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As winter brings darkness to the Northern hemisphere, seasonal holidays seek to stave off the gloom with lights, celebrations — and lots of sumptuous cooking to savor on long winter nights. Whether you celebrate Christmas, Chanukah, Winter Solstice, Festivus, or all of the above, let these 20 delightful dishes brighten your holiday season.
Black Cake, Caribbean
Fruit cakes aren’t uncommon during the holiday season, but black cakes take things to a whole different dimension. Across the Caribbean, dried fruits are soaked — sometimes for years — in dark rum and cherry brandy. Come baking time, they’re ground into a rough paste (no alien green fruit hunks here) and combined with burnt sugar and spices to create an insanely rich, darkly delicious treat that’s worth the wait — and the weight.
Latkes, Eastern Europe
You don’t need to observe Chanukah to appreciate these divinely crisp fritters, a highlight of the Jewish Festival of Lights. Originating in Eastern Europe (where potatoes were a cheap and plentiful peasant staple) and popular in the U.S. and elsewhere, latkes are grated potatoes enhanced with onion and bound with an egg and breadcrumbs or matzoh. Shallow-fried in oil, they emerge from the pan creamy on the inside but with an appealing, crunchy exterior. Serve with sour cream, applesauce, or both.
Lechon, the Philippines
When the late, great Anthony Bourdain proclaims something the “best pig ever,” it should be accepted as fact. While whole roast suckling pigs make appearances on menus around the world (and around the year), Filipinos have taken lechon to new levels. Stuffed with aromatics like lemongrass and basted with coconut water before roasting, lechon has skin as crisp as Christmas candy canes and moist, deeply flavored flesh.
Pavlova, Australia & New Zealand
While the Northern hemisphere shivers its way through the solstice season, it’s summertime on the Southern side of the equator. Santa wears sunscreen and holiday dishes lean lighter, as in the case of pavlova. This crisp meringue confection is marshmallow-soft on the inside and topped with sweetened whipped cream and fruits like mango, passionfruit, and kiwi.
Yes, that KFC. What started in the 1970s as a clever marketing campaign is now a beloved (and tasty!) holiday tradition in Japan. Families across the country order their Kentucky Fried Chicken “Party Barrels” early, and Colonel Sanders is as integral to Japanese Christmas celebrations as Santa-san. Please pass the coleslaw!
In Italy, Christmas Eve is known as “the vigil,” a day for skipping meat in favor of feasting on seafood. While Italian-Americans have turned this tradition into the no-holds-barred Feast of the Seven Fishes, things remain (slightly) more restrained in the Old Country. A sure bet on the menu is baccalà, salted cod served fried, with linguine, or in a savory stew of tomatoes, olives, and capers.
Yebeg Wot, Ethiopia
Lamb is a holiday favorite in Ethiopia, especially in the form of this rich and buttery stew. Many Ethiopians fast, eating but one meal a day for the 43 days leading up to Ganna (Christmas), which is observed on January 7 in the Orthodox tradition. Spiced with berbere and redolent with garlic and ginger, yebeg wot is usually served alongside spongey, nutty injera bread with a host of other accompaniments.
Two words: Pace yourself. December 24 is “Christmas Feed” in Sweden, and the typical Julbord (Yule table) holds enough delicacies for all twelve days of Christmas. There’ll be glögg (mulled wine) to warm up guests, and fish such as cured salmon and pickled herring, accompanied with dense rye bread. Ham is pretty much a given, along with an assortment of cold meats and possibly pâté. Then it’s off to the hot dishes — meatballs, creamed potatoes, sausages — before a multitude of desserts. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.
Mexicans observe the holiday season from December 12 (the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe) all the way through Three Kings’ Day on January 6, and tamales put the más in Christmas. You can never have too many cooks in the kitchen when making these tasty packages, and tamaladas (tamale parties) are a great way to prepare enough for the crowd. Fillings from pork to cactus are blanketed in corn masa, then secured in corn husks (or plantain leaves) before steaming.
“Herring Under a Fur Coat” might not sound like the most appetizing offering, but this layered fish and vegetable salad (Shuba translates literally to “fur coat”) is a favorite in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, especially for the holidays. (Like Ethiopians, Russians celebrate Orthodox Christmas on January 7.) Diced pickled herring is layered with grated boiled vegetables (typically potatoes or beetroot), chopped onion, and hard-boiled eggs. The salad is then enrobed with a final coating of mayonnaise and beet, giving it a rich purple hue.
Let’s (not) talk turkey: When it comes to fowl, Germans will opt for goose (or duck) every time. Roasted to golden perfection, the fatty bird boasts moist rich meat and crispy skin and renders a surprising amount of yummy fat — save it for roasting potatoes! Fluffy dumplings and red cabbage braised with currant jelly and apples round out a festive holiday meal, but be sure to save room for a slice of stollen (sweet fruit bread).
Escaldums de Nadal, Spain
In Mallorca, they do talk turkey, especially Escaldums de Nadal. Traditionally made with meatballs or pieces of either turkey or suckling pig, this hearty stew is sweetened with raisins, brightened with tomatoes and savory sobrasada and made thick and luscious with the addition of ground almonds.
You could make kiviak, stuffing a seal skin full of hundreds of birds and letting it ferment seven months before slicing and serving, as they do in Greenland. But perhaps a more accessible holiday specialty is hangikjöt (hung meat), found in neighboring Iceland. This salted, slow-smoked, and then boiled lamb is a Christmas tradition, served with potatoes, peas, cabbage, and white sauce. Enjoy thin and lacy Laufabrauð cookies for dessert.
Tang Yuan, China
The Dōngzhì, or Winter Solstice Festival, is one of the most important holidays in China and East Asian countries, and tang yuan is an integral part of many feasts. Glutinous rice flour is rolled into dumplings, colored with natural ingredients or food dyes. Tang yuan can be prepared plain or stuffed with sweet or savory fillings before being simmered in a sweet ginger broth.
This popular Quebecois dish is a special favorite at Christmas and New Year’s — many even swear by a slice for Christmas breakfast! Ground meat (often pork and beef, but pork and game is not uncommon) and potato are spiced with a blend of pepper, clove, nutmeg, cinnamon, and ginger and then baked in a buttery rich puff pastry.
This pudding is a Christmas Eve staple, which is celebrated on January 7 by Orthodox Christians in Eastern Europe. Cooked winter wheat berries are soaked overnight with poppy seeds, dried fruits (usually raisins and figs), milk, honey, chopped almonds, hazelnuts, and walnuts to create a hearty and sweet dessert while waiting for St. Nicklaus.
Persians welcome the winter solstice with Shab-e Yalda, the longest night of the year, and khoresh-e fesenjān takes pride of place at many a feast. This warming stew is traditionally made with chicken (vegetarians may substitute eggplant or mushrooms) and thickened with ground walnuts and pomegranate paste.
Spiced Chocolate, Peru
Kick the Quik: In Peru, the hot chocolate is good enough to call for its own celebration. But not just any chocolate — this cocoa is enriched with creamy evaporated milk and spiced up with star anise, cinnamon, cloves, and chili powder. At chocolatadas, locals enjoy the brew (adults maybe sneak a splash of brandy) along with sweet Panetón.
Bûche de Noël, France
Chocolate is also the most popular (but by no means the only) flavor for Bûche de Noël. This decadent and decorative cake is as much a part of Christmas in Paris as Père Noël himself. Sponge cake is slathered in buttercream and then gathered into a roulade (roll) before being frosted with rich ganache. When decorated (meringue mushrooms are a must), it’s a sweet representation of the traditional fireplace Yule log.
Bathtub Carp, Czech Republic
Almost everyone loves fresh fish, but keeping a live carp in your bathtub for a week or so — that’s dedication. In the Czech Republic, “Christmas dinner” is traditionally fish soup followed by fried, breaded carp served alongside potato salad. These days, vendors make bathtub aquariums unnecessary, but the dinner custom still lives on.