No matter where in the world you live, whatever your ethnic or religious heritage, the holidays are inextricably linked with food. Whether there’s symbolic meaning behind these seasonal treats, or they’re everyday dishes that have become festive additions to the seasonal repertoire, they’re hard to resist.
Below, I’ve picked some of my favorites, most of which have personal meaning (although sometimes, an Israeli jelly doughnut is just a really great jelly doughnut). For the record, I’m not religious, and in fact don’t really celebrate the holidays anymore (the result of years working in the food and travel industries, and not having kids). I’m ethnically Jewish and of Russian descent, but grew up “celebrating” Christmas, which usually included a heaping plate of my grandmother’s latkes (yes, I realize that’s weird, but you haven’t met my family).
In more recent years, I’ve taken to traveling during the holidays when I can, but barring that, I love me a good dim sum feast on Christmas Day. Who says we can’t make our own traditions?
In no particular order:
1. Tamales (Mexico, parts of Central America)
Who can resist steamed bundles of sweet, earthy, corn-based dough filled with spicy, savory meat or cheese?
[Photo credit: Laurel Miller]2. Aebleskivers (Denmark)
Like dense popovers, these baked balls of dough are served with berry jam and a sprinkling of powdered sugar. The promise of these were my parent’s modus operandi for getting me and my brother to behave on our annual road trip to the Danish-theme town of Solvang, on the Central California Coast.
3. Jollof rice (West Africa)
This fragrant Kwanzaa rice dish has all kinds of irresistible, adaptable components, fried up in coconut oil. Chilies, nutmeg, cinnamon; onion, tomatoes, and other veggies; chicken and/or roasted pork or seafood. What’s not to love?
4. Latkes (Eastern Europe)
One of the most classic foods of Hanukkah, these lacy potato pancakes are fried in oil and served with applesauce or sour cream. Addictive.
5. Roasted chestnuts (parts of Europe and Asia)
One of life’s greatest pleasures is strolling the streets of an unfamiliar city, plucking steaming chestnuts from a newspaper cone.
6. Sufganiyot (Israel)
Fried doughnuts stuffed with jelly or preserves, and dusted with powdered sugar. Clearly I have a weakness for dough with jam.
7. Asado/parilla (Argentina)
Meat. Lots of it, grilled or roasted.
8. Stollen (Germany)
Yeasted, spiced bread with candied fruits and nuts, icing, and a marzipan filling. A good stollen will make up for the emotional scars caused by fruitcake, something I discovered while working at a bakery in Oakland’s quirky-cool Rockridge neighborhood.
9. Cotechino de lenticche (Italy)
A humble New Year’s dish of pork sausage with lentils traditionally eaten just after midnight. Legumes are associated with money throughout much of the world (for their resemblance to coins when cooked), and pork is also symbolic of good fortune, progress, or prosperity.
10. Pavlova (New Zealand/Australia)
Although Kiwis and Aussies are still fighting over who invented this confectionery dessert of meringue, whipped cream and fresh fruit, who cares?
Tell us about your favorite holiday foods, and what part of the world they come from!
[Photo credits: aebleskivers, Flickr user Johann C. Rocholl; chestnut vendor, Flickr user Todd Mecklem; pavlova, Flickr user Sandy Austin]