It’s Foodie Tuesday!
Where I come from, Christmas is the biggest, most anticipated holiday of the year. It does not confine itself to the 25th of December, starting to creep into the collective consciousness as early as September and and extending way past New Year’s. ‘Tis the season of generosity and prayer. It is also a time when social calendars are filled to the last square centimeter with parties of all sorts — from company shindigs to family reunions, alumni homecomings to church group celebrations, to random gatherings with drinking buddies neighborhood cliques.
Needless to say, this is not the time for diet — they’re doomed to fail this time of year. A lot of these gatherings feature tables laden with scrumptious edibles, and since it is not uncommon for people to squeeze in 2 lunches or 3 dinners in one go, you can do the math and imagine how it adds to the waistline. I don’t think I’ve lost all that I’ve gained last Christmas, and here it comes again. Yikes! I wish I had Jillian Michaels to yell at me for the next 6 weeks.
Anyway, I thought I’d share with you guys some traditional treats that I look forward to indulging in at noche buena, which is the meal partaken of at midnight on Christmas eve.
Queso de Bola
This name literally means “cheese ball” but despite the Spanish-sounding name, it is actually edam, and these balls roll in in large quantities in December. Filipinos love cheese, although traditionally, Filipinos aren’t big cheesemakers — I therefore chalk this up to Spanish colonial influence, as these Europeans were most likely the ones who first brought this dairy goodness to our islands. After all, they were the ones who introduced Christianity, and therefore Christmas, to these parts.
One brand’s tagline goes, ham is “the star of the noche buena feast.” One would think that this too is a western contribution. But I think it is only partly so. Some hams that are served resemble Virginia hams — juicy, salty, with just a tad of the aged taste, but with an additional over-all sweetness that I think is a local tweak on it. But American influence came only in the last century. There are Chinese hams that I think are a much older tradition, are bought dry in mesh nets, with the skin on, and covered with “age” (my euphemism for mold) — and this is quite fantastic too, although it requires more preparation to make it ready for the table. It is saltier, drier, with a powerful punch of pungency. This is served with warm bread and slices of queso de bola.
Yes, this one is considered Christmas cake here too, and is available everywhere. But the only kind I’ve ever liked has been my mom’s. She used to make a bunch of these to give away to her and my dad’s friends as gifts. Now my sister makes them.
Food for the Gods
I know this is a strange, pagan-sounding name for a Christmas treat, but that’s what they’re called here. They are really date and walnut bars. and they come individually wrapped in foil and shiny gem-colored water cellophane wrappers. I’m not a big fan of dates, but I find these to be utterly heavenly and worthy of its name.
Dawn Mass Treats: Puto Bumbong, Bibingka, and Tsokolate
As Christmas day draws near, many Filipinos prepare themselves spiritually by attendingMisa de Gallo ( Spanish, “Rooster’s Mass”), a series of nine Masses celebrated before sunrise, also called Simbang Gabi (Filipino, “Night Mass”). The last one is on the dawn of the 24th, which gears the faithful up for Christmas day Mass.
As an added motivation to get up so early in the morning, for nine consecutive days, there’s got to be some good eating to be had. Puto bumbong is the traditional treat to be had when Mass is over. It is made with dark glutinous rice and coconut and steamed in bamboo tubes, served hot with a cup of tsokolate, a version of hot chocolate made with tablets of locally grown and processed chocolate, which has a strong nutty, toasty flavor, and a bitter edge that is smoothed out with sugar and milk.
Should the early risers want an alternative to puto bumbong, bibingka is also sold outside churches for variety. Bibingka is a cake made with eggs, rice flour, and coconut milk, and baked in banana leaf-lined tins with hot coals underneath and on top, which chars it a bit and gives it a smoky fragrance.