As with cuisine in general, Christmas meals look different around the world and reflect the customs and culture of a country’s people. Thanks to the literary world (looking at you, Dickens) and television, American and Eurocentric images of traditional Christmas practices and food continue to dominate the landscape. Whether influenced by religious beliefs or long-held cooking traditions, there is no such thing as a typical Christmas meal. Grab your culinary passport and get ready to continent-hop and add these unique dishes to your Yuletide menu.
Africa - Braai and Malva Pudding (South Africa)
The idea of a traditional Christmas stirs up images of a snowy winter and time spent by cosy fires, but in South Africa, that cosy fire may likely be from a grill. Weather permitting, Christmastime barbecues known as braais are commonplace. Lamb chops marinated in oil, rosemary, thyme, and garlic are favoured as the main dish. Simultaneously, a grilled sandwich of sliced tomatoes, onions, cheddar cheese, and sweet chutney called braaibroodjie is eaten as a side dish.
As is similar in many countries, South African culinary culture demands that savory meals be capped off with dessert; there may be no more beloved dessert than malva pudding. Owing to South Africa’s colonisation by the Dutch, the pudding is made in the European tradition which renders it more cake-like and jammy with the inclusion of apricot preserves.
Photo by: Charmaine Zoe's Marvelous Melange
Antarctica - Tinned Food
Celebrating Christmas on the icy plains of desolate Antarctica may sound like a dystopian movie plot, but since necessity is the mother of invention, those who find themselves dwelling on the continent must employ a bit of gastronomic creativity when it comes to the holiday meals they prepare. Unsurprisingly, there are no native residents in Antarctica as everyone who is there is employed on some sort of scientific mission or on a leisurely vacation cruise. Because of the continent’s geographic isolation, there are no imported goods like groceries, so frozen or tinned food serves as an alternative to the customary Christmas meal.
Photo by: Calle Macarone
Asia - Fried Chicken (Japan)
When it comes to traditional Christmas food, the Japanese practice a philosophy of thinking inside the box - or, more accurately, the bucket. The country’s love of American-style fast-food borders on obsession, with restaurant menus featuring unique twists on classics like pizza and burgers, so it’s no wonder that Kentucky Fried Chicken is the star of many Japanese holiday tables. Nearly 4 million families eat KFC on Christmas Eve, often making it necessary to place meal orders up to two months in advance.
So how did fried chicken - a popular food in the American South - become a celebratory symbol in the Land of the Rising Sun? The short answer is: through a clever marketing ploy. Historically, there was a dearth of Christmas traditions in Japan. In the 1970s, KFC seized the opportunity and began advertising their signature bucket of fried chicken as a tradition that should be adopted. It worked and soon became a trend that continues to this day, though now the buckets are called ‘party barrels’.
Photo by: Erik Mclean
Australia - Ham, Prawns, and Pavlova
Chances are, if you’re invited to a Christmas dinner in Australia, a few slices of glazed ham might end up on your plate. A large, bone-in glazed ham, swathed in maple syrup, honey, or apricot jam, is frequently the centrepiece of the meal; occasionally, pineapple juice is used to add a tinge of sweetness to the savoury meat. Tart apples and homemade cranberry sauce are common side dishes.
Anyone who was a fan of the hit ‘80s movie Crocodile Dundee is familiar with the phrase “throw another shrimp on the barbie” which wasn’t just a snappy catchphrase - it was more like a battle cry. Aussies are big fans of holiday surf and turf, and Christmas dinner menus typically offer land and sea options. Prawns - of the tiger, king, and banana varieties - are classically prepared and served with tangy lemon wedges and cocktail sauce.
When it comes to taking pride in their sweets, neighbouring Kiwis have long claimed the pavlova as their own, proud Aussies proclaim the pillowy confection to be their national dessert. The egg dessert forms a crisp meringue and, though it’s airy, a crown of fresh berries usually adorns its sturdy peak.
Photo by: Toa Heftiba
Europe - Roasted Goose (Germany)
If there’s one food that features prominently in German cuisine, it’s meat. Bratwurst, frankfurters, and schnitzel are likely what comes to mind when thinking of culinary traditions, but the Christmas goose takes centre stage on the holiday. Known as the weihnachtsgans, the roasted goose is spiced with aromatics like marjoram and mugwort and served as a sort of oversized farci stuffed with chestnuts, onions, apples, and prunes. It is traditionally accompanied by braised red cabbage, potato dumplings, gravy, and sauerkraut, and followed by stollen, a beloved dessert loaf tapered at the ends to resemble a swaddled baby Jesus.
As if the grandiose feast isn’t enough, Germans like to gild the lily a bit and toast the end of the meal with the tongue-twisting drink known as feuerzangenbowle (‘fire tongs’) - a strong punch comprising hot mulled wine, high-proof rum, and an open flame.
Photo by: iStock
North America - Seafood (USA)
Italian cuisine is embodied by many rich traditions and in the United States many of the country’s most loved dishes hail from Italy. On Christmas Eve, many Italian-American families celebrate the Feast of the Seven Fishes, a meal consisting of seven different types of seafood or one or two seafood varieties prepared in seven ways. It is hard to assemble a typical festive spread due to the vast diversity of regional cuisine (most notably, between northern and southern cookery) - no two fish feasts look alike. Italian delicacies like semolina agnolotti and tuna with cherry tomatoes from Sardinia or grilled Sicilian anchovies atop angel hair pasta may be hyper-regional, but they find themselves served alongside well-known Italian-American baccalà (salt cod) cakes and cioppino.
Photo by: Frak Vessia
South America - Pastel de quinoa (Peru)
Quinoa is to Peru what the potato is to Ireland; it is a cornerstone staple of South American diets whose notoriety as a versatile superfood has only reached North America in recent years. Pastel de quinoa, a comforting casserole rife with bold flavours and contrasting textures, is made from spicy chorizo, cranberries, pecans, and a host of other seasonal ingredients. The dish can be easily converted into a vegetarian meal by omitting the chorizo, as the Andean seed proves it’s worthy to stand alone as the key ingredient.
Photo by: Receitasparatodososdias
No matter how or where you celebrate the holiday, it is the ideal season to engage in fellowship around the dinner table as food has time and again proven to be a unifier and cultural bridge.