Discover Asian cultures’ Christmas dinners of choice with Suffolk private chef Lilian Hiw of Lilian’s Kitchen
Following last month’s column, where we chatted briefly about my 60th birthday party, I thought I would share a few photos with you. We had a truly wonderful time and I am so impressed with the creativity of my friends and the efforts they made in dressing up for the party. As I am writing, my family are still here. They have travelled from Singapore and Canada to celebrate with me and we had fun in an escape room adventure, have been foraging and cooking, played board games, enjoyed a couple of food and drink safaris, eaten lots of good food, and caught up with old friends. Precious memories!
Let’s chat Christmas this month. The year has flown by and I can’t believe it is already mid-November! Have any of you sneaked a mince pie yet?
Christmas is a Christian celebration to commemorate the birth of Christ. The name ‘Christmas’ comes from the ‘Mass of Christ’ - mass referring to a church service. The name Christ-mass was shortened to Christmas. The ‘Christ-Mass’ service was then only allowed to take place after sunset and before sunrise the next day, so people had the service at midnight; we still follow that tradition of attending midnight mass nowadays.
Christmas is celebrated around the world by Christians and non-Christians alike, it is a time where family and friends gather. Gifts are exchanged, which are symbolic of the tributes made to baby Jesus by the Three Wise Men after His birth.
The Christmas turkey tradition can be traced back to King Henry VIII, who decided to swap his traditional goose for a turkey on Christmas day and made the bird a staple for the festive day. King Edward VII took to the delicacy and popularised having turkeys for Christmas.
Let’s check out what food is popularly eaten for Christmas in some Asian countries . . .
Japan is historically not a Christian country. Christmas in Japan is celebrated more for commercial reasons and for couples to spend romantic time together, and not so much about family like it is in western culture. Their New Year celebration is the time for family gatherings. The national Christmas dinner in Japan? Kentucky Fried Chicken! Some people also order pizza for Christmas as pizza is deemed party food. For pudding? The Japanese’s version of Christmas ‘fruit’ cake is a sponge cake covered in snow-white whipped cream topped with strawberries. I just love how we all do things a little differently.
Those who celebrate will have a feast, but instead of turkey and stuffing, the Chinese version of a stuffed turkey is ‘Ba Bao Ya’ - Eight Treasure Duck. A whole duck stuffed with eight ingredients with combinations like glutinous rice, diced mushrooms, water chestnuts, lotus seeds, Chinese sausage, dried shrimp, bamboo shoots, jujubes, salted egg yolk, Jinhua ham, red beans, barley, dried lily or peanuts. The duck is then slowly cooked in a soy broth for over an hour until tender.
The rest of the menu will be similar to those eaten for their Spring Festival (Chinese new year), like Jiaozi (Chinese dumplings), spring rolls, steamed fish, roast pork and noodles, etc.
A common tradition among the younger Chinese is to eat an apple on Christmas Eve. The locals believe tit will lead to a safe and peaceful year ahead. This tradition evolved because 'Christmas Eve' translates in Mandarin as ‘ping an ye’, and the words ‘ping an’ translate to 'peaceful'. The Mandarin word for apple is 'ping guo', which holds significance to ‘peace’.
In Singapore, Christmas is celebrated in both a religious and secular manner. Gatherings both at home and at the workplace are common. Public spaces, including shopping malls, are decked with glittery tinsels, twinkling fairy lights, nativity scenes and other lavish decorations. Christmas is also traditionally a time for thinking about the less fortunate. Various charitable organisations are involved in the caring and sharing of the festivities.
Both roast turkey and glazed ham have almost equal standing on the menu; being a cosmopolitan city and a nation of foodies, international cuisines are commonly found on the Christmas table too.
Christmas in Malaysia means Santa Claus in the shopping malls, midnight feasts on Christmas Eve, and fireworks. Malaysia has only a minority population of Christians, but there is a big presence of Christmas as it is commercially celebrated. Instead of giving out items as gift, little red packets of cash are commonly given out.
Chicken curry and fried noodles are popular potluck contributions and families gather to have steamboat dinners. Steamboat is a version of fondue; you cook meat, seafood and vegetables in meat or vegetable broth, and eat them with rice, chilli and soya dips.
Ho Chi Minh City, also commonly known as Saigon, is the nation’s most modern, populous and cosmopolitan city. Roast turkey, Christmas pudding and candy cane are popular Christmas food. Outside the city, more traditional food like their famous Pho (noodle soup) and Cha Gio (Vietnamese spring rolls) are delicious alternative Christmas food.
I love Vietnamese spring rolls. I fill each rice paper sheet with a mixture of minced pork, mung bean noodles, raw prawns (or sometimes crabmeat when they are in season), black fungus, grated shallots and garlic; tuck and roll into a cylinder shape and shallow fry them. The rice paper wrapper provides a different crunch compared to the wheat wrappers that are used in Chinese spring rolls. It is also gluten free, try them out sometime. The spring rolls are enrobed in lettuce, fresh coriander and mint; dipped in Nuoc Cham sauce. Nuoc Cham is refreshing and bold, used as a condiment or dressing, often added to noodles by the locals for an extra burst of flavour. It is found in all Vietnamese pantries, made from mixing fish sauce, lime juice, chopped garlic and chilli, balanced with sugar and water.
The Thai people are gentle and jovial and have a relaxed and laid-back mindset, living for the moment. A phrase often heard is ‘mai pen rai’ meaning ‘no worries’.
Bangkok is a cosmopolitan city, western fare like turkey and puddings are served on Christmas day in hotels and some tourist destinations. The local Thai people, however, mark the occasion with their Thai fare, enjoying dishes like Tom Yum Soup (a delicious sour and spicy soup with seafood or chicken), Khao Niao Mamuang (the classic Thai dessert of steamed sticky rice served with fresh mangoes and salted coconut cream), and Som Tam salad (a pounded sour and sweet salad of unripe papaya or mango, beans and tomatoes with a dressing of fresh lime juice, fish sauce, garlic and chilli served with lots of peanuts). It is interesting to note that Som Tam salad is known more commonly around the world as a Thai Papaya salad, however, the locals do use green mango and sometimes cucumber in place of papaya. Som merely means ‘sour’ and Tam refers to the pounding movement, so any combination would work.
CHRISTMAS FOODIE GIFT
After ideas for a Christmas present? Check out my website for a Lilian’s Kitchen Cookery or Private Dining Experience. We conduct both public cooking classes as well as private cooking lessons. Gift vouchers are also available to purchase online.
The perfect gift for any foodie family and friends.