Tour of holiday-table traditions – Winnipeg Free Press

Christmas rituals mean different things to different people.

For some, the festive season starts when decorations are brought down from the loft, ready to be hung on the tree. For others, it’s going to a carol concert, with yuletide hymns kicking off their celebrations.

Whether it’s wrapping presents while indulging in a glass of wine and a mince pie, plotting out festive meals in WhatsApp family group messages or watching Home Alone together, each of these moments unlock feelings of excitement, warmth and celebration.


For AV Kitching, the rich Christmas Day meal is the best part of the holiday.

Growing up in my house, we knew Christmas was on the way when my mother covered our dining table with sheets of newspaper before getting out her mixing bowl, metal sieve and wooden spoons.

The image of her red mixing bowl — square rather than round — is indelibly imprinted in my mind, as is the sound of the wooden spoon scraping its sides as she stirred her sticky-sweet cake mixture filled with brandied fruit and candied peel.

The feast was always the thing we looked forward to most on Christmas day, a chance to eat food we didn’t often have, the rich fare rendering us immobile on the sofa as the day went on.

I remember a fiery chicken dish made from pounded red chilies cooked down with coconut milk, the delicate flavour of lemongrass and lime leaves running through it.

A potluck’s worth of Christmas recipes

Why not try a new dish on your dinner table this holiday season?

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Coconut Curry Chicken

Recipe courtesy of Chef Rob Thomas

Marinade for chicken:

3 lbs chicken, cut into 12 pieces

1 ½ tsp salt

½ tsp black pepper

½ tsp Chief brand curry powder

1 tbsp minced garlic

1 tbsp minced ginger

2 tbsp Fresh Green seasoning (optional)

Place in a medium mixing bowl and season with the marinade ingredients. Marinate for at least two hours to overnight.

To cook chicken:

3 tbsp vegetable oil

¼ cup julienned onions

1 tbsp minced garlic

1 tbsp minced ginger

1 tbsp pimento peppers/Jalapeños, chopped

2 tbsp curry powder

1 tbsp cumin powder

¾ tbsp garam masala

¾ tbsp turmeric

½ cup water

1 cup coconut milk

Salt and pepper to taste

Hot pepper sauce to taste


Place a medium high-sided skillet on high heat and add the oil.

Add the onions into the hot oil and cook for two minutes until fragrant, add garlic and ginger cook for one minute.

Add the curry powder, cumin, garam masala and turmeric. Stir spices in the hot oil and cook for approximately two minutes.

Add the water and stir the spices to dissolve in the water. Let cook for about one minute until a semi thick curry paste develops.

Add the seasoned chicken to the hot pot and turn pieces to evenly coat the chicken with the curry mixture. Add the coconut milk, stir, and bring to a boil and then reduce heat to simmer. Cover and let cook for 20 minutes stirring once or twice. Adjust heat/flavour with pepper sauce, salt and pepper.

Remove from heat and serve with rice and/or roti.

Filipino-Style Spaghetti


3 tbsp cooking oil

4 hotdogs, sliced diagonally

4 onions, chopped

4 cloves garlic, minced

1-2 bay leaves

1 lb ground meat of your choice

Salt and pepper to taste

3 tbsp sugar

2 tbsp soy sauce

1 tbsp oyster sauce

½ to 1 cup of water or broth of your choice

2 ½ cups Filipino-style tomato sauce

½ cup tomato paste

1 cup store-bought banana ketchup

Grated cheddar cheese

1 pack spaghetti


Cook spaghetti as per packaging directions. Drain and set aside.

In medium heat, sauté the onion, garlic and bay leaves in oil. After the onions are translucent, add the ground meat and cook through.

Add the hotdogs and continue cooking until pan liquids evaporate.

Then add salt, pepper, oyster sauce and soy sauce. Once all the flavours are combined, add in the sugar, tomato sauce, tomato paste and the banana ketchup. Mix well. Depending on how thick you want the sauce, add water or broth (make sure to check and adjust salt levels if using broth). Simmer on low heat for about eight to 10 minutes, while occasionally stirring. Add in the cheese (setting some aside some cheese to be used as topping when serving). Simmer until the cheese melts in the sauce.

Combine the pasta and sauce. Top with the remaining grated cheese and serve.

Puto (steamed rice cake)


4 cups rice flour (or substitute with all-purpose flour)

2 cups granulated white sugar

2 ½ teaspoons baking powder

1 cup milk

2 ½ cups water

½ cup melted butter

¼ tsp vanilla extract

1 egg

Food colouring (purple, green, pink)


Prepare your steamer on medium heat. Combine flour, sugar and baking powder by sifting together in a bowl.

Mix in the wet ingredients — milk, water, melted butter, vanilla and egg. Whisk until the texture becomes smooth.

Separate mixture into small bowls depending on how many colours you want to make.

Add a tiny drop (or use the tip of a toothpick) to add the colour to each bowl. Adjust the colour mixture as desired.

Pour the finished coloured mixtures into puto molds (you can use small or medium silicon muffin moulds).

Arrange the molds in the steamer. Cover and steam for about 20-25 mins.

When ready (when a toothpick comes out clean), gently remove from the moulds and arrange on a serving plate.



500 g minced lamb, beef or a mix of both

150 g frozen peas

2 potatoes, diced to pea size

1 large carrot, diced to similar size

2-3 tbsp meat curry powder

1 tsp garam masala

1 tsp each of garlic and ginger paste

3 medium onions, finely chopped

1 stick cinnamon

5 cloves

1 star anise

1 sprig curry leaves (optional)

Salt to taste


Heat 2 tbsp oil and fry whole spices and curry leaves.

When fragrant, add onions and cook over medium heat.

Add the meat once the onions have softened.

Stir in the garlic and ginger paste and mix well to combine.

Cook 5-10 minutes, then add curry powder and stir thoroughly.

After 5 minutes, add diced potatoes and carrots.

Sprinkle a few splashes of water and stir well.

Cover and cook for 10-15 minutes until meat and veg are well cooked.

Add the peas and salt, stir through to combine, and cook 3-5 more minutes.

Lastly, add garam masala and stir well and cook a further 3 minutes.

Top with chopped coriander before serving.


There would be a dry mutton curry, cinnamon-scented gravy clinging to generous chunks of New Zealand mutton.

A roast chicken smeared with spice paste and stuffed with potatoes would sit beside a heap of shredded carrots with bright green slivers of pistachio, ruby red pomegranate seeds and golden sultanas tossed through.

For those of us not wanting to scorch our tongues, there would be keema made from ground lamb or beef cooked with clove, star anise and garam masala, cubed potatoes and peas swirled through the dense meat.

Three kinds of rice accompanied: tomato rice studded with cashews and raisins; buttered rice enriched with ghee and fragrant with clove and cardamom; and nasi lemak, rice steeped in coconut milk and pandan, its perfumed steam softly wafting across the table.

We couldn’t wait to tuck in.



For Folasade Akin-Akinbulumo, Christmas with her family was very much about cooking and eating, too. She recalls childhood celebrations in her family home in Osun State, Nigeria, where the table would be laden with dishes such as jollof rice, roast chicken thighs, plantain and coleslaw.


Roasted chicken thighs with plantain and coleslaw are common on Nigerian holiday tables.

“In my family you would have swallows (Nigerian food balls that are eaten without chewing) such as pounded yam. It’s a difficult dish to prepare and so it would be reserved for special occasions like Christmas,” she says.

There would be efo riro, a spicy stew made with spinach, and egusi soup with meat and seafood. Another common dish called assorted meat was often made with beef in a peppery, spicy sauce.


Folasade Akin-Akinbulumo holds poundo (left), efo riro, and meat, staples in Nigerian celebrations.

Akin-Akinbulumo has fond memories of her family coming together to cook in Nigeria, everyone playing their part to make the Christmas meal a memorable one.

“There would always be as many aunties as could be available cooking,” she says. “It was considered a time for community cooking. Usually all the wives of the men in the family would come together to cook with my late grandmother and my mom.”


A global Christmas dinner table with meat (left), efo riro, and poundo.

These days her Christmas meals have changed. The former nurse now runs AFV Kitchen, where she serves up food from the West African region. Because her day job involves cooking, Christmas is a time for her to put her feet up.

Daughter Sope, 16, takes the lead with the whole family pitching in to help. The meals change every year — last year they had gumbo and the year before the main dish was chow mein. Sope has yet to decide which part of the world this year’s meal will come from but what’s certain is that everyone will get involved to bring the feast to the table.



For Jennie A. Ramos and family, this will be their first Manitoba Christmas. Ramos, originally from the Philippines, arrived in Winnipeg in July with her husband, Balaji Gopalakrishnan, and their two-year-old son, Jival. The trio moved here from Dubai, where Ramos and her husband had lived for almost 15 years.

Christmas is her favourite time of year, she says.

“Christmas celebration is definitely not a one-day event. After Halloween we start our shopping and buy gifts for everyone. It’s also a non-stop Christmas party where you get together with different circles of friends and relatives,” she says.


Jennie A. Ramos’s family will enjoy her Filipino-style spaghetti as part of a Christmas Eve feast.

As the day approaches celebrations amp up, culminating on the 24th with a feast.

“Christmas Eve is special. This is when my parents, my brothers and our families share a feast of food that my mom prepares after coming home from church.

“Like all other festivities, Filipinos really go all out and extra when it comes to food. We will have roasted chicken, sweet ham, quezo de bola (ball of cheese), grilled pork, embutido (a type of meatloaf), grilled stuffed fish, a hearty beef soup, the famous Filipino-style spaghetti, and a variety of desserts, like fruit salad, cake and ice cream, puto and sticky-rice desserts like palitaw and kutsinta. And that’s just a few, ” she says.



As in most families, it was Ramos’s mother who was in charge of plotting out the main meal.

“My mother would be running around the kitchen, preparing all this food but as my siblings and I grew older we would be given ‘assignments.’ My brothers would be in charge of the grill and alcohol, I would help my mom cut meat, vegetables and fruit, and my late father was in charge of the music,” she says.

Celebrations in Winnipeg this year will be a little quieter with only the three of them at home. Ramos will spend most of the day cooking before they attend mass on Christmas Eve. They will then come home to a smaller meal of sweet ham, Camembert, Filipino spaghetti and turkey meatloaf.


Filipino spaghetti.

“On the 25th, after we wake up and open our gifts, we will visit my cousin for lunch. In the evening one of our friends has invited us for a potluck dinner. I will take turkey meatloaf and pork adobo, which she requested,” she says.

It will be a hectic day but she can’t help but miss the rest of her family. Ramos’s hope is to be able to celebrate with them again one day soon.

“I cherish every Christmas that I get to spend with my family. I think my favourite one is yet to come. I truly hope and look forward to having my brothers, their families, and my mum come to Canada so we can all celebrate and feast together; I can only imagine the long table of Christmas food that we will have when this day comes!”



For Rob Thomas this Christmas will be a special.

The private chef has spent the last three festive seasons away from home, cooking for clients all over the world. This time round he’s staying put in Winnipeg and looking forward to Christmas dinner with his family.


Chef Rob Thomas’s childhood Christmases typically featured multiple curries, such as this coconut curry chicken.

Thomas recalls childhood family Christmas meals that were “humongous” Christmas spreads where the food was always “fantastic”.

“Typically we don’t always do North American fare for these occasions, although we would sometimes have a chicken or turkey with some ham,” he says.

“More often than not we would always have something Caribbean on Christmas. There would be fried plantain, peas and rice, macaroni pie, and multiple curries like curried chickpeas or curry chicken. Sometimes we would have callaloo, a popular Caribbean leafy dish.”

It wasn’t unusual to have multiple Christmas celebrations with family dinners across the city spread out over the festive period.

When he was growing up, Thomas’s mother did the bulk of the cooking with him but as he grew older he would help with preparations.

“Growing up in a Caribbean household you are put to task quite often and Christmas cooking is always a team effort.”


Curry chicken.

Curry chicken was a childhood Christmas staple and a dish his parents would cook whenever they went for family dinners.

Nowadays things are slightly different. The main meal has shifted to brunch and everyone in the family contributes a dish.

“It’s interesting now because of the way it’s changed. We make it easier with everyone contributing. We will have a lot of savoury items, things like saltfish and bake, which is absolutely delicious. So when it comes to the big sitdown meal, it’s a little bit of a potluck-style.”



My table this year will feature rather more traditional North American dishes. That Christmas stalwart, the roast turkey, will make an appearance, as will my mother-in-law’s meatballs in a sweet-and-sour sauce. There’ll be mashed potatoes and roast vegetables and a vat of gravy to go over everything. And in a little dish, as nod to the Christmases of my youth, there will be a bowl of clove and star-anise scented keema for everyone to try.

Merry Christmas!

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AV Kitching

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