World's Most Traditional Holiday Foods
Long before you sit down to Christmas dinner in Ethiopia, preparations are under way. Farmers buy lambs early to fatten them up for yebeg wot, the thick, buttery berbere-spiced stew that locals know and expect.
After all, holiday meals are judged by a different set of standards than any other kind. You may like your dish dry because that’s what pleased you as a child. Memory is the juicier thing. Such sentimentality is a shared global matter, but food traditions are decidedly local—and reveal much about a destination.
The same old, same old won’t necessarily be available abroad, so if you’re leaving home for the holidays, embrace the opportunity to savor the season as celebrated in another part of the world. Every place has specialties, prepared with love and idiosyncrasies similar to your own.
In Quebec, the thing is tourtière, a meat pie. Maybe the crust on the one you’ll eat will be slightly burned to pay homage to the baker’s favorite uncle. There should be quirks. If you’re eating Jansson’s temptation in Sweden, perhaps it’s a version of the casserole with extra cream because one year, way back, some kid knocked the whole bottle in and, hell, it worked.
In Japan, it just wouldn’t be New Year’s Eve without eating a plate of stretchy buckwheat noodles to bring prosperity and ensure a long life. The longer the noodles, the better. Visitors can join in this age-old ritual at Tokyo’s Washoku En, among countless options.
The urge, just about everywhere on earth, is to eat what you’ve always eaten for the holidays and just as you’ve always eaten it. The quality of a dish is never measured in objective terms. Technique? Taste? Presentation? It hardly matters. The question, globally, is how does the food make you feel?
Fortunate is probably the optimal answer. To come back to the same table and appreciate the same flavors with the same people—whether it’s curry devil on Boxing Day in Singapore, or that thing that’s been in your family since long before you have—is the benchmark of the season. Repetition, this time of year, is exactly the point.
But if you’re away from your own traditions, we bet the local ones, wherever you are, will make you feel just as sated—and may even inspire you to introduce a new dish back at home.
Russia: Mushroom Soup with Zaprashka
Part of the 12-course Holy Night feast on January 6, this soup is thickened with Soviet roux: oil, flour, and the liquid rendered from sautéing onions.
Where to Get It: Heritage foods–driven Russian Vodkaroom No. 1 in St. Petersburg. 4 Konnogvardeyiski Blvd.; 011-7-812-570-64-20; vodkaroom.ru
French-Canadians pack ground, minced, or cubed meat (salmon in coastal areas) into a piecrust and serve it with ketchup or savory fruit relish starting on Christmas Eve and ending on New Year’s.
Where to Get It: Montreal’s wonder-of-a-chain-bakery, Première Moisson. Marché Jean-Talon, 7075 Casgrain St.; 514-270-3701
Singapore: Curry Devil
Served on Boxing Day (December 26), this Eurasian dish also known as Devil’s Curry incorporates Christmas leftovers: chicken, cocktail sausages, cabbage, and cucumbers are stewed in a spicy rempah gravy.
Where to Get It: Quentin’s, the self-proclaimed Eurasian Restaurant. Eurasian Community House, 139 Ceylon Rd.; 011-65-6348-0327
Japan: Toshikoshi Soba
Eating a plate of buckwheat noodles before midnight on New Year’s Eve to bring longevity and prosperity for the next 12 months is an age-old tradition.
Where to Get It: Washoku En, on the fifth floor of Tokyo’s Marunouchi OAZO complex. 1-6-4 Marunouchi, Chiyoda-ku; 011-81-3-5223-9896
Order sarmale in Bucharest around Christmas, and you get a time-tested staple that goes back to the Ottoman Empire: cabbage rolls packed with pork, beef, and rice, and boiled in tomato sauce. Variations are also served across the Balkans and Central Europe.
Where to Get It: Locanta Jaristea in Bucharest, along with good Romanian wines. 50-52 Strada George Georgescu; 011-40-21-335-3338
This Christmas breakfast pastry of rice flour and coconut milk is baked in banana leaf–lined terracotta pots, topped with kesong puti (local white cheese), grated coconut, and sometimes even salted duck egg.
Where to Get It: Lourdes Church in Quezon City, one of many that sells the treat in stands after morning mass. Kanlaon St. and N. S. Amoranto Ave. (formerly Retiro St.) Sta. Mesa Height
Sweden: Jansson’s Temptation
Said to be named after the Swedish opera star Pelle Janzon, this casserole of potatoes, herring, onions, cream, and bread crumbs is a holiday mainstay.
Where to Get It: The Veranda, in Stockholm’s Grand Hotel. 8 S. Blasieholmshamnen; 011-46-8-679-3586; grandhotel.se
Mexico: Romeritos with Mole
A batter of powdered, dried shrimp and egg whites is cooked like pancakes, sauced with mole, and mixed with an indigenous mild-tasting green plant called romerito. It’s eaten during the Posadas, the nine days leading up to Christmas.
Where to Get It: Mexico City’s highly regarded Izote de Patricia Quintana. Presidente Masaryk 513; 011-52-55-5280-1671
Ethiopia: Yebeg Wot
Many farmers buy lambs far in advance of Christmas to fatten them up for this thick, buttery berbere-spiced stew. It’s often served with injera, traditional Ethiopian flatbread.
Where to Get It: Summerfields, in the Sheraton Addis. Taitu St. Addis Ababa; 011-251-11-517-1717
It’s always been an easy December catch along the Amalfi Coast: fried, it’s a go-to Christmas favorite.
Where to Get It: Lo Scoglio, a family-run hotel and restaurant that slow-roasts it in laurel leaves—just one of many ways to prepare this fish. 15 Piazza delle Sirene, Massa Lubrense; 011-39-081-808-1026
China: Tangyuan (in theNorth)/Yuanxiao (in the South)
These stuffed rice flour dumplings were once used as an oral remedy believed to protect exposed ears from cold-weather ulceration. Now they’re sunk in sweet or savory broth during Dongzhi, the celebration of the winter solstice, and the wintertime Lantern Festival.
Where to Get It: Sichuan Fandian, one of Beijing’s oldest and best Sichuan eateries. 3 Xinjiekou Beidajie, Xicheng district; 011-86-10-8322-6667