Christmas traditions are different for each family celebrating. Somehow, the popular image of Christmas is that of winter, pine trees and specific foods that are hardly representative of people in the Global South. This December, we asked some of our members to share their Christmas traditions and meals.
Author of “Family Food Simplified”
We spend Christmas at my mom’s. You can find my siblings and I there, cooking away a storm. There is a dish for everyone. A dark, old-fashioned bourbon and port Christmas fruit cake, matured over three months. Jelly and custard always seem to make its way to our Christmas table. The mains always include something for everyone and an array of salads.
A favourite on my Christmas table, for both my mom and I, is pickled beetroot. No Christmas lunch is complete without it, dating as far back as childhood. Spicy roasted chicken, roast potatoes and lots of salads-and when I say lots, I mean lots and lots of salads. We eat them for days. Another favourite of mine is a colourful, sweet and sour tuna pasta, my younger brother swears is the best he has ever had (something he says every year by the way).
Who makes what dishes, is simply delegated by yours truly. I normally change things up. Some Christmases, I’d challenge my siblings by assigning them dishes they’ve never made before, with my guidance of course. Other Christmases I’ll assign them their favourite dishes to make, based on their strengths. It normally works out either way since we are a family of great cooks.
Our Christmas traditions lately, are to cook together as a family and exchange Christmas gifts. At least for the last four years.
When I was growing up, Christmas to me was about wearing my new clothes, going to church in the morning and having a big family feast. To be really honest I can’t really remember the gift part, I think when schools opened in the next year, I might have lied about getting a Christmas gift. I have carried on with this ritual with the exception of new clothes.
My inspiration for all my family celebrations is a “seven colour plate.” A colourful spread of food at a table makes people happy before they even taste the food. Being a home chef, I don’t like to take forever plating food. The natural colours of the food bring out the beauty to most of my dishes.
I will be serving the following:
- Aromatic turmeric umngqusho with roasted peppers, red onion and baby marrow. There are three tricks with this dish. I don’t overcook the samp, I rinse the samp well, so it’s doesn’t stick to each other and I have more veg than samp. This will ensure you achieve a healthier and lighter dish.
- Amazimba (sorghum), roasted butternut topped with lightly toasted pumpkin seeds and walnuts, drizzled with pure honey. I love the natural sweetness and crunch of this dish.
- Chiffonade of baby spinach and basil, umbona owojiweyo (grilled corn) medley of fresh cherry tomatoes and drizzled with a sweet pineapple dressing. It’s a “wow”!
- Spicy chickpea Chakalaka. I prepare it the night before. It just tastes better. I learnt this trick from a friend of mine from Durban.
- For obvious reasons we will have pickled beets. We pickle our own beets and add canned peaches for extra sweetness. Our family loves it. Sometimes things don’t make sense, but that’s how we have made it over the years.
- Ujeqe (steam bread) KZN style. My mother-in-law says there is a difference between idombolo or isonka samanzi and Ujeqe. The dough has less water, but still achieves a light and fluffy text. She is right guys, the steamed bread from Natal and the Eastern Cape is different.
- Umleqwa, cooked to perfection with its own juice until it produces a sticky gravy.
- Leg of lamb from the Transkei. During the festive season we had Umngidi in my family. This is a day celebrating new men in the xhosa culture…. lots of freshly slaughtered meat. Due to work I was not there, but they sent me a fresh leg of lamb from my uncle’s self-grown stock. So much flavour. It will be slow cooked and seasoned with just salt, pepper and rosemary. It won’t be medium, because to us the perfect way is steaming it until it’s super tender. Using rosemary and pepper is even taking way too far.
- Steamed tongue, with just salt.
- We will take advantage of the weather and braai sirloin steak
- Dessert: there is so much food so dessert won’t be a big fuss and we all prefer savoury over sweet anyway.
- It wouldn’t be Christmas without a traditional trifle. We also have homemade cranberry and cinnamon ice, a bowl of fresh berries and a box of choice assorted.
I will be making all the food. I am such a bully. I really want things to taste a certain way, I can’t take chances. My husband will braai his steak and my corn. My friend will be pouring me a drink. My mother-in-law will be doing the chopping. Everybody else must wash the mountain of dishes that I will be making.
We always have two Christmases. I’m Coptic Orthodox (Egyptian) and we have a different calendar to the Western churches; our Christmas is on the 7th January. But since we don’t live in Egypt, it’s hard to ignore the 25th of December, so we just do both! The 25th is usually a seafood feast because during advent everyone fasts, abstaining from animal products, except fish.
So Christmas eve on 6th January is a big meat feast. Mass ends at midnight and everyone dives into a big plate of many things, either outside church or at someone’s house.
On the table, you’ll find lots of things depending on the preference of that family. But the dishes you will definitely find are the following:
- Lamb shank, “fatta” and cheese. The lamb shank has been boiled until tender but with a bit of bight, (ie. still on the bone) then fried in ghee to get a crispy outside. The lamb stock will be mixed with fried garlic and vinegar to pour over rice and toasted bread to make “fatta.” It’s so good! With a bit of white cheese (like feta but stronger) and the flavours are complete.
- For dessert, there will always be a cookie called “kahk” (where you really pronounce the “h”). Its like shortbread with sesame seeds, but way more buttery and crumbly- super moreish. As a family, we do love a traditional trifle so we sometimes have that and recently I’ve played around with a sticky date pudding and custard.
As an immigrant family, our traditions tend to depend on wherever we are at the time. We aren’t always together on both Christmases but I think it’s important to make an effort to do something to celebrate the 7th of January. Even though it can be a little bit challenging to celebrate it in Cape Town without a large Coptic community and the whole country has finished the festive season. (And we are all back at work!) But I want to carry on the tradition as difficult as it may be, because it’s always been a special part of my heritage.
This year I’m in Mozambique with my in-laws and the 24th evening is always the big event with gift-giving at midnight. The table will be filled with lots of samosas, rissoles, croquettes, a turkey, bacalhau, (codfish), bolo rei (Christmas cake) and lots of salads. Also as my husband’s family has Goan heritage so there will be bebinca, a layered gelatinous cake from Goa, made with eggs, coconut milk and ghee.
Note: We asked Andre Hill, chef at Upper Bloem Restaurant, about his Christmas traditions and he said he has been working on Christmas for the past 16 years. We thought it important to mention because this is the nature of the lives of chefs and food service workers around holidays and the festive season.