Noche Buena, among other holiday feasts, is at the pinnacle of Filipino celebrations. The phrase which directly translates to the “night of goodness” is exactly that: A traditional Christmas eve filled with goodness, no less for its spirit of gift-giving than its gastronomic delights. The season is known to elicit a great excitement that sends Filipinos to the groceries and rushing to big retail markets in Binondo (our version of Chinatown). They generously extend invitations to relatives and kindred spirits near and far to join intimate gatherings usually within the confines of their households.
Source: The Big Binondo Food Tour
Granted, every Filipino family has a unique way of celebrating their Noche Buena. But before it became a tender-hearted story people tell in the New Year or remembered in photo albums years later, the Noche Buena Filipinos know today actually came into being paradoxically from a story of abstinence. During the Spanish colonization, friars mandated a fasting period for Filipino churchgoers in which they weren’t allowed to partake in any food until the early hours of Christmas morning. Filipinos who were famished after midnight Mass would prepare enough food to finally fill themselves up before retiring to their beds to sleep.
Over time, as Christmas in the Philippines gradually adopted more American traditions, a largely religious practice became a fun house of colorful decorations (embellished trees, Santa Claus, glimmering lights), somehow marrying the sacred and celebratory. So is the case with the food. Classic Filipino Christmas food is an amalgamation of pre-colonial, Spanish, and American influences.
Come Christmas time, make sure to look out for these food staples in every Filipino household.
Source: Kawaling Pinoy
If there’s one dish that takes the spotlight during Christmas, it’s a serving of Filipino-style pineapple glazed ham. If you’re feeling DIY, you can purchase a fully-cooked bone-in ham from the market and create the sauce with ingredients you can easily pull from the grocery. The first step to achieve the distinct taste is to soak the ham in a sauce combining pineapple juice, beer, Sprite, sugar and salt. This is then boiled and left overnight. When baked, it eventually gives the ham the unique Filipino taste that blends well with the chewy texture of the meat.
Some Filipinos opt to buy the Christmas Ham available in groceries instead of making things from scratch. Often considered the main centerpiece of Noche Buena, Filipinos also enjoy this dish even the morning after. Sliced pieces of the ham are deep fried and eaten like a sandwich, usually between two loaves of white bread while taking a sip of their morning coffee or hot chocolate.
Source: Kawaling Pinoy
Another dish that’s popular in Filipino households is a seemingly intriguing dish called the Embutido. During the Spanish colonization era, Filipinos were introduced to different recipes of their sausages such as Chorizo, Longaniza, and of course, Embutido. Gradually, the dish evolved over the passage of time from its Spanish origin. From merely being a type of sausage in Spain, it became a sort of Filipino-style meatloaf that stayed in the palette of Filipinos everywhere, even for those abroad.
In an article published by the New York Times entitled The Rich Tradition of Filipino Embutido, Francis Lam describes it perfectly well, “There’s a certain homely elegance to the dish, a rustic fanciness in rolling ground pork around boiled eggs so that, when sliced, there’s sunny yellow in the middle.”
What’s in the meaty goodness is not just purely pork though, there’s a whole potpourri of stuffing that makes up the roll: raisins, sweet relish, ketchup, cheese and, of course, canned meats like Vienna sausages and smoked ham. All in all this gives the dish a rich combination of flavors, best articulated by Lam, “The soft sausages help keep the meatloaf tender; there’s a distinct sweetness from the relish and raisins, an underlying smokiness from the ham and the rich magic of the mixed-in cheese.”
Chicken Afritada is popular Filipino stew cooked in tomato sauce with chicken pieces, carrots, potatoes and bell peppers. It is highly influenced by the “estofado” or Spanish stew. What makes this dish comforting at Noche Buena is it’s a dish that every Filipino grew up with, also eaten during normal days when there is no cause for celebration.
The main component of this dish is the rich taste of the tomato. Some cooks prefer to add slices of tomatoes and let them seep into the chicken cutlets. Others like to mix both chicken and pork or opt for real tomatoes instead of the tomato ketchup or the instant mix.
It’s a basic dish, one that’s easy to cook and is fit for Noche Buena because of how festive it looks, how seemingly fitting for the occasion its elements come together: the red and green bell peppers, the round peas that pepper the top of the dish, and the lush orange sauce that sets the whole tone.
Queso de Bola
Queso de Bola in Spanish is called “Edam cheese” which literally translates to "ball cheese". It’s a Dutch cheese in a spherical shape, known for its red wax coating. Along with the Hamon, Queso de Bola is also what Filipino mothers give as presents to their friends because of its versatility - you can use it as a side or main ingredient for any kind of dish. Some households enjoy the Queso de Bola with cold cuts and wine, while naturally, you can use it to top off various Filipino desserts and pastas.
When I was younger, I watched my mother store away the excess Queso de Bola we received for Christmas into a dusty cupboard with a glass front where she also displays the expensive kitchenware we don’t use. These red balls of cheese, with colorful stamps of their manufacturing companies at the top, became charming ornaments for a little while until they had to be disposed of.
Even when snow isn’t falling during Noche Buena, Filipinos still find comfort in a steaming hot cup of cocoa. For some, a cup of hot chocolate comes in the form of cocoa powder, but for Filipinos, they can buy their cocoa in condensed blocks of chocolatey goodness, also commonly called “tablea”. The term tablea is a Spanish word that is seemingly a short version of “tabla” which translates to “plank”, connoting something solid.
What makes the tablea different from cocoa powder you may ask? It’s the fat! The missing ingredient in cocoa powder is the cocoa butter - when the cocoa is processed, it loses this component that gives it its rich taste and texture. In a pot of boiling water, the tableas are dropped one by one and stirred until ready. You can even make it more interesting by adding one or two tablespoons of peanut butter into the mix or leveling the heavy taste of chocolate with milk.
A Filipina blogger retells her charming childhood memory about her family’s cocoa farm in the Philippines in Davao, where the beans are considered one of the world’s best. She talks about her summers spent with her grandmother at Tagum, a small town in Davao del Norte:
“I have this vague memory of walking under cacao trees at our ancestral home looking for ripe cacao fruit. Once I spotted one and get a confirmation from Lola that I did find the right one, we would break it open and enjoy it’s fresh white meat. ‘Oh wag mo itapon yung buto’ (Don’t throw the seeds) Lola would remind me. I was tasked to gather, wash and dry the seeds under the sun making sure that birds won’t steal them away. Once the seeds are dried, Lola would roast and grind it before she makes tsokolate or sikwate. The house would smell amazing.”
For some Filipinos, their memory of tsokolate is visceral, bringing them back to a more innocent time. This is not just the case for tsokolate, it’s the same for all our food. Somehow, those seemingly commonplace dishes that we enjoyed at family celebrations or prepared even when there was no cause for celebration speak so much about what we value as a community. We look to our own food to know more about the past, but most especially, to tell ourselves the story of how we live now.
Cover photo credit to Alex Lau