In the U.K we have our mince pies, turkey roasts and Christmas crackers. The French have bûche de Noël. In Italy, there’s panettone and the Feast of the Seven Fishes. But you may not be as aware of these other foody festive traditions from around the world. Like, for instance, the Smalahove, or sheep’s head that is traditionally eaten in Northern Norway. After that, I’ll never complain about turkey leftovers again.
The Japanese eat lots of KFC on Christmas, and order their buckets in advance, in a tradition that dates to a successful ad campaign in 1974 convincing them that Westerners celebrated Christmas with a chicken dinner — the slogan was “Kurisumasu ni wa kentakkii!” (Kentucky for Christmas!). Also, even though they’re aren’t Christian, Christmas happens to fall two days after the birthday of the present emperor, December 23, which is a national holiday.
Romeritos is a leafy, wild Mexican shrub that sort of looks like rosemary (from which it gets its name, “little rosemary”). It gets used in a mole dish that’s traditional at Christmas and Lent in Central Mexico and sometimes features dried shrimp cakes as well.
On December 23, El Festival de los Rabanos (the Festival of the Radishes) happens in the plaza of Oaxaca city, in which delicately carved radish figures of dancers, conquistadors, historical figures, and even whole miniature buildings made with radishes adorn the square. The festival dates back hundreds of years, and the town now awards a cash prize to the sculptor of the best radish vignette.
A tradition of hiding a glass pickle ornament in a Christmas tree has been pinned to Germany, but it derives from a wounded Bavarian-born, pickle-loving soldier in the American Civil War. There’s a parallel legend in Spain involving two boys and a pickle barrel, and there’s an annual Christmas pickle celebration in Berrien Springs, Michigan, which bills itself as the Christmas Pickle Capital of the World, and now people all over the world follow this “German” tradition of hiding a pickle and challenging children to find it.
December 28 is Día de los Santos Inocentes, the “Day of the Holy Innocents,” in Spain, which is kind of like our April Fool’s Day. Bakers will put salt in their cakes in place of sugar to fool children, and in the tiny town of Setiles, there’s a traditional children’s feast featuring suckling pig, chorizo, and roast lamb.
Carbone dolce, a rock candy that looks remarkably like coal, is now an Italian Christmas season tradition. It’s left behind in place of toys — not by Santa, but by La Befana, an old witch who, as the legend goes, was asked directions by the three wise men and regretted not joining them on their journey. She supposedly went running to find them, carrying toy gifts for the Christ child, but never found the stable, so now she flies around Italy every January 6 (Epiphany) on her broom, leaving toys for good children and coal candy for the bad ones.
Janssons Frestelse is a traditional part of the Swedish Christmas smörgåsbord, and it’s basically a potato gratin flavored with pickled sprats or anchovies. [Editors’ note: We just had some last week, and it’s kind of delicious.] It’s supposed to be “creamy with a tiny hint of the ocean,” and the anchovies appear to be a translation error in English recipes — the Swedish word ansjovis actually refers to sprats, and there’s a separate word for anchovies. The recipe dates to the forties at least, and it’s said to have been named for Pelle Janzon, a food-loving Swedish opera singer of the early twentieth century.
In Mexico, Brazil, and other parts of South America, the European tradition of salt cod dishes at Christmas became traditional in the last few centuries. In Brazil, this takes the shape of oven-roasted bacalao with potatoes, peppers, and garlic.
In Poland, the Czech Republic, and elsewhere, a traditional Christmas meal often centres on a soup course — either fish or pea soup — followed by fried carp and potato salad.
This is a purple-colored Filipino Christmas dessert made of sweet rice cooked in hollow bamboo tubes placed on a special steamer. The cakes are then spread with margarine and sprinkled with sugar and grated coconut.
It’s summertime at Christmas in Australia, and it’s common for people to be grilling turkeys or seafood outdoors and drinking “White Wine in the Sun,” as a popular, contemporary Australian Christmas song goes. Also, a tradition that’s thoroughly Australian is the Christmas damper, a soda bread in the shape of a wreath that was made by colonial Australians traveling in the bush.
Smalahove (also called smalehovud or skjelte) is a Western Norwegian traditional dish made from a sheep’s head, originally eaten before Christmas. The skin and fleece of the head is torched, the brain removed, and the head is salted, sometimes smoked, and dried. The head is boiled or steamed for about three hours, and is served with mashed rutabaga and potatoes. In some preparations, the brain is cooked inside the skull and then eaten with a spoon or fried. Originally, smalahove was typically eaten by the poor, but today it is considered a delicacy.
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