Our Christmas Table

Ensaimada with Queso de Bola (Photo by Baby Pat's Breads and Pastries, Laguna)

"We are what we eat,” so the saying goes. Our holiday food traditions illustrate that. We have different foods for every celebration. We commemorate events with food. Even in the aftermath of a catastrophe, we find ways to come together through food.

Our Christmas is centered on faith. Beyond the colored lights, the Filipino’s zeal for religious rites shines through.  We go to simbang gabi, the early dawn novena Masses from December 16 to the 24th. Filipinos gather for the noche buena, the family dinner after Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. Families get together on Christmas and New Year’s.

Manila residents don't mind the long drive to Santa Rosa, Laguna, for ensaimadas (Philippine brioche) from Baby Pat’s Bread and Pastries. Owner Pearl de Guzman said, “Bestsellers are the classic ensaimada with queso de bola (edam cheese in a ball). Customers also like the varieties with latik (cooked coconut shreds), ube (purple yam), tablea (chocolate) and the modern-day Speculoos cookie butter.”

Pampanga's classic Chicken Galantina (right) is a mainstay at Noche Buena. (Photo by Poch Jorolan)

In Cavite, Christmas is enjoyed with tamales and calandracas. “The Caviteños have a preference for the savory, peppery, nutty flavors of Robinson’s tamales. It has cacahuete (ground peanuts) and the galapong (rice flour) with pork, chicken, hard boiled eggs, garbanzos,” said Guillermo Ramos, book designer, writer, Cavite historian. Calandracas, a prosperity soup like minestrone, is served for the media noche or New Year’s Eve. It has meat, vegetables and spices in a simmering chicken and ham bone broth.

The Warays have the Tacloban bibingka. It is the size of a fist, with a crunchy top, encased in banana leaves that open like rose petals.

Pampanga, the culinary capital, celebrates with the duman festival on the first weekend of Advent. Duman is a green glutinous rice variety that grows only in Santa Rita and used in coconut-based kakanin (snacks). The duman feast reenacts harvest rituals in song and dance. “Come hungry,” said Poch Jorolan of Outereaters Tours. Pampanga delicacies abound: duman served with tsokolate;  galantina (boneless chicken with stuffing); mechado (beef stew), pan de San Nicolas, sans rival, turrones, petit fortunes, calame biko, taisan. Rice-loving folks can enjoy bringhe, the Kapampangan paella made with malagkit (glutinous rice), coconut milk and turmeric.

The Chicken Waray, cooked like inasal in calamansi, orange, tumeric, lemongrass and coconut milk. Purple Yam in New York City will serve this to honor Tacloban. (Photo by Perry Mamaril, for Purple Yam)

In Ilocos, mothers serve the poki-poki (also poqui-poqui). It is an omelet of roasted eggplants, garlic, onions, tomatoes, patola (gourd) and sitaw (long green beans). The centerpiece is the bagnet, the Ilocano lechon kawali, pork belly that is boiled, air-dried then deep fried twice to a crisp, golden brown.

In Surigao del Norte locals have sayunsong, a suman steamed in banana leaves, shaped like a long horn, with the edges opened to reveal the rich rice logs within.

Bacolod residents go all out. “Everyone must have ham, suman sa ibus, pancit bihon, maja blanca, puto bumbong and always the arroz a la Valenciana (the Filipino paella),” said Lyn Gamboa, president of the Negros Cultural Foundation. 

Pampanga's Duman is unique to the town of Sta.Rita and harvest is celebrated the first weekend of advent. (Photo from Poch Jorolan, Outereaters Tours)

Tacloban, Leyte, which has drawn global attention after being hit hardest by typhoon Haiyan, has its own delights. Kusog Tacloban’s Gina Apostol said, “The Warays have the Tacloban bibingka. It is the size of a fist, with a crunchy top, encased in banana leaves that open like rose petals.”

“Tacloban’s pride is the baruga roscas, a heritage cookie that is cooked in turn-of-the-century ovens,” she added.

Langka ice cream on guinataan by Purple Yam, a holiday dessert to honor Tacloban (Photo by Perry Mamaril, for Purple Yam)

Across the globe in New York City, Amy Besa and Romy Dorotan, owners of Purple Yam Restaurant revealed their customers’ favorites: “ Filipinos love lechon — crisp pork belly. The non-pork eaters prefer roast fish with citrus dressings of orange, calamansi and lime. Of course, the folks order the bibingka (rice cakes in cheese, butter and coconut) and our chocolate or calamansi soufflé. This season, in solidarity with the typhoon families Chef Romy will offer the chicken Waray and guinataan with langka (jackfruit) ice cream to honor the Tacloban families.” 

In Chicago, bakery owner Maridel M. Anama, who owned The Rolling Pin Bakeshop in Manila (in the1960s) said, “Christmas morning is a  tapa-sinangag-itlog (jerked beef, garlic fried rice, egg) breakfast. For dinner we have cocido (stew with chicken, pork, beef, chorizos) and roasted eggplant salad. Desserts are leche flan and Filipino fruit salad.”

Arroz Caldo with crisp chicken topping, a Noche Buena tradition at the Gapultos family (Photo provided by Marvin Gapultos, The Adobo Roads Cookbook )

In California, “Mom has a big pot on the stove, simmering on Christmas Eve’s noche buena,” said Marvin Gapultos, author of The Adobo Roads Cookbook. “It is my mom’s arroz caldo (rice porridge with tripe and or chicken) that we long for after Midnight Mass.” 

“These family dishes are not in recipe books but in our taste buds. They are part of an oral tradition that we learn from our parents,” said Nonna Nanagas, Makati ad executive, who shared her Bataan family’s love for the kare-kareng buntot ng baka (oxtail peanut stew), mechado, nilaga (boiled meat) and halabos na suahe (steamed prawns) served with a dipping sauce of boiled green tamarind.

These are the traditions we carry with us in our hearts. No matter where we are, when it’s Christmas, we put up our parol (holiday lantern) and bring out the dishes that celebrate who we are.

Elizabeth Ann Quirino

Elizabeth Ann Quirino

Elizabeth Ann Quirino, based in New Jersey, is a journalist, food writer and member of the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP). She blogs about Filipino home cooking and culinary travels to the Philippines on her site AsianInAmericamag.com.