15 Christmas dishes from around the world

Your festive meal needn’t be the classic British roast this year. Why not try a spicy stew or smoked meat? Explore Christmas culinary celebrations from Puerto Rico to Poland in our roundup of festive dishes from every corner of the globe. 

This article was adapted from National Geographic Traveller (UK).

From mainland Europe to South Asia, the festive season looks and smells very different from Britain’s Christmas dinner. In Denmark and Finland, pickled herring and smoked pork ribs steal the show on Christmas Eve, while in India and Ethiopia, it’s spicy stews served with boozy rice cakes or fermented flatbreads to break the Advent fast. Here are some of the highlights of the world’s festive feasts.

1. Poland: Barszcz

Poland’s meat-free Christmas Eve dinner begins when the first star appears in the night sky. The 12-dish feast (representing the 12 apostles and the 12 months of the year), which traditionally includes carp, pierogi (filled dumplings) and a selection of fruit and poppy seed desserts, kicks off with beetroot soup, barszcz. Raw beets are simmered up in vegetable stock with vinegar and a touch of garlic before the whole thing is strained to leave a brightly coloured broth. Traditionally they’re served with small, mushroom-filled dumplings known as uszka (‘little ears’).

2. Denmark: Julesild

Whether it’s pickled, smoked or fried, herring is on the menu in Denmark 365 days a year. But Christmas calls for a special kind. Served as a starter during julefrokost (Christmas lunches enjoyed throughout December between friends, family and colleagues), julesild herring is pickled and spiced with cinnamon, cloves and sandalwood. It’s best eaten with a wedge of rugbrød (Danish rye bread) and a spoonful of homemade remoulade. Save a little room for the accompanying gravlax and cured meats, too, though.

3. Philippines: Bibingka

Eaten for breakfast after Misa de Gallo (Midnight Mass) on Christmas Eve, bibingka is a doughy rice-flour cake incorporating coconut milk, butter and eggs. The most luxurious versions come topped with melted cheese, salted duck egg and a generous sprinkling of grated coconut. It’s traditionally cooked over hot coals, in a clay pot lined with banana leaves, but you can easily cook this salty-sweet cake in a domestic oven using a cake tin.

4. Goa: Sorpotel

India’s western state of Goa was a colony of Portugal for four centuries, meaning Christmas here is very much influenced by Portuguese traditions. In addition to carol-singing and life-size nativity scenes, an important part of Goa’s Christmas Eve celebrations is sorpotel, a spicy stew. The dish consists of pork (traditionally including the liver and heart) slow-cooked in cinnamon, cumin and kashmiri chillies. Sana, coconut liqueur-infused rice cakes, are the perfect accompaniment.

5. Finland: Lanttulaatikko

Finland enjoys its largest festive meal on Christmas Eve, where roast ham, smoked fish and pickled beetroot salad take centre stage. Just as important are the vegetable casseroles that accompany the meat, such as lanttulaatikko, a spiced swede bake. The swede is first boiled and mashed, then combined with double cream, breadcrumbs, nutmeg and treacle before baking. For a golden, crisp finish, save some buttered breadcrumbs to sprinkle on top before cooking.

6. Mexico: Ponche Navideño

If you’re abstaining this Christmas, Mexico’s ponche navideño, or Christmas punch, offers an alcohol-free alternative to mulled wine. This festive drink, made by simmering fruits such as guava and apples with raw sugar cane, cinnamon and hibiscus, is traditionally served in the run-up to Christmas Eve, during Las Posadas, a week-long celebration that remembers Joseph and Mary’s journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. For a ponche con piquete (‘punch with a sting’), add a splash of tequila or brandy.

7. Sicily: Buccellato

Sicilians know a thing or two about desserts (we have them to thank for cannoli, cassata and gelato al pistacchio, to name a few). While much of Italy rounds off its Christmas Day lunch with chocolate or raisin-filled panettone, Sicily is busy preparing buccellato, a circular cake laced with dried figs, almonds and pine nuts. It owes much of its distinctive flavour to marsala, a potent fortified wine (that takes its name from the Sicilian city of Marsala), added to the pastry dough before oven-baking.

8. Spain: Sopa de galets

In Spain’s Catalonia region, Christmas lunch begins with sopa de galets, a meaty soup bobbing with pasta shells. The dish is a labour of love: the broth, made from a mixture of beef and ham bones, chicken breast, pig’s trotters and vegetables, has to simmer on a low heat for several hours. Then, freshly minced beef and pork are rolled into bite-sized balls and dropped into the broth alongside the all-important galets, Catalonia’s beloved giant pasta shells.

9. Puerto Rico: Pasteles

Puerto Rico celebrates Christmas with a variety of meat-filled dishes, from pernil (slow-roasted pork) to arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas). What follows is often a plate of pasteles — plantain parcels stuffed with ground pork shoulder. Wrapped in plantain leaves before cooking, they look similar to Mexico’s tamales, but Puerto Rican pasteles are boiled rather than steamed. The best are seasoned with home-made adobo, a mix of garlic, oregano, black pepper and turmeric.

10. Norway: Pinnekjøtt

On the west coast of Norway on 24 December, the streets fill with the meaty smokiness of wood-fired lamb ribs. Pinnekjøtt is first dried, cured or smoked, and then cooked slowly over birch wood until the meat is juicy and tender. The most traditional accompaniments are swede and carrot mash, and a sweet lingonberry jam. A shot of akevitt, a Scandanavian spirit spiced with fennel, caraway and star anise, is usually encouraged, too.

11. Venezuela: Pan de jamón

Venezuela’s pan de jamón — a sweet-savoury bread born in a bakery in 1905 Caracas — is traditionally served on Christmas Eve, although it’s often available in bakeries throughout December. Like a savoury swiss roll, the long loaf, which can also be made with filo pastry, is filled with roasted ham, raisins and green olives, and often accompanies dishes such as hallacas (boiled corn dough stuffed with meat) and dulce de lechoza (a sweet papaya dessert). For an extra treat (it is Christmas, after all), add cheese.

12. South Africa: Malva pudding

Malva pudding, a sponge cake containing apricot jam, is one of South Africa’s most decadent desserts. It’s reserved for special occasions throughout the year, but Christmas sees variations incorporating brandy or Amarula, a South African cream liqueur made from marula fruit. While the cake is still hot, it’s drizzled generously with a sweetened butter-cream sauce, giving the golden sponge dessert a gooey, caramelised consistency similar to sticky toffee pudding.

13. Ethiopia: Rooster doro wat

Orthodox Ethiopians celebrate Christmas, or Ganna, on 7 January. Their 43-day fast, which begins on 25 November, is broken with Ethiopia’s national dish, rooster doro wat, a fiery chicken stew with hard-boiled eggs. The key to a great wat is the berbere, an Ethiopian spice mix made from fenugreek, cardamom and coriander (among other spices), as well as plenty of clarified butter. Forget cutlery for this one — rooster doro wat is best mopped up with injera, Ethiopia’s beloved fermented flatbread.

14. Germany: Feuerzangenbowle

Translating to ‘fire tong punch’, feuerzangenbowle is no ordinary mulled wine. The drink, which is served in German Christmas markets throughout December, starts as a normal glühwein (warm red wine infused with orange peel, cinnamon and cardamom). But then something magical happens: a rum-soaked sugar cone known as zuckerhut is set on fire over the wine, filling the spiced red liquid with drops of caramelised, boozy sugar.

15. Brazil: Farofa

Brazil’s festive dinner begins late on Christmas Eve, often continuing into the early hours of Christmas morning. The meal can include bacalhau (salted cod), roast turkey or chicken and light side dishes such as garlic kale and potato salad. But a recipe that almost always makes an appearance is farofa, a breadcrumb-like mix of toasted cassava flour oozing with butter and garlic. Finishing touches can vary, but smoked bacon, raisins and walnuts are winners.

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