Christmas is a time for giving, sharing, and as we all know, eating and drinking. As one of the most widely celebrated holidays around the world, Christmas embodies vibrant traditions in global food culture. When it comes to food, many countries have traditional dishes that are sacrosanct to particular festive holiday seasons. Peru is no different and has some delectable seasonal dishes, as we shall see.
Typically served and eaten after attending Christmas Eve (“La Noche Buena”) or Christmas Day mass, Christmas dinner with the family is as sacred a tradition in Peru as it is in Europe or the United States. Let’s take a look at the mouth-watering courses of a traditional Christmas dinner in Peru.
The Aztecs domesticated the turkey around 2000 years ago. The bird was originally from the area we call Mexico and the South Western United States, before being exported to Europe by the Spanish conquistadores. Turkey proved a popular meat in Europe and made it’s way back to the US from Europe. The word for “turkey” (referring to the bird, not the country) in Portuguese is “Peru”. The rest of the world was obviously very confused about the animal’s original origins naming it the Hindu bird, Indian chicken, Dutch chicken, and turkey, of course.
Every year Gaston Acurio posts some Christmas recipes on his Facebook page. They always include Turkey even though not everyone in Peru eats the bird at this time of year. But Acurio seems to love this humble bird and we do too. Here’s a mouth-watering recipe for baked turkey with an Asian twist. Remember that Peruvian food is influenced by the cuisine of China and other Asian countries.
- First, wash a ten-kilo turkey inside and out and then dry it well.
- Mix half a cup of salt with 3 tablespoons of sugar, 2 tablespoons of white pepper, 2 tablespoons of soy sauce, half a cup of ‘salsa mensi‘ (*see below), half a cup of pisco, a spoonful of garlic, a spoonful of cinnamon and two tablespoons of ground cayenne pepper with two cups of water.
- Mix everything well and rub the runny past to the inside and outside of the turkey.
- Leave the turkey to rest for four hours.
- Heat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit or 200 degrees Centigrade.
- In a baking tray, add some water and pisco.
- Put the turkey and it’s juice in the oven and cook for four to five hours, taking care to add water to the tray if it dries out. Sprinkle the turkey with its own juices occasionally during the roasting.
* The ‘salsa mensi’ mentioned in the recipe is difficult to source but it is essentially a sweet black bean sauce paste.
Other meats and spices
Brining the turkey before roasting and adding Peruvian spice and herb rubs add a local twist to Peruvian Christmas food. The roasted meat course can also include other poultry such as chicken, but roast pork, seasoned in the same way as roasted poultry, is a traditionally served meat also. Whatever meat is selected, however, the real secret to good Peruvian style main courses is the spices.
Peruvian spice blends are either dry rubbed or blended with some vegetable oil. They typically include cumin, soy sauce, vinegar, garlic, lots of paprika, ground black pepper, smoked paprika (which is one of my favorite spices to cook with), and oregano. You can make your own spice blend to add some South American flair to your turkey this holiday season, and I promise that you and your family will not be disappointed with the results.
When most people think of salad, they think “sneaky vegetables with little or no flavor” that their parents or loved ones insist they eat for their 5-a-day quota. Yes, salads can be boring, but not in Peru. If someone makes you a Peruvian style salad, take it for granted that they love you dearly and want you to enjoy your greens. Beans, quinoa, eggs, avocado, corn, and fruit puree such as applesauce or quince puree are all staples of a good Peruvian salad, and the flavor combinations are out-of-this-world.
As the potato, sweet potato, yucca (casava), maca, and similar tubers mostly originated in South America, they are also a major part of Christmas dinner in Peru, and their use in seasonal dishes is more common than it is in the United States or Europe. A dish that is near and dear to my heart is the Peruvian take on sweet potatoes, mashed and baked with marshmallows on top (a Peruvian invention). An interesting twist on this idea that I intend to try this year myself is the sweet potato and yucca blend for baked sweet potatoes/sweet potato casserole.
This gives one of my favorite courses a traditional Peruvian flavour profile. There are, of course, other traditional tuber dishes like papas a la huanacaína and causa, but it seems Americans from Northern Canada to the southern tip of the Tierra Del Fuego love potatoes, yams, and yucca for their Christmas dinner.
Yet another staple of the Peruvian diet, rice and rice dishes are often some of the most vibrant and flavorful offerings at Christmas dinner. The love of rice comes from the Asian influence in Peruvian cuisine. Chifa (Chinese-Peruvian food) is very common in the country and everyone chows down on rice regularly. Rice dishes in Peru are often flavored with everyone’s favorite pork product, fruits, and steamed vegetables. One of my favorite preparations includes not only bacon, but also almonds and apricots in a balsamic vinegar sauce.
You have not lived until you have eaten rice prepared in this manner with your usual holiday turkey or pork/ham. Bottom line, Peruvian rice at Christmas dinner is anything but boring, and there are hundreds of mouthwatering varieties to serve up for your family to give your holiday dinner that traditional Peruvian zestiness.
If loving tamales is wrong, I do not want to be right. Traditional at Christmas time throughout Central and South America, tamales comprise an exquisite addition to any traditional holiday meal.
To prepare Peruvian-style tamales, one needs some white corn for the filling and banana leaves to wrap the finished tamales in. Fillings run the gamut from pork to fish and can be sweet or savory depending on the preference of the family or the family chef. The most important part of the tamale tradition though is preparing them as family or group of friends. Tamales can be labour-intensive, and many hands make light work. It is also a wonderful tradition to practice in your home with the entire family. A great way to get together to prepare and eat traditional foods at Christmas.
This delightful sweet bread (not to be confused with sweetbread) is a tradition at Christmas in households from Italy to Argentina, and when baked fresh it is one of the best additions to a holiday meal before, during, and after Christmas. Panetón is a sweet yeast bread cake that is baked in a cupola-shaped pan and contains candied fruits and raisins.
Originally, it was a Milanese tradition in the early part of the 20th tradition that made its way to South America as northern Italian immigrants made their way to the Americas. Its popularity in Peru has spawned a variety known as pan dulce, and its export has actually led to Italian officials to petition the World Trade Organization to give panettone and official origin of this dessert.
However, Peruvian panettone has a few unique preparation traditions all its own. The dough is fermented for days to allow it to develop its unique flavour, which has accent notes of jasmine and citrus. Some Peruvian panettones blend potato flour with the wheat flour as well.
The loaves are loaded with raisins, candied fruit, and a dash of ginger. In the Andes region, sweet potato and carrot add unique local flavour and it is also not uncommon to see panettone prepared with oats, quinoa, and amaranth.
Whatever the method of preparation, panettone is to Christmas in Peru what cookies are to Americans in the States. Slices of this delicious bread are served as a dessert for Christmas dinner, usually with a cup of coffee or hot cocoa. Some families even prepare it after Christmas as a unique French-toast style breakfast pastry, and it is a staple of the holiday diet before and after Christmas.
If you’re looking for something a bit “punchier” than hot chocolate, try this Peruvian Eggnog Punch recipe called Ponche de Huevo. It’s a traditional alcoholic Christmas drink in Peru and very tasty indeed.
Peruvian Christmas Desserts
At Christmas, desserts vary by region, and they cover a wide spectrum of ingredients and flavors. Baked apples filled with mashed sweet potatoes, cake with mango mousse and fruit salad, and Peruvian-style fruit cake are just a few of the many offerings that grace the tables of Peruano households during the Christmas season.
My personal favourite that is not exclusive to Peru (though the Peruvian version is heavenly) is Tres Leches cake. The name Tres Leches (three milks) is derived from the use of three different types of milk in preparing the cake: sweetened condensed milk, evaporated milk, and whole milk or cream. The end result of this preparation is a heavy dessert that more closely resembles pudding than cake, but it is one of my favourite desserts of all time. It is very hard to go wrong at Christmas time for dessert if you prepare a Tres Leches cake for your guests. A generous piece of this cake with a cup of strong black coffee is the perfect end to any Christmas meal.
A less traditional option but one that will never fail to please is picarones. This Peruvian doughnut recipe will be loved by traditionalists and modernists alike. Try it and see!
So there you have it: a traditional Peruvian Christmas food with all the trimmings. I guarantee that adding a little South American twist to your holiday meal this year will delight and amaze your family and friends, and the techniques involved could not be simpler or easier to prepare with a minimal amount of effort and some easily acquired spices.
From our family to yours, we wish you a happy holiday season and a bright and prosperous new year.