Faith, food and fusion: a multicultural Christmas

Food Student Life

Undoubtedly the most memorable moment of this year’s Christmas dinner was the horrified look on my mother’s face when she caught one of our close friends from India pouring generous amounts of Tabasco all over her much-lauded duck breast in a Grand Manier-orange sauce. I learned that night that apparently my family’s inclination towards an international life-style stops short before the modification of traditional German Christmas dishes.

The incident, silly as it may seem, did elicit some serious reflection about the importance of culinary traditions on my part. Many of my friends at Oxford and elsewhere lead lives that regularly transcend regional and national boundaries. We study abroad, take up jobs in foreign countries and are sometimes even connected through global dating sites (Yes, OKCupid has indeed made it all the way to Germany). Yet there are certain occasions when we insist on following our childhood traditions with all the stubbornness of a petulant five year old. Curiously enough these moments most often arise in relation to family holidays and food specialties. It appears that we require a few days per year to reconnect with the smells and tastes of our earliest memories in their purest form. However these habits can pose an interesting dilemma. What happens to the Christmas dinner when its participants quite literally bring an array of spiritual, cultural and culinary customs to the table?

As I set out to gain some insights into this issue and began to frantically dig through piles of online resources on Christmas menus for the multicultural world citizen (one of which tragically argued for a gratin made of Norwegian herring and Swedish meatballs) it occurred to me that perhaps my parents’ obsession with moving across the world every few years had ideally positioned me to exploit the Christmas insanity of my own social network for the purpose of this article. I am therefore pleased to present my personal top three approaches to an international Christmas dining experience.

  1. The Everything Extravaganza

What kind of Christmas celebration do you get when a British girl who grew up in Mozambique heads to Australia for university, gets married to a boy from Brazil and moves in with him and his extended family? While your first impulse may be to simply label such a situation ‘madness’ and move on, my friend Lyla, also known as the highly international protagonist of this story, transformed intercultural confusion into an opportunity to enjoy the ultimate Christmas banquet.  “I really wanted to avoid endless discussions about rice vs. mashed potatoes with my mother-in-law” she confided in me. “So I just thought we could make everything. You know, in an international-understanding-starts-on-your-plate kind of way.” Collectively the family agreed that since Christmas was about joy everyone should cook their favorite traditional dish and that all others had to try at least a little bit of it. Consequently Lyla’s mouth-watering, global Christmas spread included Bacalhau, a traditional Brazilian codfish preparation, spicy piri-piri chicken, cabbage, sweet potatoes, panettone (sweet bread), mince pies and many more tasty specialties.

  1. The Diplomatic Dining Duet

Hailing from Tamil Nadu, India one of my closest friends recently almost caused her parents to pass out at the breakfast table when she announced that she was not only getting engaged to a US-American but also planned to spend the Christmas holidays alone with him in an effort to manifest their status as a new, independent family unit. What followed was a Christmas experience one may classify as spiritually and gastronomically mind-boggling. A Hindu and a vegetarian herself my friend had never paid much attention to Christmas and its culinary practices, while her husband-to-be, a Roman catholic from Rhode Island, was used to a traditional European-style feast involving potatoes, gravy and an excess of meat dishes. Accordingly celebrating Christmas together for the first time involved much more than a simple decision about what to cook; it became a consideration of faith and upbringing. But love is nothing if not creative and so they came up with a joint Christmas contract. Christmas, they decided, was about God’s attempt to connect with all people and make it a better, kinder place. And therefore out of the kindness of her heart she was willing to help make all of his favorite vegetarian Christmas dishes as long as he prepared his ham and turkey in the neighbor’s kitchen, got her a vast supply of green chilies to spice up her meal and agreed to celebrate the Hindu holidays important to her. “Granted,” she told me “it’s not a perfect system yet but at least the food is not so bland anymore.”

  1. The Creative Chaos Celebration

All charming tales of culinary dialogue aside there are also those families that are strong believers in chaos theory. A Christian girl from Goa herself a former colleague of mine grew up with a mother who manages the Indian branch of a large French development organization that has offices all over the world. Needless to say the annually the family’s Christmas dinner guest list tends to encompass more different nationalities than the contestant roster of the summer Olympics. Yet their approach is plain and simple. “We cook high quantities of our own traditional Christmas foods and then we always set some of it aside before we add our usual spices,” my friend’s mother explained. “That way we get to eat what we are used to and our guests don’t tear up from all the chilies. Plus we put a whole bunch of different sauces and herbs on the table and ask people to bring whatever they want..“ The family’s method has led to some rather interesting Christmas creations, such as Goan Sea Food Curry with nutmeg and cinnamon or cumin rice with rosemary and a side cranberry sauce. But how else do gourmet recipes get invented if not through experimentation?

So maybe there are ways to overcome the food habits of your childhood. Maybe such an attempt can even lead to more inter-cultural and religious understanding. And maybe it even ends up being a whole lot of tasty fun.