I'm not sure I partake in any event that isn't about the meal, especially during the December holidays. My mom and I just fought about whether two pork dishes, in addition to chicken, is too much for Christmas. Me: no. She: yes.
But when I asked Maangchi, author of Maangchi's Real Korean Cooking, and Kian Lam Kho, author of Phoenix Claw and Jade Trees, what the December holidays are like where their families are from, the stories were a bit different—the meal with the family isn't always the defining tradition. "What?" I said. Read on to learn more:
Christmas in Korea is more of a day for young romantic couples or a day for people to hang out with their friends. On Christmas, every restaurant is full of people having a good time and exchanging gifts. The mood is pretty rowdy.
But once I moved to the West, the holiday became more about my family for me: Like many Korean expats, instead of turkey, I make Korean dishes typically reserved for special occasions, like galbi, barbecued beef ribs in a soy sauce-based marinade. It’s delicious, sweet, savory, and definitely special occasion food. I also make japchae, a dish made from clear sweet potato starch noodles and stir-fried vegetables. And the meal is rounded out with an array of side dishes made from vegetables and seafood, a stew, and of course kimchi and rice are always unskippable!
Christmas celebrations in China are more commercial than spiritual. Although the officially sanctioned Christian churches offer Christmas services, they are rather subdued and only the small Christian minority observes the occasion. The commercial end of the holiday, though, has become very aggressively hyped by merchants.
For instance, the “peace” apple was introduced by apple farmers about ten years ago and has become very popular: While the apple is still on the tree, it is stenciled with festive characters that read “Merry Christmas” or similar. The stencil blocks sunlight so as the apple ripens, the skin behind the stencil remains pale while the exposed area turns red. These apples are then wrapped in individual decorative boxes or papers and are sold as Christmas Eve gifts.
Many that do celebrate Christmas have adopted the Western tradition of serving turkey, ham, or a roast, often introducing Chinese flavors into the dishes. For instance, I like to use a glutinous rice stuffing with the traditional roast turkey. This isn’t too big of a stretch, since in China a chicken or duck is often stuffed with cooked glutinous rice mixed with seafood, ham, mushrooms, bamboo shoots, and five-spice powder. To get even more Chinese flavors, I brine the turkey with soy sauce, star anise, cinnamon, cloves, and dried tangerine peel.