Merry Treats and Jubilant Eats
Objectively, Latinos are masters of the kitchen.
Perhaps it is something in their blood that instinctively draws them towards el sazón, el mojo or la guasacaca, a grouping of cells in their fingertips that lets them know just how many teaspoons of cilantro or cumin to pinch.
Or maybe it could be that, as a collectivistic culture that places a higher value on fostering interpersonal relationships above fostering a relationship with the self, the table, la bodega, or la cafeteria have become the ideal locations to tie bonds between friends and family, old and new.
What better way to get to someone’s heart is there than transcending them to a divine level with one bite of a freshly made tamale or a syrupy flan?
During the holidays, particularly Noche Buena, Christmas Day, and el Día de los Reyes Magos, the gusto to impress with culinary delights reaches a peak, as these are the opportune moments to gather large hoards of loved ones together to share a bite, a sip, and a laugh.
What Latin Americans show us is that they do not need to venture far from abuelita’s hand-written recetas or from their personal pantry in order to whip up a memorable meal, for the best dishes are rooted in ancestral soil and descended through generations con cariño.
And although Latin Americans have adapted to “gringo” plates on their palates, they take pride in the unique tastes they bring to The United States and the universally Western excitement over the holidays.
Mexico and Central America
All throughout Mesoamerica, one of the foods most associated with the Christmas Season is in fact among the region’s oldest—the tamal, or tamale.
Millenia before the birth of baby Jesus, ancient Americans were enjoying tamales made from a variety of local meats and nuts.
Since tamales are conveniently portable in their banana leaf or corn husk wrappers, they were often eaten by hunters, gatherers and foot soldiers.
Today, tamales are still cooked en masse, almost as if for an army, but they are eaten in celebration, amongst family.
Though regional variations are many, Mexico boasts some of Latin America’s most interesting culinary Christmas traditions, including Oaxaca’s Noche de Rábanas, which takes place on December 23.
In this unconventional celebration, local carvers put their knives to huge radishes, shaping them into elaborate nativity scenes and folkloric themes, held together only with toothpicks for a few hours until the vegetables begin to wilt.
But the carving festival’s radishes are specially grown for the occasion and aren’t actually edible.
The more delicious and widespread food tradition in Mexico is Las Posadas, a series of nine night-time reenactments where a crowd headed by a couple representing José y María looks for posada, shelter.
The crowd knocks on different doors, singing, until it finds the “inn,” where children break open piñatas for dulces and everyone enjoys a feast. Pozole, a rich stew made with spicy meat and garnished with radish, cabbage and scallions, is a popular choice.
In Mexico, the Roscón de Reyes is a main dessert and it plays an important role in the Día de Reyes. The sweet is a bun made of sweet dough with candied fruits and whipped cream, with plastic hidden figures of the baby Jesus. It’s usually celebrated during the festivities of the Magi.
In Central America, regional diversity and the preponderance of indigenous groups in countries like Guatemala makes it even harder to generalize.
As in much of Latin America, Central Americans sit down for a late night dinner feast on Noche Buena before or after the Misa de Gallo (around midnight).
The foods eaten at this dinner depend on the family’s resources--wealthier families might eat more North American style turkey, while families with less enjoy chicken or tamales.
Families in Guatemala might also enjoy ponche de frutas, a warm drink made with boiled fruit. Then there’s a party atmosphere with fireworks and music in the street on the way to mass.
In the Andean regions of Bolivia, Perú, Colombia, Ecuador, Chile and Argentina
In Bolivia, the holidays are usually represented by la picana, after the traditional toast. La picana is a spicy and sweet broth with meat, chicken, carrots and corn.
Perú, among other pre hispanic traditions, usually share the table with baked turkey, sider, fruits and a refreshing clerico. Ecuador shares a similar tradition with turkey and fruits, and of course, wine.
In Chile, the most traditional drink is the colemono, an aguardiente based cocktail with cinnamon and coffee.
And in Argentina, the lechón, panetonne, chivito and of course, the fernet.
Many of the southern traditions are different, considering the heat of the summer season, but they share a common ground with the meat - usually turkey, pork - the traditional ensalada de gallina - a salad made of hen, potatoes, pineapple, apple, beans and mayonnaise - and a strong drink.
Los Caribeños, or Puerto Rican, Cuban, and Dominican Latinos from The Caribbean, have many crossovers in tastes considering their close proximities and the similarities in the agriculture of their lands.
Many people assume that Caribbeans like to eat “spicy,” but they actually prefer savory and sweet over anything that burns their tongues, and heavily rely on rice and platanos maduros (or tostones, if you prefer the banana-based salty counterpart).
Because Noche Buena becomes more of an affair than the actual day of Christmas, the most important dish of the night is one that takes much preparation. Presented with flare, el lechón asado is like the “Christmas ham” your White friends with family in The Midwest eat on steroids.
Drowning in a juicy and tangy citrus, garlic, cumin, saffron, creole blend, the roasted whole pork is carefully crafted from the marinade and basting, to grilling on La Caja China- an enormous cajun microwave ideal for skewering a pig - in the comfort of a backyard.
Like those who eat the “Wishbone” of the turkey during Thanksgiving (or Christmas Day), Caribeños make it a tradition to recycle another part of their special meal: the skin.
Chicharrones are exactly the types of foods your general practitioner or Weight Watchers nutritionist warns you to avoid at all costs, but because estas son las Navidades, Caribbean Latinos make an exception for these fatty, high-calorie, absolutely divine fried bits of skin and pork belly.
Most Yankees think that the only way to make us of the “nastier” bits of the pig is to turn it into bacon, and while bacon is wonderful in its own right, Caribbean Latinos know better: a chicharrón (or six), is the way to enjoy a whole pork.
Dessert is just as important as the actual bulk of the meal, and while all Caribbean treats are astoundingly good (flan, tres leches, arroz con leche), honorable mentions must go to torrejas and the Puerto Rican spiked-egg nog Coquito. Torrejas are essentially drunk pieces of French Toast. Swimming in honey, lime syrup, vanilla, Grand Marnier and rum, these slabs of torta de yema (egg yolk bread, although Challah is a fine substitute) fried to a sizzling bronze in brown sugar. Torrejas are known as a Cuban delicacy, but Salvadorans have considered this dish a holiday staple as well.
Coquito is a drink, but also a dessert, given that it is comprised of leche condensada, coconut cream and coconut milk, evaporated milk, vanilla, ground cinnamon, and a (lot) of white rum. The trick to an exceptional coquito is to make it borderline dangerous by blending it perfectly enough so that the drink is not overwhelmingly “alcoholic,” as it should be sweet and soft (which means that it goes down easy!). If you want to increase the anti-diet qualities of coquito, you can even make the recipe with vanilla, coconut, or dulce de leche ice cream.
Countries like Venezuela, share not only the Caribbean traditions of tostones and pork, but as well part of the Andes traditions.
The Venezuelan Christmas are organized around the making of the hallacas, a bigger version of the tamale, that consists in the preparation of a stew that has different ingredients according to the area of the country.
The tradition of the hallacas includes a family chain production where everyone helps putting together the ingredients in the dough: olives, onions, potatoes, capers, raisins and anatto.
Later on, someone (usually your uncle with a whiskey in his left hand) is in charge of amarrar the hallaca, which means tie the wrap with a string, and put the hallaca in the freezer, with hundreds of others that will be boiled every lunch, until even february.
Other fundamental dishes in the Venezuelan holidays are the pan de jamón, the pernil and the ensalada de gallina.
Where To Find These Foods in Philadelphia & Surrouding Areas
Los Amigos 2327 S 12th St, Philadelphia, PA 19148
Cafeteria y Panaderia Las Rosas 1712 S 8th St, Philadelphia, PA 19147
Colombian Bakery 4944 N 5th St, Philadelphia, PA 19120
La Caleñita 5034 N 5th St, Philadelphia, PA 19120
Mi Puebla Bakery 7157 Germantown Avenue, Philadelphia, PA 19119
El Coquí 3528 I St, Philadelphia, PA 19134
Las Lomas 1034 S 9th St, Philadelphia, PA 19147
El Soto Deli 500 Tasker St, Philadelphia, PA 19145