous in South­ern Italy; fol­lowed by fried smelt, cala­mari, mar­i­nated eel, cod fish balls and more.

Many types of seafood are best en­joyed fresh, which is why cold seafood plat­ters with raw oys­ters, steamed prawns, mus­sels and lob­sters are a com­mon sight on din­ner ta­bles; as are prawn and crab cock­tails. Cooked favourites in­clude smoked sal­mon, whole fish baked in a salt crust and scal­lops in but­ter sauce as well as var­i­ous types of seafood stew and soups.

Sweet Treats Are Made Of These

What’s Christ­mas with­out the sweet treats? Gin­ger­bread is vir­tu­ally syn­ony­mous with Christ­mas; in the 17th cen­tury, gin­ger­bread bak­ers be­longed to a guild and the com­mon folk could only make gin­ger­bread dur­ing Christ­mas and Easter. Dec­o­rated gin­ger­bread houses were pop­u­larised by bak­ers af­ter Hansel and Gre­tel was pub­lished, in which two lost chil­dren find an edi­ble house made of sweets and gin­ger­bread.

Mince pies are said to have been created af­ter Euro­pean cru­saders re­turned from the Mid­dle East with spices. While meat mince used to be the fo­cal in­gre­di­ent, now fruits, fruit peel and spices take cen­trestage. The star on the top sym­bol­ises the star that led the three Wise Men to Je­sus. A say­ing goes that if you eat a mince pie for ev­ery day of the 12 days of Christ­mas, you’ll have good for­tune!

Mul­ti­ple le­gends sur­round the iconic red-and-white Christ­mas candy canes. One has it that a Ger­man choir leader bought hard candy to pacify chil­dren dur­ing mass – it was shaped like a shep­herd’s crook to jus­tify its ex­is­tence in church. What­ever the rea­son, the pep­per­mint treat is a de­li­cious paci­fier or can be used to in­fuse a bo ttle of vodka with a minty flavour for fes­tive cock­tails.

Did you know that the Christ­mas plum pud­ding be­gan life as por­ridge? In the 14th cen­tury, this ‘fru­menty’ was con­sumed as a fast­ing meal be­fore Christ­mas and con­tained beef, mut­ton, raisin, cur­rants, prunes, wines and spices. It was later thick­ened into a pud­ding and had spir­its added to rep­re­sent Je­sus’ love. Some­times coins are baked into it for peo­ple to find for luck, and it’s said that stir­ring the pud­ding with a wooden spoon from east to west hon­ours the Wise Men.

One candy cane legend has it that a Ger­man choir leader bought hard candy shaped like a shep­herd's crook to pacify chil­dren dur­ing hol­i­day mass”

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