Traditional holiday beverages from around the world

holiday beveragesAmericans aren’t very creative when it comes to traditional holiday beverages (do, however, look for my upcoming story on Boulder’s banging mixology scene, which includes some killer contemporary winter cocktails). Historically, though, we’re more of an eggnog/mulled cider/hot chocolate kind of society.

I’m not knocking our Christmas beverages of choice. Properly made, they’re delicious, and certainly festive. But some countries really know how to roll when it comes to holiday imbibing (especially Latin America. One word: rum.).

Below, a compilation of some of the more interesting boozy holiday beverages from around the world that can be easily recreated in your own kitchen. Online recipes abound, and all of these are (almost) as tasty sans alcohol.

Coquito: Puerto Ricans are great because they’re not afraid to embrace their love of saturated fats (lard, coconut milk, etc.) or rum. In case you’ve been living under a rock, coconut is the new fat du jour (read more about its health attributes here). Everything in moderation, including moderation, as I always say.

Coquito recipes vary, but in general, this rich, blended Christmas concoction is a froth of spiced rum, condensed milk, coconut milk or cream of coconut, vanilla, and spices such as cloves, nutmeg, and cinnamon. Some versions may include ginger or ground nuts, but it’s always served chilled, in a small glass. Heavy, yes, but both sexy and satisfying. Add some eggs, and you’ll have ponche, the Venezuelan or Dominican version of eggnog.

Mulled wine: Variations on this warm, spiced, sugared, and otherwise enhanced wine (usually red) are served throughout Europe. There’s Nordic gløgg redolent of cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, and bitter orange (and perhaps a helping of aquavit). It’s very similar to German glühwein made with lemon, cinnamon sticks, cardamom or ginger, and cloves; in Alsace (the French region bordering Germany), they also add vanilla bean.

In Bulgaria, greyano vino contains honey, peppercorns, and often, apple or citrus. Polish grzane wino is more of a traditional mulled wine, but they also make grzane piwo, in which mulled beer (try a Hefeweizen or Belgian ale which are lighter and sweeter) is substituted for the wine. Na zdrowie (“To your health”)!

[Photo credit: Flicker user Akane86]holiday beveragesPonche Navideño: Not to be confused with those other luscious ponches, this Mexican version is made with sugar cane, apples and/or pears or citrus, raisins, prunes, and tejocotes–an indigenous fruit used by the Aztecs, who called them texocotl. Add tequila, brandy, or rum; heat, and instant fiesta. At Christmastime, ponche vendors can be found on the street, ladling out cupfuls of good cheer.

Another popular Mexican holiday beverage is champurrado, a version of atole (warmed cornmeal thinned to a pourable consistency) flavored with chocolate. It tastes much better than it sounds, and is delicious on a chilly day.

Sorrel Punch: This Jamaican Christmas drink is made from the petals of a species of hibiscus (jamaica in Latin America), locally known as sorrel. In Australia it’s known as rosella, and where it makes a lovely, delicate, fruity red jam. This isn’t the same plant Americans know as sorrel or French sorrel. That’s a bitter wild green, which would make for a truly revolting cocktail, unless you’re one of those people who find wheat grass juice “refreshing.”

Dried hibiscus buds can be purchased at Hispanic or Caribbean markets; the recipe varies, but it’s usually some combination of the flowers, sugar, smashed fresh ginger, water, lime juice, and rum (dark is more traditional than light). Mix, stir, turn on your light box (fellow Seattleites know what I’m talking about), and crank your fave reggae CD. It ain’t the islands but it’s a nice change of pace from all that mulled wine.
holiday beverages
Wassail: Did any American not grow up hearing about or actually going “wassailing,” aka carolling? This mulled British cider is synonymous with knocking on stranger’s doors and breaking into song. Unfortunately, I wasn’t allowed to hit the wassail bowl after mandatory childhood post-carolling; parents should remember that singing in public is the worst possible form of torture for a geeky, tone-deaf pre-teen. Wassail has been a Christmas classic across the pond for centuries, so I’m sure generations of British children suffered the same fate.

Cola de mono: Although Chile is better known for its pisco sours (Peru also claims this libation as its own, but both countries produce it and they’re still duking it out over who actually invented this potent grape brandy) and wine, Christmastime means a glass of “monkey’s tail.” Combine aguardiente (sub pisco or a neutral firewater) with milk, coffee, vanilla bean, and cloves. I have no idea what this has to do with the tail of a monkey, but it’s a cute name. Uh, bottom’s up.

[Photo credit: eggnog, Flicker user elana’s pantry; wassail, Flicker user jeremytarling]

Removing Red Wine Stains

Cocktails, Chilean style

cocktails pisco sourA few weeks ago, I was sitting at the bar of the very lovely Alto Atacama Desert Lodge & Spa, outside of San Pedro de Atacama in Northern Chile. I’d just returned from an afternoon at 12,600 feet, exploring the Andean Altiplano Lakes of Miscanti and Miñiques, and I was feeling parched.

Small wonder I was thirsty; Atacama is the driest desert on earth. Visually and geographically, it’s like the Southwest on steroids. If the love child of Sedona, Arizona and Abiquiu, New Mexico inherited a chain of conical, snow-dusted volcanoes, the largest salt flat in Chile, and shimmering lagoons full of flamingos, Atacama is what you’d get. Kraig recently wrote a great series on exploring Atacama, which you can find here.

San Pedro itself is a surprisingly sweet little village of adobe walls and buildings, with a whitewashed church and dusty streets. It’s the world’s least offensive tourist-mecca. Alto Atacama is located about a mile-and-a-half outside of town, in the middle of a river valley sided by craggy, brick-red rock.
cocktails pisco sour
Native plant gardens dot the property, there are resident llamas, the small restaurant serves many locally grown foods. But these are mere details. My biggest concern that evening was soothing my dust-coated throat with a cocktail.

I most definitely approved of the pisco sour made by Sebastián, the bartender. Pisco sours are a tricky thing; too often they’re made with old lemon juice or concentrate or too much sugar, and the result is a cloying, flat-tasting mess. But Sebastián squeezed fresh lemon juice (limón de pica, or Peruvian lime, which may or may not be the same species as key lime, depending upon who you ask). The final addition of good pisco made for a smooth, tangy, refreshing libation.

Sebastián raised his eyebrows at my swiftly drained glass. “Was good?” he enquired.

“Delicioso,” I assured him. “Uno mas, por favor.” As we spoke I watched him expertly muddling a mess of quartered limóns with something brown and sticky looking.

He followed my gaze. “It’s a Mojito Atacameño. Invented here at the hotel. You like to try?”

[Photo credit: Frank Budweg]cocktails pisco sourNever one to turn down a cocktail, I nodded. “What’s in it?” I asked.

“It’s made with chañar, a fruit found only in Atacama (I later found out that chañar-the fruit of Geoffroea decorticans-is also indigenous to parts of Argentina).”

“It’s very important. We use the arrope (preserved fruit in syrup) to flavor ice cream and other desserts. But it’s also a medicine,” Sebastián explained. The Atacameño’s– the local indigenous people, who have lived in the area for thousands of years–use chañar as a traditional cure for bronchitis and sore throat.

To further underscore the allure of this little round fruit, I bring you the following passage from author Edward R. Emerson (Beverages, Past and Present, 1908):


Its flavour is beyond description, and the way the Indians eat this fruit best shows in what estimation it is held. Early in the morning all hands repair to the chanareschanar orchard (for, though wild, the trees grow in immense tracts) and proceed to eat of the fruit until locomotion, except in a crawling way, becomes almost impossible, and as soon as they have arrived at this state they crawl to the river, drink as much water as they can possibly hold, and then crawl back to the trees, where they stretch themselves out at full length and sleep until night, when they repeat the operation.

Sounds like the producers of “Intervention” could have had a field day.

Sebastián passed me a bottle of arrope de chañar to try. After a small taste, I realized that it reminded me, in appearance, consistency, and flavor, of tamarind paste. Tangy, a little sour, with an almost molasses-like sweetness. It was interesting, but not something I’d think of using in a cocktail. Nevertheless, I watched, dubiously, as Sebastián meticulously put together my Mojito Atacameño.
cocktails pisco sour
After muddling two quartered limóns, he added two tablespoons of powdered sugar (I assume because it’s traditionally used in a pisco sour, rather than simple syrup).

To this he added a dash of creme de menthe because fresh mint was out of season; the base was Absolut Mandarin Vodka (“You can use pisco, but I think vodka is better flavor.”).

When the finished drink was set before me, I contemplated it. It closely resembled the last fecal sample I’d had to submit after I accidentally drank unfiltered river water. The mojito had floaty bits of lime pulp and was cloudy from the thick arrope de chañar; It looked repulsive. I sniffed it, and took a cautious sip.

Fantastic. A beautiful balance of tart and sweet, with a clean, citrusy finish. Ass-kickingly strong. Sebastián was looking at me expectantly.

“Uno mas, por favor.”

My trip was sponsored by Wines of Chile, but the opinions expressed in this article are 100% my own.

How to Make Pisco Sour

Five classic Chilean foods

chilean foodChilean food doesn’t have the glamour and romance of the cuisine of its neighbor, Argentina, nor the complexity and exotic Japanese influences bestowed upon the contemporary dishes of its other neighbor, Peru. I just returned from my second visit to Chile, where in between consuming epic quantities of manjar (dulce de leche) and pisco sours, I found more substantial food to love.

Chilean food is of humble origins; a combination of indigenous influence, simple technique, and hearty, regional ingredients designed to sustain and nourish the body despite limited means and harsh climate. Today, Santiago is a glossy, metropolitan capital of seven million, and there’s no shortage of high-end dining with regard to various cuisines. But travel beyond the city limits, and you’ll see tweaks on Chilean specialties depending upon what part of the country you’re visiting.

Northern Chile is largely high-altitude desert, while Central and Southern Chile have more of a focus on seafood. The following is a very simplified list, but they’re five of the most classic dishes to be found throughout the country.Try them for a taste of Chilean culture and history.

1. Empanadas
Not to be confused with the Argentinean variety, which are essentially a culture within a culture, the Chilean empanada is usually baked, larger and flatter in composition (either crescents or rectangular in shape), and less varied in variety. But what’s not to love about a tender, flaky pocket of dough stuffed with seasoned ground beef, hardboiled egg, and olive; roasted vegetables, or melted, stringy cheese? Not much. Find them at panaderias, shops, markets, or restaurants offering “comida typica.”

2. Curanto
This is a specialty of the lovely island and archipelago of Chiloe in Chilean Patagonia’s Lake District. Curanto is a shellfish, potato flatbread, and meat bake believed to have been inspired by Polynesian luau via Easter Island (Rapa Nui). It’s traditionally cooked in a pit that is covered with seaweed or the leaves of nalca, an indigenous plant related to rhubarb. The potato flatbreads, milcao, and chapalele (the latter flavored with pork cracklings), are delicious street foods in their own right that can be found in coastal towns throughout this region. A curanto is a must-see if you’re visiting Chiloe.chilean food3. Pastel de choclo
Sort of an indigenous shepherd’s pie, this comforting dish is composed of ground corn (choclo) mixed with hard-boiled egg, olive, and usually ground beef and/or chicken. It’s baked and served in an earthenware bowl called a paila, and it makes me all warm and fuzzy inside.

4. Caldillo de Congrio
Okay, I confess that I have a particular dislike for the congrio, or conger eel, which is an obsession in Chile. It’s not that it’s bad; I just don’t care for most fish as a rule (for the record, it’s fairly mild, white, firm, and rather dry and flaky). But I would be remiss to not include it, because it’s such a classic. Whether fried or served in a caldillo, or brothy soup seasoned with cilantro, carrots, potato, and fish stock, it’s hearty, rustic, and very representative of Chile’s culture of subsistence and commercial fishermen.

5. Chupe
This is a somewhat generic term for a creamy seafood stew enriched with milk or cream. Depending upon where you are (or what country you’re in, because it’s also found in Peru and Bolivia), chupe might contain shrimp (thus, it would be called chupe de camarones), fish, chicken, beef, or lamb. It also contains vegetables, potatoes or yuca, and tomato, but the magic is in the addition of merquen, an indigenous (via the Mapuche people) spice mixture made with smoked, powdered cacho de cabra chili. The end result is fragrant, complex, and delicious.

[Photo credits: Laurel Miller]