Some of us go over-the-top this time of year, drunk on cookie swaps and a general sense of abundance; others find that less can be much more. In our latest installment of How We Holiday, four writers give their takes.
Hanukkah is not a synagogue holiday—it’s strictly a home event, a very comfortable, familial time. I was raised in a moderately traditional family, and there was a great consciousness of not simply saying, Okay, this is Jewish Christmas. There were no real presents in any significant way; I'd get a coin one night, a penny or a nickel or something, and then double that each day through the holiday. We would sing songs, tell stories, and light the hanukkiyah every night, then put it in the window.
From a culinary standpoint, our Hanukkah was rather low-key. The food was mostly represented by potato latkes, and we went for a particularly crisp variety—very lacy, very open. Because we’re Romanians, sweet was not a major part of our food. Both sour cream and applesauce were available on the table, but I went strictly for sour cream (or nowadays, labneh). My mother made her own applesauce, with cinnamon; I might have some as dessert afterwards. There was a half an hour after dinner every night that was set aside for dreidel-playing—we played for almonds—and maybe a little bit of singing. Nothing dramatic, just a nice, comfortable time with family.
Nach Waxman is a New York City bookseller whose shop specializes in food and cooking topics.
The holiday season for me actually begins with Navaratri, which is a Hindu festival that comes about three weeks before Diwali. It celebrates female empowerment, specifically the mother goddess and the victory of good over evil. The foods involved are proteins, which stems from the actual usage of meat in Hindu culture; these eventually got phased out because of Buddhism and the nonviolent teachings of the Buddha. The meats got replaced by lentils, and we happily fool the gods with nine different lentil stir-fries. It gets you into the festival mood, and it's quite a healthy way to get things started, too.
Next comes Diwali, which involves a lot of deep-frying and sweets made in ghee. There are deep-fried farsan, as they say in Hindi, and there’s a tonic that you make with ginger and coriander and other spices, where you powder the mix and cook it in ghee. It’s supposed to be a digestive, but I dip it in chocolate and make it into truffles.
For Christmas, we’re more about the decorations than anything else. There's a tradition in South India where, during Navaratri, the goddess festival, you’ll arrange dolls on nine steps, with different sceneries of villages. I've started collecting these figurines from India to make these little scenes on the Christmas tree itself. It's a work in progress. But that's how I transform my Christmas, so that my kids have an idea of the tradition that they're used to. And there's always the gifts: The kids get Diwali and Christmas gifts. It's a double bonus for them.
Niv Mani is a biomedical engineer/ neuroscientist on a quest for all things food. She’s constantly tweaking recipes to create new family traditions.
When it comes to Hanukkah, I love making Gefilte fish, even though it’s not much of a Hanukkah food. I’ll take filets of fish, a combination of whitefish and salmon, and I’ll just put it all in a food processor with the other ingredients. Then I turn it into a bundt pan and basically make a Gefilte bundt cake. When you say “Gefilte bundt cake,” people get kind of nauseated, but it’s actually really good. There’s a certain majesty to it. It definitely sort of scares people, but it also impresses them. It’s labor-intensive, but the rewards are so bountiful that I’m happy to do it.
For Christmas, I’ve been the guest Jew at people’s homes in the past. The year I lived in Scotland, I was invited for Christmas dinner to the home of a friend of mine whose family was quite well-to-do, and I remember that they announced dinner with a gong. It was this house in the middle of the Scottish countryside, and I felt like I was really getting that Anglo-aristocratic experience. I would like to tell you that I remembered the food, but to be honest with you, I was so freaked out by how posh everyone was that I just remember not wanting my friend to leave me alone for a second. I’d have to lie to you if I told you what we ate, or what we did. But there was definitely a gong. That was crazy.
Rebecca Flint Marx is a San Francisco-based writer whose work has appeared in numerous publications. She won a 2015 James Beard Award for Food and Culture.
I like using cooking and the holiday season as an antidote to busy everyday life. It’s a time to enjoy the process of cooking, like a bath or a good book.
We’re Hindu, so we don't have a history of classic Christmas cooking in our household. I’d describe our meal as a mashup between India and a classic Sunday roast, and the menu changes slightly each year. As far as things that appear time and time again, my favorite is butter-garlic prawns—very buttery, very garlicky, packed with mustard seeds and dressed with lemon. For mains, we might have a spiced turkey, rubbed with pepper, cumin, almonds, garlic, and yogurt. Occasionally, we’ll do a whole side of tandoori salmon, which is a very celebratory piece that could replace a turkey. We eat mostly vegetables because we're vegetarian Gujarati: lovely roast potatoes with pepper and cumin, or I like sprouts fried with mustard seeds and garlic and dressed with lemon. Then we always have mom’s trifle pudding; she makes a classic Christmas trifle with absolutely no fresh fruit, but we love it anyway.
Cooking for the holidays can be quite stressful, if you let it. The key to having fun is relaxing, and the key to relaxing is to know yourself as a cook. If you're not used to cooking Christmas dinner or you’re not used to cooking for a crowd, don't overcomplicate your menus. Keep it really simple, and focus on getting everything just as you want it.
Meera Sodha is a cook, food writer, and the author of Made in India and Fresh India.