Community & Current Events

In praise of the turkey-free Christmas dinner

In praise of the turkey-free Christmas dinner

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Community & Current Events

In praise of the turkey-free Christmas dinner

Five families share their multicultural holiday traditions, from Filipino pancit and Goan sorpotel to Russian Olivier salad.

For me, the holidays don't start until I get a text from my father saying, "Pastelle time :). With parang and carols," and a call from Mom, who tells me, "I made black cake yesterday and I have one for you, if you want it." Forget the decked halls—this is how I know it's Christmas.  

Turkey and stuffing doesn't make an appearance at our family table during the holidays. Despite living in Canada for more than 20 years, we still have a very Trinidadian menu, which means traditional Christmas foods like pastelles (a tamale-like dish stuffed with ground beef), sorrel (a drink made from the leaves of the roselle plant, a type of hibiscus) and black cake (a rum-soaked fruit cake that's nothing like the much-maligned version that's made at this time of year). 

So of course, there's only one response to my mother's offer: "Of course I want the cake," I say. "And the recipe." 

We're obviously not the only ones who celebrate the holidays by making foods from back home, wherever home may be. Read on to see how five other families celebrate the holidays in their own uniquely Canadian way. 

A Bollywood-Inspired Christmas 
Karen Coutinho Ahmed loves Christmas and cooking. "I'm 100 percent Indian by birth and a very proud Canadian," she says. "I've been living [in the Greater Toronto Area] for 20 years. I am Roman Catholic and love Christmas with a Bollywood feel!"

When she isn't working at the Toronto Star as a senior manager for operations and production, Karen is building her food empire and appears on a slew of TV cooking competitions—like W Network's Pressure Cooker and Come Dine With Me Canada and Food Network's Recipe to Riches. She even has her own cooking channel on Youtube, Kravings Food Adventures, where she whips up recipes like spicy, indulgent Chicken 65 or edible hummus wreathes.

Karen's Bollywood-inspired Christmas menu doesn't feature turkey often, though she once prepared a tandoori turkey. Instead, her holiday table will showcase traditional Goan recipes, including sorportel. "It's an Indian Goan dish with Portuguese influences," she says. "My mom made the best sorpotel, with cubes of pork and liver simmered in a sour-and-spicy gravy." Karen's version is different, but just as delicious: "Because my husband and I are in a mixed-faith marriage, we don't eat pork, so I've recreated the recipe with chicken and beef and serve it proudly at my Christmas dinner."

A Canadian-Filipino Mix 
Come Christmastime, Regina Sy, who describes herself as "half-Filipino, half-Chinese with some Spanish in the mix," makes what she calls a traditional Canadian Christmas dinner. "We have a roast turkey, stuffing, garlic mashed potatoes or roast potatoes and steamed vegetables, usually green beans or broccoli. One year we had roast ham and turkey, but that was a lot so we haven't done that again," she says.

Regina, who was born in the Philippines and grew up in Dubai, says before her family moved to Canada they used to cook more Filipino food, including pancit (stir-fried noodles), kare kare (a rich stew made from oxtail), lumpia (meat-filled egg rolls) and dinuguan (a stew made with pig's blood). "But now we usually only make pancit and lumpia to add to our Canadian-style Christmas dinner," she says. "It's been pretty great because while I love Filipino food, I love the mix of both even more!" 

A Hanukkah Feast  
Cally Specht has made a full Hanukkah feast for the last 24 years. She's carrying on a tradition started by her great-aunt Fanny, who cooked every year for family. "My roommates and I light the menorah, play the dreidel game and eat chocolate," she says. Specht was inspired to start her own yearly feast when a roommate prepared appetizers for Christmas one year. "I said, 'I'm going to make a Hanukkah meal for us!' And it sort of stuck.  

Specht says it's important for her to celebrate Hanukkah by doing something beyond lighting the candles each night. "I am the only one who is Jewish in our home, and my roommates (who are Scottish and German) bring in their Christmas rituals. We like the multicultural aspect of combining all of our traditions." 

While her roommates often make wiener schnitzel and sausages and roast beef with the trimmings as their contributions to the meal, Specht brings smoked salmon, brisket or chicken, carrot tzimmes and potato latkes to the table.

The best part, she says, is that it doesn't matter where she is when Hanukkah falls each year—she always cooks. "One year I went to Ottawa and I did it there for my friend's family. I can adapt the meal to whomever is around."

A Colombian Noche Buena 
Angelica Moreno has always loved cooking her native Colombian food, but it became even more important two years ago when she had her daughter. "It is very important to me that my daughter has a strong sense of her Colombian roots."

As with other Latin cultures, Colombians celebrate Christmas Eve or 'Noche Buena,' so that's when the festivities in Moreno's Toronto condo will start. "It's a late-night feast that's spent with family and friends," she says. Since Colombian food is as varied as the country's many regions, she sticks to cuisine that's typical of the capital, Bogota, where she was born. "It's not tropical and much of the food is hearty stews, soups and warm drinks like real cocoa, which is exquisite and nothing like hot chocolate."

So what's on Moreno's holiday menu? She is debating between tamales or empanadas, both of which are labour-intensive and traditionally require several family members to make them together. Since it's just her cooking this year, she'll have to choose between the two. One thing she's definitely preparing, though, are buñuelos. "They can be described as a deep-fried cheese puff or cheese bread that can be an appetizer or served at breakfast. The trick to these is the type of cheese you use. Traditionally, they are made with a cheese that is only made on the coast of Colombia called queso costeño, but in Canada, I have to make do with what's here. I'm lucky enough to have found fresh cheese near home so that's what I will be using." 

A New Christmas Tradition 

Kyrgyzstan-born Nelia Belkova didn't celebrate Christmas until she moved to North America.  "Back home, New Year's Eve is celebrated similarly to the way Christmas is celebrated in Canada, so we've adapted some of our New Year's Eve traditions to Christmas Eve instead."

Her holiday celebrations tend to be small and only include members of her family, including her husband, her mother and her partner and her mother-in-law, but this year, Belkova is hosting a sit-down dinner for 16 people. While the menu is still being set, one must-have is Olivier salad. "It's one of the dishes that always puts me in a holiday mood. Olivier salad is what most people probably know as creamy, crunchy Russian salad. I don't know any Russian-speaking people who don't make it this time of the year." 



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Community & Current Events

In praise of the turkey-free Christmas dinner