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Holidays Hispanic Style:
Introduce Customers to Culinary Traditions
By Karen Hursh Graber, writing from Mexico
The Christmas and New Year holidays are welcomed with high spirits throughout the world, and nowhere more so than in Latin America. The most festive time of year is celebrated with gusto throughout Mexico, Central and South America and the Caribbean, with gatherings featuring the traditional dishes and beverages associated with these joyful occasions.
During the weeks before Christmas, markets fill with ingredients for making for both sweet and savory specialties. Fruit and nuts, two important elements of holiday meals, are prominently displayed. The season includes several distinct celebrations, each with its own culinary traditions. In Mexico, neighbors join together for the posadas, reenactments of Mary’s and Joseph’s search for shelter in Bethlehem, which take place on the nine nights before Christmas. In the home where symbolic shelter is given, the piñata filled with candy, fruit and nuts is the focal point of the party. Ponche navideño, the holiday punch made with guavas, sugar cane, oranges and the seasonal tejocote, or hawthorne fruit, is served with sweet tamales.
In much of South America, the novena de aguinaldos, nine days of prayers before Christmas, is equivalent to Mexico’s posadas. Usually a social event where families gather to pray, sing and eat together, the novena begins on December 16 and ends on Christmas Eve. Novena gatherings feature traditional holiday offerings such as buñuelos, tamales and empanadas, often accompanied by hot chocolate.
In Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, nearly all of December brings groups singing and playing traditional Christmas songs, after which the musicians are invited into homes for coffee, rum or, in the Dominican Republic, ginger punch. In both countries, pasteles, consisting of leaf-wrapped, meat-filled masa, are served throughout the holiday season.
The Foods of Nochebuena
All December celebrations lead up to the most important night of the season, Nochebuena, or Christmas Eve—the occasion for the big holiday dinner. Often served following the Misa de Gallo, or Midnight Mass, this feast lasts long into the night.
In Mexico, the first course is often bacalao a la vizcaina, dried cod soaked and cooked Spanish-style with tomatoes, olives, with the very Mexican addition of chiles. Cod is also a holiday staple in Puerto Rico, where it is made into fritters called bacalaitos. In much of the Caribbean, a cod and yuca salad called serenata, dressed with olive oil and seasoned with capers, is a popular addition to the table.
For many Mexicans, the highlight of the meal is turkey, which has been a celebratory food since pre-Hispanic times. Roasted and stuffed with picadillo in Central Mexico, steamed with achiote seasoning in the Yucatan, or grilled and served with a sauce made from the local apples in Chihuahua, the turkey is traditionally accompanied by ensalada de noche buena. Open to interpretation, this salad features beets and lettuce, with their red and green Christmas colors, and seasonal fruit of the region—pineapple and bananas in the tropics, apples and jicama in the central mountains.
In the Caribbean and South America, the star of the Christmas meal is usually pork, especially lechon asado, roasted suckling pig. From Cuba to the tip of South America, it is served with regional side dishes—black beans in the islands, and salads in Argentina, Chile and Peru (where Christmas falls during the hottest part of summer). Here cold buffet dishes often accompany the roasted meat, and ensalada rusa, or Russian potato salad, is a popular side dish. In Colombia, the chicken and potato soup called ajiaco is a favorite part of the feast, and in Argentina, stuffed cabbage rolls, called niños envueltos, represent the swaddled infant of the Nativity scene.
Desserts vary from country to country, but panettone, the Italian fruitcake, is popular all over Latin America. In Mexico, boxes of panettone are stacked high in the stores during the pre-Christmas shopping days, and mercados carry ingredients for making cookies and nueces garapiñados, candied pecans or walnuts. Creamy dessert puddings are also featured at holiday dinners—a Christmas version of capirotada, or bread pudding, in Mexico; coconut tembleque in Puerto Rico; and natillas, or cinnamon-laced custard, in Colombia. The fritters called buñuelos are eaten throughout Hispanic countries at this time of year, and in Oaxaca, Mexico, it is a tradition to break the plate for luck after eating the sweet, fried pastry on Christmas Eve.
Most beverages served for the holidays fall into two categories, milk based or fruit-based. The former includes the eggnog-like rompope, created by the Colonial era nuns in Puebla, Mexico, with variations throughout Latin America, including Puerto Rico’s coquito, made with coconut milk, and Chile’s cola de mono, flavored with coffee and spices. These drinks take well to the addition of rum or brandy. Fruit-based drinks include the aforementioned Mexican ponche navideño and Peru’s clerico, a sangria-like drink made with apples, oranges, grapes and melon.
Ringing in the New Year
New Year’s Eve, called the Despedida del Año, or farewell to the old year, brings the custom of the 12 grapes, observed in most Spanish-speaking countries. Each person eats 12 grapes at the twelve chimes of the clock that indicate the last twelve seconds of the old year, and accomplishing this is said to bring a year of prosperity. The Año Nuevo is toasted with champagne or sidra, a sparkling apple cider popular throughout Latin America.
The Dia de los Reyes, the feast of the Magi, ends the Christmas season in Hispanic countries with family gatherings and presents for the children, left by the Three Kings. The food most strongly associated with this celebration is Mexico’s rosca de reyes, a ring-shaped sweet yeast bread decorated with candied fruit. A small doll, representing the Baby Jesus, is baked into the bread, and Mexican tradition holds that the person getting the slice with the doll must buy tamales for the next feast. Rosca de reyes is most frequently served with champurrado, chocolate atole.
Tips for Restaurant Menus
Restaurants can incorporate Latin American holiday traditions into menus in a number of ways. If turkey is on the menu, try a breast roulade stuffed with Mexican picadillo dressing. This can be simply sliced to order and is easier than carving a whole turkey. A pork leg can be roasted in the style of lechon asado or, alternatively, prepare a stuffed roast loin of pork, a popular New Year dish in Mexico. For Christmas dinner, don’t forget to offer an appetizer of bacalao.
Offer a typical Christmas dessert or two, such as bunuelos, capirotada or natillas, to top off the meal and give customers a taste of Hispanic holiday tradition. To put Latin holiday spirit into your beverage menu, try adding seasonal drinks. Rompope or any of its variations, and ponche navide.o, can be served with or without alcohol, and hot chocolate drinks such as champurrado are welcome winter beverages. Have customers toast the New Year with sidra, an inexpensive and unique alternative to champagne, or build a signature holiday drink with it. All work well as a part of a December specials menu, a holiday brunch, for holiday parties booked at your restaurant, or even for catered events.
Here are links to Graber’s recipes:
- Ensalada de Noche Buena
- Bacalao a la Vizcaina
- Rollo de Pavo Relleno (Picadillo Stuffed Roasted Turkey Roulade)
- Lomo de Puerco Relleno (Fruit Stuffed Roast Loin of Pork)
- Cola de Mono (Chilean Christmas Drink)
- Ponche Navideño (Mexican Christmas Punch)
- Buñuelos con Miel de Piloncillo (Oaxacan Fritters with Brown Sugar Syrup)