Although the ubiquitous roast turkey is most synonymous with Christmas, in reality, there is a multitude of festive food traditions around the world. Here, six foreign chefs with restaurants in Kuala Lumpur reveal what they typically eat for Christmas.
Chef: Giuseppe Lioce of Nero Nero
Food: Ravioli di castagne & castagnelle
As a child growing up in his beloved south Italian hometown of Bari, chef Giuseppe Lioce knew Christmas was just around the corner when the delicious aroma of Italian cookies wafted out of the kitchen in mid-December, when the women in the household would gather to make sweet treats like ravioli di castagne and castagnelle. The former is dough stuffed with ricotta and chestnuts and then deep-fried. The resulting concoction is akin to a sweet version of curry puff, with a filling that is creamy and rich. The latter is a hardier affair that makes for a great snack.
“Everyone gets together to make the biscuits, because the families make a lot to share. So on the day they make it, everyone is joking and laughing, so it’s not really work – in that moment, it’s about spending time with family,” says Lioce.
In Italy, Christmas typically starts on Dec 24 and in Lioce’s hometown, they usually eat seafood like baccala (deep-fried salted fish) and pasta with eels. On Christmas day, the focus shifts to meat, so cold cuts, sausages, grilled beef and lasagna all make an appearance.
Boxing Day, meanwhile, is typified by the consumption of leftovers and meals like minestra, which is essentially pasta and meat cooked in a broth, because according to Lioce, “we need to clean our system out”.
But despite the table heaving with savoury items, Lioce says for him Christmas still boils down to Italian cookies, not only because of the memories they evoke but also because they have a storied history.
“The tradition of this biscuit is old – my grandmother said when she was young and people didn’t have much money, they would put this on the Christmas tree and wait to eat it on the 25th, because it was sugary. So for the older generation, when they make this, I can see in their eyes it is something special,” says Lioce.
RAVIOLI DI CASTAGNE
Makes 60 pieces
480g plain flour
2 eggs, beatenpinch of salt40ml extra virgin olive oil
50ml warm milk
50g soft butter
20g caster sugar
vegetable oil, for shallow frying
250g sweet chestnuts
4 tbsp cocoa powder1 lemon, zested
100g ricotta cheese, strained
Prepare the pastry as you would make fresh pasta. Create a well in the middle of the flour and add the beaten egg, pinch of salt, oil, milk, butter and sugar. Slowly bring the flour to the centre with your finger tips and mix until combined. If the mixture is too dry, add more milk and knead until smooth. Allow the pastry to rest for a while. Store in the fridge, 10-15 minutes.
Put chestnuts in food processor with cocoa and lemon zest and blend till smooth. Mix in the ricotta.
Roll the chilled dough into a strip about 10cm wide and 2mm thick. Place heaped teaspoons of chestnut puree at intervals along the long side of the pastry. Fold the other half over and cut half-moon shapes around the puree using a rotary cutter. Press the edge firmly together and crimp with a fork.
In a deep pan, shallow fry ravioli in vegetable oil until light golden brown. Place on kitchen towels to soak up excess oil and coat with caster sugar.
Chef: David Caral of Mercat Barcelona
Food: Sopa de galets & canelones de navidad
Although Spain has a rich history of Christmas food traditions, different regions have different specialties. In Catalonia, where chef David Caral originates, two Christmas dishes often take pride of place – the hedonistically creamy canelones de navidad and sopa de galets, a nourishing soup with a rich depth of flavours.
“Everyone in Catalonia is familiar with this. We only make it for Christmas, so when you see sopa de galets and canelones, you know it’s Christmas, because the rest of the year, nobody makes it,” says Caral, who will be making both dishes on Dec 25 and 26 this year at his restaurant.
To make his heritage Christmas meals, Caral uses heirloom recipes that hold a lot of meaning for him.
“All these traditional dishes are passed down over generations (his come from his mother). We had to be in the kitchen to learn them, with our eyes, our hands, our taste and memory. This is what makes tradition separate from cookbooks. It’s the feeling, culture and experiences that bring together a dish,” he says.
Caral says both the dishes are incredibly easy to make, especially the sopa de galets. The only major investment required is time. “The soup needs eight to nine hours of slow-cooking. So people should make it on the 23rd because if you cook the soup one day before, it tastes better,” he says.
SOPA DE GALETS
5 litres water
1/2 a bunch of celery
250g beef bones
250g pork back bones
1 ham bone
2 chicken breasts
1 pig trotter
150g lean ground pork
100g ground beef
1 garlic clove
pinch of cinnamon powder
1 cup breadcrumbs
1/2 head of cabbage
100g cooked chickpeas
100g white butifarra (Catalan sausage)
100g black butifarra
400g galets (shell-shaped pasta)
In a large pot, bring water to a boil. Add carrots, celery, radish, beef, pork and ham bones, chicken breast and trotter. Slow-cook on low heat for 8 hours.
For the meatballs, combine egg, ground pork and beef, garlic, parsley and cinnamon and shape into eight balls. Roll in breadcrumbs and add to the broth when it has been simmering for slightly over 7 hours. Add cabbage and potatoes too.
In the last 10 minutes, add chickpeas and butifarra. At the end of 8 hours, strain the soup. Put the stock back on the stove and add the galets. Cook until galets are done, about 14 minutes. Serve hot.
Chef: Johnson Ebenezer of Nadodi
Food: Chicken isthu
Although the majority of Indians in India practise Hinduism, Christianity is the third largest religion in the country, with nearly 30 million followers, according to a 2011 census.
And Christmas food traditions in the country continue to go from strength to strength, says Nadodi head chef Johnson Ebenezer.
“I come from a place called St Thomas Mount in Chennai which is full of Christians and Catholics. So there is a tradition of Christmas carols, recreating the nativity scene and putting stars in every home,” he says.
In terms of Christmas food, Johnson says meals are redolent of Indian flavours, with dishes like briyani, paya (lamb trotters’ curry) and snacks like muruku and kul-kul taking centre stage. Most families also make their own plum cakes, albeit with a twist.
“There are not many ovens in Indian homes, so most people take their cake mix to the local bakery and they will reserve an oven to bake it for you – it’s a tradition,” says Johnson.
But for Johnson, the thing that reminds him most of Christmas is also the first thing he eats on Christmas morning: chicken isthu, or chicken cooked in spices and coconut milk.
“We normally go for midnight mass on Dec 24 and end up going to bed around 3am. In the morning, my mother would have made chicken isthu with idlis or idiappam. Isthu is like a stew to dip your idli or idiappam in and it’s coconutey.
“You can smell the fennel seeds and ginger and coconut milk as soon as you wake up and you know it’s Christmas, because that’s the only time you get isthu,” says Johnson, who is doing a tribute to his childhood Christmas at Nadodi with a menu that will include lobster isthu.
1 tsp coconut oil
1 stick cinnamon
2 cardamom pods
1/4 tsp fennel seeds (sombu)
2 medium sized onions, sliced
5cm piece ginger, sliced
3 sprigs curry leaves
2 medium sized potatoes, diced (optional)
1 cup fresh peas (optional)
500g lobster meat (or chicken on the bone
4 green chillies, slit
1 tsp salt
1/2 cup water
1 cup thin coconut milk
1/2 cup thick coconut milk
Heat oil in a pressure cooker and add cinnamon, cloves, cardamom and fennel seeds. Saute for a few seconds until the spices are aromatic. Add onion, ginger, curry leaves, potatoes and peas.
Add lobster, green chillies and salt. Add water to the cooker. Cook for 3 whistles. It will take 7-10 minutes. Turn off the heat and let the pressure from the cooker release naturally.
Open the cooker and add thin coconut milk (second milk). Simmer, 3-4 minutes, then add thick coconut milk, cook for 1 minute and turn off the heat. Serve hot with idiappam, appam or idlis.
Country: United States
Chef: Jeff Ramsey of Babe
Food: Beef tenderloin roast
Half-American, half-Japanese chef Jeff Ramsey grew up in Washington DC and has fond memories of Christmas meals that were pretty much replications of everything the family ate at Thanksgiving.
“We did a big Thanksgiving dinner, and American Christmas food is generally the same as Thanksgiving dinner. So it was turkey, candied beets, gravy, mashed potatoes, stuffing, meatloaf, all kinds of beans and corn on the cob,” he says.
Despite the overwhelming popularity of roast turkey in the US, Ramsey himself is a little averse to making the bird because of a particularly embarrassing episode early on in his career. “I had been cooking professionally for a few years and I was so excited and went home and said, ‘I’m going to take charge of Thanksgiving this year’. And I undercooked the turkey – it was raw in the middle and my sister made so much fun of me and my mum was really upset. So I think subconsciously, I am afraid to cook a turkey,” he says.
So these days, Ramsey is trying to establish new Christmas traditions with fuss-free meals like beef tenderloin roast, which requires minimal skill.
“As a chef, sometimes you want to use a more exotic bird like guinea fowl or quail, but I have kids, they like typical food, so this would be something that everyone could eat. And who wants to spend all day in the kitchen? This is something you can start preparing the day before – just season it and pop it in the oven and it’s mostly done,” he says.
BEEF TENDERLOIN ROAST
1kg to 1.5kg centre cut beef tenderloin
salt and pepper to taste
100g butter, cubed
70g fried breadcrumbs
1 tsp pink peppercorn
30g chopped roasted pistachio
a sprig rosemary
a sprig thyme
To make breadcrumb raft
Place all the ingredients in a bowl and let sit for 10 minutes.
Wearing gloves, mix ingredients together to incorporate. Make sure there are no lumps of butter left.
Spread out the mix on a piece of parchment paper and using a spatula, make a rectangle shape the same width and length of the tenderloin, evenly flat across. Chill.
To cook tenderloin
Pre-heat oven to 105°C.
Generously smother tenderloin with salt and pepper. Set on a rack with a shallow pan underneath in the chiller overnight.
Cook tenderloin, 2-3 hours (check every 30 minutes) or until internal temperature is 49°C-52°C. Remove from the oven.
Heat a frying pan on high heat. Toss in the butter and the tenderloin. Sear on all sides. Return to the oven rack. Let rest 10 minutes.
Place breadcrumb raft on top of the tenderloin and roast for 5 minutes in the oven. Let rest for 15 minutes before slicing and serving.
Chef: Tamara Rodriguez of Casa Latina
Food: Hallacas (pronounced ajacas)
In Venezuela, Christmas food can be summed up by one epic dish: hallacas. Similar to tamales, which are ubiquitous throughout Latin America, hallacas are incredibly delicious but also require a veritable army of people to assemble.
Hallacas is made up of a dough fashioned out of cornmeal, chicken stock, annatto and pork lard. The dough is placed on cleaned, torched banana leaves and topped with a stew made with beef, chicken, pork, onions, capsicum, chilli, leeks, spring onions, olives, raisins and wine.
“This dish has a very deep flavour. And the beauty of it for me is that it’s family-centric,” says chef Tamara Rodriguez.
“Usually a few days before Christmas, the family gathers to make this and everyone has a role, whether it’s making the stew or chopping the ingredients. And when the stew has been left to sit for a day, we clean and torch the banana leaves.
"And the day we make the hallacas, it’s like an assembly line – someone puts the dough on the leaf, then it gets passed down to another person to add the stew and someone else to garnish with almonds or chickpeas.
"And usually, the men are the ones who tie up the packets. And the whole day is like a party, because someone is in charge of putting on the music and making drinks for everybody,” she says.
Hallacas is typically eaten late on the night of Dec 24 after misa de gallo (midnight mass) alongside other dishes like ham bread, roasted pork leg and chicken salad. “That’s like our Navidad, so on the 25th, everybody sleeps after so much partying and eats leftovers from the day before,” says Rodriguez, laughing.
Chef: Evert Onderbeke of Soleil
Food: Stuffed roasted lamb leg with roasted vegetables
Growing up in Belgium, Evert Onderbeke and his family didn’t really follow set Christmas traditions. Although most Belgian families favour turkey for Christmas, Onderbeke’s family often had lamb or seafood.
“It was normally something for sharing, like roast beef, roast lamb or even seafood – it was different every year. We’re not very traditional when it comes to food,” he says.
According to Onderbeke, people in Belgium typically opt for more premium produce during the festive season, which is why duck liver, oysters and lobster are supermarket staples during the period.
Although he hasn’t been in Belgium for Christmas in over a decade, Onderbeke still goes back to childhood favourites and prefers a meal that can be shared, like a roast leg of lamb, which can comfortably feed 10 people.
“It’s not difficult to make, maybe the most difficult thing is rolling the lamb leg and tying it. People can actually prepare it one day in advance and roast it on the day. That’s what we normally did in my family,” he says.
STUFFED ROAST LAMB LEG
Serves 8 to 10
2kg boneless lamb leg
salt and pepper to taste
4 garlic cloves
1/2 bunch parsley
1/4 bunch rosemary
1/4 bunch thyme
4 anchovy fillets
100g pine nuts
100g old bread
100g green olives, chopped
1 lemon, juiced and zested
2 celery sticks
1 bottle red wine
1 tbsp flour
1 litre chicken stock
Open out (butterfly) the lamb leg and flatten it, season with salt and pepper.
For the stuffing, blend garlic cloves with the green herbs and anchovies, transfer to a bowl. Blend the pine nuts and bread coarsely and add to the mixture. Add the chopped olives, lemon zest, juice, a dash of olive oil and season with salt and pepper.
Preheat oven to 200°C. Spread the stuffing mixture on the lamb, roll and tie with butcher string. Roughly chop the carrots, celery and onions and put in a baking tray. Place the lamb on top.
Roast for about 75 minutes. Pour a glass of red wine over the lamb every 20 minutes. Once the lamb is cooked, transfer it to a platter to rest. Finish the gravy.
Over medium heat, add flour to the roasting pan (with all the juices), stir for 5 minutes and add remaining wine. Cook out the alchohol. Add the chicken stock, reduce for about 10 minutes, strain and season with salt and pepper. Serve with assorted roasted vegetables.