Christmas in diaspora is, at the very least, often liberated from dry turkey. So what do we end up eating? Henna Zamurd-Butt asks some friends
This year the Christmas advert from the UK’s largest supermarket chain Tesco, seemed to get everyone riled up. What were a visibly Muslim family doing marking Christmas day decried people from every angry angle. Did this mean everyone should be celebrating Christ’s birth? Compromising their faith? Or was this depiction just a fiction, because people of colour don’t bother with it? The question of who is allowed to do Christmas isn’t new, in 2017 John Lewis’ festive TV campaign was also criticised for featuring a black family.
My parents seemed to have an endless capacity for absorbing cultural norms whilst never compromising on those they held close. Growing up we didn’t eat pork, because we were Muslims, of course. We also never ate beef, which I imagine is thanks to Hindu and Sikh friends. We fasted during Ramadan, feasted at Eid and, at Christmas, took advantage of the extra opportunity to eat.
Sure, you can subsume everyone’s 25th-of-December habits into a meta-narrative about cultural clashing, capitalism and colonialism. But let’s be honest, everyone can and often does have their own ways of enjoying a few days off work in the dead of winter, and it doesn’t have to be a compromise of principles or a declaration of identity.
Christmas in diaspora is, at the very least, often liberated from dry turkey. So what do we end up eating?
In my household, after a day of eating Woolworths sweets from our stockings we would sit down to a special dinner. There would be huge oven trays laden with garlicky, chilli-red, yogurt-marinated roasted chicken legs. They came with a garnish of spicy roasted potatoes which were a lesson in how not to cook a root vegetable. I’ll never forget how they would be sweaty and waxy from long baking on a low heat, putting me right off until years later I would taste some crisp-fluffy-buttery Maris Pipers prepared by my brother’s wife, Ashleigh.
For dessert there would be a trifle made up from a box mix to sweeten our mouths whilst we found out who was being killed off Eastenders.
But that’s just my version, here’s a few more diaspora Christmas dinners.
I’ve literally never had a Christmas dinner that wasn’t cooked by my family, I’m usually on washing up duty and anyway I don’t think anyone would even want me cooking. To be frank I actually have no idea what a traditional Christmas meal looks like apart from what I’ve seen on TV because my entire life, my family cooks this hybrid of Caribbean and English classics throughout the whole day. I can’t imagine it any other way.
Around late morning my mother has miraculously (read woken up hours earlier/not slept) whipped together a rainbow-esqe platter of island treats reminiscent of a Jamaican breakfast. This includes Ackee n satlfish, Callaloo, Plantain, and sweet dumpling Festivals, this is then topped off with the most insane honey-glazed ham that my step-dads mum prepares ever year. Also if there’s no hardough bread better believe someone in their pyjamas has to go to the shop and get it.
Skip to the evening, after a post-meal slumber, I usually somehow find my way to my aunty and uncle’s house for dinner. Only having some dry turkey, sprouts, parsnips and Yorkshire pudding sounds like an utter nightmare. Luckily cousins Sophia, Bianca and Fab have been a hard at making sure fried fish, curry prawns, curry goat and rice n’ peas liven it up 1000-fold. A fair few of these are featured in the Likkle Cookbook that comes with the my book, Bellyfull.
– Riaz Phillips
When it’s just me, mum and dad in the house, I’m usually the only one chomping at the bit to get my Christmas dinner. Even after 20-odd more Christmases than me in the UK, their tastes are still firmly in the dahl and rice camp. It doesn’t bother me too much, though. I’m very discerning about how I like all the elements cooked. One year, dad put garam masala on the roasted veg and I nearly cried. Then there was the time mum stuffed the mandatory bird between the oven shelves and we nearly lost all that lovely crispy skin – another near-tears moment.
Sometimes I’ll make myself mulled wine. Cheap bottle of red in a steel pan, and a handful of cloves from mum’s spice box. Then I remember I don’t actually like mulled wine and down the sink it goes. Despite these usual teething problems, I’m suitably stuffed and satisfied by the end of the day when I settle down to Eastenders. And safe in the knowledge that I have leftovers to last me until the New Year.
– Rima Saini
I associate Christmas day and all its trimmings with my dad, a misanthropic ex-Catholic whose spiritual practice was showing love through food. Christmas dinner always left us achingly full and contented. Now that my dad has passed, my brother has kept up the tradition, including perfectly crispy roast potatoes. We’ve never been fans of roast turkey, I only remember eating it once, and then helping my mum to make the leftovers into “nana’s turkey” on Boxing Day. My grandmother probably never saw a turkey in her life between Padang and Jakarta, but it turns out leftover roast turkey makes a decent (and massive) coconutty gulai curry.
In our house, Christmas Day meant a massive roast (with a heaped tablespoon of chilli oil each), and Boxing Day an Indonesian feast. Gulai, rendang, balado, kangkung, handfuls of krupuk, and always, ALWAYS, nasi goreng with the leftover rice for brunch on the 27th.
– Annabel Crowley
You can never go wrong with chicken, at least in my family. It’s the one thing that everyone in my family agrees on, and Christmas is no exception. Cooking Christmas dinner is a shared responsibility, but my mother’s in charge of the main course.
She spends Christmas morning by the kitchen door, plucking and cleaning a very special chicken. Not the type that comes pre-packaged in the frozen food aisle of the supermarket. This chicken roamed around, plucked and picked around her garden. Her very own roadrunner chicken.
She starts by frying onion in frighteningly hot oil. Then she adds chopped tomatoes and lets it simmer for five minutes until it forms a gravy. Then she adds the chicken, cranking up the heat again. She adds salt and spices and fries it for five minutes, stirring the chicken around so that it doesn’t burn. Then, the heat goes down again to a gentle simmer.
One hour later, and we have a staple of our Christmas dinner. There are other dishes on the table of course, but the roadrunner is the star. It’s that one thing that makes a special time of the year a little more special.
– Mako Muzenda
On the face of it, our family Christmas dinner is pretty traditional… a bronze turkey with all the trimmings, featuring roasties in goose fat, pigs-in-blankets, parships and for everyone in the family but me… the dreaded brussel sprouts.
But amongst the starters, you’ll find a few less tradiditional options, such as some dim sum and a slice or two of prawn toast. Steamed shumai (pork and shrimp dumplings) and hau gau (shrimp dumplings) bring back memories of visiting bustling hawker stalls on Gurney Drive in Penang, Malaysia as a kid in the 80s. These little dumplings connect me to my Malaysian-Chinese roots and they also remind me of trips to London’s Chinatown with its smells, tastes and the ingenuity of a lazy susan.
Odd as it sounds, prawn toast is symbolic (honest!), representing something a little same same but different, with its Kingsmill base, seafood filling and sesame seed crust, like me its a fusion of east and west.
Add in nasi goreng with the turkey leftovers on Boxing Day and that’s my kind of Christmas comfort food.
– J. Khoo
I am from a Hindu household and have never celebrated Christmas with my family. It doesn’t help that my sister’s birthday is on 25th December, as well as Jesus’. My first roast was at university – until then I had only seen all the Christmas traditions on TV and I didn’t really understand why people hated brussels sprouts, what a parsnip was, and what all the fuss over bread sauce was.
At home Christmas was always the same, I would wake up early and be excited about all the special films that would be on. Mum would wake up later on, and every year without fail would head out to the bank, only to come back 30 minutes later complaining that everything was shut. When I reminded her of the date she would proceed to get into the Christmas spirit and dig out an old plastic 15” tree we bought at a car boot sale in 1995 and put it in the corner. We would already have lights, fortunately, still up from Diwali. Mum would then start on the Christmas dinner consisting of mung bean curry, mango chutney and freshly made chapattis. If she was really in the mood there would also be a mini can of coke with the Santa image on the side. And then we’d end on some rice pudding or tapioca. It may not have been traditional but it was actually one of my favourite meals when I was a kid so I would never complain. No one likes turkey anyway.
– Andrew Hammond
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Henna Zamurd-Butt is the editor of Media Diversified. In 2016 she co-founded Bare Lit, an annual London-based festival of writing. Henna is pursuing doctoral research at Goldsmiths on the role of digital intermediaries as curators of news. She started her career spending five years as a restaurateur and continues to write about food. She has a degree in History and Politics, a masters in Global Politics, a masters with distinction in Politics and Communication, and is an On Purpose social enterprise fellow.
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