What does a Pinoy Christmas taste like? I can imagine it sugary, rich and a little salty. Christmas food in the Philippines is a buffet of savoury and sweet topped off with melted butter and grated coconut. There is no one food that epitomizes the Pinoy Christmas. With Christmas as one of the biggest holidays we celebrate in the country, we may go big on decor but we go even bigger on food. It’s not only because we love to eat. Christmas is a celebration of family togetherness. For the Filipino who considers eating a highly social experience, what better time of the year to go all out on family bonding through the spread on the dining table?
Breaking dawn with kakanin
The gastronomical adventure of a Pinoy Christmas starts as early as dawn. Christmas Day in the Philippines is kicked off with nine-day masses called Simbang Gabi or Misa de Gallo. In some churches, mass can start as early as 3.00 am. After Mass, Filipino church-goers partake of traditional holiday food being sold outside the church. Some savour the goodies while at the church grounds, others take the food home for sleepy kids to awaken to.
Bibingka is a mainstay and one of the most anticipated delicious delights during the holidays. These rice cakes made with eggs, cheese and butter are cooked in banana leaves using coals above and under. They are best enjoyed fresh and hot. Trina, an overseas worker, shares that one of the highlights of coming home for the holidays is having her first bibingka of the year outside Baclaran church. She would wait in line just so she can enjoy a freshly made bibingka. After a long wait, she would devour the butter and cheese rice cake right on the street, feeling more and more at home with each buttery bite.
Puto bumbong, cylindrical purple delicacies made from sticky rice, is steamed in bamboo tubes. The violet treats are then enjoyed with a sprinkle of brown sugar and shredded dried coconut. It is partnered with a hot cup of fragrant ginger tea (salabat), which has the perfect amount of spice to complement the puto bumbong’s sweetness. In case the rice treats get too cloying, salabat is there to cut through its saccharine goodness.
For those who can’t get enough of the rich flavour as early as dawn, there is also tsokolate – thick, hot chocolate in a cup. A little sip of this concoction warms the bones of early morning churchgoers and provides them with energy to make the trek back home. If bibingka and puto bumbong aren’t up your alley, hot chocolate can also be enjoyed with pan de sal.
The sun hasn’t even showed off its rays and tummies have already been made happy by these Pinoy Christmas morning treats.
Noche Buena na!
After the evening mass on the 24th of December, Noche Buena begins. The bountiful spread is international by nature, with dishes from the Spanish colonization a big part of the Pinoy Christmas buffet. Jamon en dulce, or sugar-glazed ham, or simply hamon, is a Christmas staple. This holiday ham is a huge bulk of pork leg sweetened with brown sugar or honey and smothered with pineapple jam or extract. While they are sold in supermarkets and groceries, nothing beats the flavour of holiday ham made at home.
There is also queso de bola, an Edam cheese covered with red wax. It is sliced thinly and enjoyed on its own, or with a piece of bread. Its sharp, salty flavour makes it a great partner with hamon de bola and various fruits, especially apples and grapes.
Rellenong manok also makes an appearance. Deboned chicken is stuffed with onions, sausage, ham and pork. While turkey is a grander option, chicken is easier to come by. While not as expensive as turkey, preparing it the relleno way makes it no less grand.
Fruits and nuts lavish a Pinoy Christmas spread as well. Castanas or chestnuts are staples during the holidays. Kiosks and stalls of roasted chestnuts sprout up as the “ber” months crop up (September, October…) but they are at its height as November segues to December. Whether served in a basket or in a ceramic bowl, chestnuts always add a warmth to the holiday season.
American influences also mark a Pinoy Christmas buffet. Fruit cakes are big in the Philippines. These rich pound cakes are soaked in brandy or rum mixed with a simple syrup of water and palm sugar. They are decorated with macerated nuts and fruits. These cakes can stay fresh for many months if handled well.
Cookies also bedeck some Filipino Christmas spreads. Regular sugar cookies please kids and adults alike with their holiday-themed shapes – snowmen, cookies, stars, Santa Claus.
Then there are the dishes that are markedly Filipino. Do you have a roasted pig at your Christmas table? Then you must be in the Philippines. Lechon is the symbol of bounty, and what better way to share one’s bounty than during the height of the season of giving? The whole suckling pig is usually stuffed with various seasonings such as garlic, onions, lemongrass and other condiments preferred by the seller or the family. It is then skewered with a bamboo pole, then roasted whole over live charcoals. It is roasted for many hours until the meat is succulently tender and the outside is crispy.
Come Christmas morning, lechon still makes an appearance on the dining table in the form of lechon paksiw. It is leftover meat cooked in the tasty sauce the lechon came with.
Lechon can be bought from various restaurants and stalls in the country, with La Loma being one of the most popular go-to’s during the season. These stores sell lechon year-round in case you want a taste of that roasted bounty all year long.
The foods that mark a Filipino Christmas aren’t limited to these aforementioned traditional dishes. What makes the holidays most delicious are family specialties one can look forward to every year.
In our family, it is my Mother’s fruit salad. No Christmas meal is complete without her fruit salad. It is a simple recipe of fruit cocktail mixed with a certain amount of all-purpose cream and condensed milk. She could make it year-round if she wanted to, but it is reserved during the holidays.
There is also my Lola’s Leche Flan. Sweet, creamy and rich, this caramel custard spells heaven to all our family members during the holidays. A classic recipe of leche flan calls for egg yolks, evaporated milk, condensed milk and sugar. It is best cooked via the traditional method of steaming them in oval shaped pans called llanera. My grandmother has been making leche flan for us for as long as I can remember. I dare not think of a Christmas without her special dish.
What does a Pinoy Christmas taste like? It is as succulently juicy and crispy as lechon, as creamy and rich as a spoonful of leche flan. It is as indulgent as a plate full of stuffed chicken, as festive as bite into freshly baked bibingka. The foods that mark a Filipino Christmas are plentiful, are bountiful. What makes them most delicious though is the nostalgia attached to each dish. What makes them tastier than any other Christmas dish you’ve tasted around the world could be the fact that it was made by family with a love even more heightened because of the season.
Photo: “via mare bibingka” by chotda, c/o Flickr. Some Rights Reserved. Photo: “christmas chinese ham” by Chewy Chua, c/o Flickr. Some Rights Reserved. Photo: “leche flan” by chotda, c/o Flickr. Some Rights Reserved.
Toni Tiu is a freelance writer and planning consultant. She has long been in search of the most delicious fruitcake in the Philippines. The journey is far from over, but she is enjoying every yummy step of the way. Visit her personal blog at Wifelysteps.com.