According to that old chestnut of a Christmas song, everybody knows a turkey and some mistletoe help to make the season bright. That is, everybody except those of us celebrating in the Philippines, where mistletoe is a mystery and the fowl most likely to grace a holiday table is a pork-stuffed chicken.
Here, snowflakes are made of paper, brightly colored lights adorn palm, not pine, trees and Jack Frost is probably nibbling on mangoes instead of nipping at noses. Nevertheless, some of the trappings and customs of Yuletide, such as colorful light displays and the exchange of gifts and greeting cards, have been adopted in many parts of Asia. But nowhere else is it celebrated with such a fascinating combination of religious adherence, secular exuberance and multicultural touches as it is in the Philippines.
As early as September 1, Christmas carols start playing in shopping malls and images of Santa, elves and reindeer pop up all over. At grocers and markets, shoppers search for different ‘lucky’ round fruits, a tradition borrowed from Chinese New Year practices. However, thanks to three centuries of Spanish rule and Roman Catholic practice, Filipinos observe this holiday first and foremost as the holy day of Jesus’ birth.
Unique among Catholic Church traditions around the world is Simbang Gabi (‘Evening Mass’) - nine days of pre-dawn services beginning on December 16 and culminating with the Misa de Gallo ('Rooster’s Mass') at midnight on Christmas Eve. From this devotional practice came the most recognizable and cherished symbol of the Filipino Christmas – the colorful star-shaped luminaries known as parols (from Spanish word farol, or ‘lantern’). Originally made of bamboo frames covered with delicate tissue paper and adorned with intricate papercut tails to represent the Star of Bethlehem, they were lit from inside with candles and used to illuminate the way to church for those pre-sunrise services. Today, parols are made with every conceivable material, from dried tallgrass to colorful cellophane and even recycled plastic bottles, and are lit up with electric lights and hung from doorways, trees and traffic lights everywhere.
Another traditional holiday ornamentation that no Filipino household should be without is a Nativity scene, called belen (from the Spanish word for Bethlehem). Depictions of the Holy Family and their special visitors range from dainty tabletop crèches to enormous displays like the famous paper-mâché Higantes (‘giants’) in the artists’ town of Angono, just east of Manila.
As with any celebration in the Philippines, food plays a central role and the centerpiece of feasting is the traditional Christmas Eve dinner called Noche Buena. On the table are ubiquitous fiesta favorites such as lechon (roast pig) and pancit (noodles), as well as baked ham, keso de bola (Edam cheese) and warm pandesal (sweet rolls). For dessert, there is bibingka – a steamed rice cake topped with grated coconut, cheese and salted egg, and tsokolate, a thick, intensely rich native cocoa drink served in demitasse cups.
What about that turkey, without which Christmas may seem dimmer, according to the classic song? In the Philippines, the poultry of choice is chicken and for the holidays, it is served as a galantina – an elaborate, French-inspired preparation that involves deboning a whole chicken, stuffing it with spiced ground meat and other ingredients, then roasting or poaching it before serving cold in slices.
Also known as rellenong manok (‘stuffed chicken’), Chicken Galantina is an elegant albeit time-consuming presentation. However, if you are all turkey-ed out after Thanksgiving or find the idea of a baked ham too ho-hum, then try this simplified version.
It is traditionally made with a deboned whole chicken, but for those of us with less than stellar knife skills, using chicken breast is a convenient alternative. A common complaint about galantinas that are baked rather than poached is that the meat dries out in the oven. The solution? Quick-brine the chicken first, which helps to keep it moist during roasting. This recipe serves 4 to 6 people.
2 whole chicken breasts, deboned and skin left on
½ lbs (250g) raw mild Italian sausage (removed from casings)
2 Tbsps raisins, soaked in water
2 links sweet Chinese sausage (lap cheong, found at Asian markets), sliced in half lengthwise
1 hard-boiled egg, peeled and quartered lengthwise
Whole pitted olives
2 Tbsps butter, softened
2 Tbsps coarse salt
2 cups hot but not boiling water
1 Tbsp dried herbs, such as oregano
2 bay leaves
2 cloves garlic, crushed
- Preheat oven to 350F.
- Combine brine ingredients and stir until salt is dissolved. Cool down by adding ice cubes (about ½ cup) then add chicken breasts. Let them brine for about 30 minutes.
- In a small pan, simmer Chinese sausages in a bit of water until plumped up. Remove from the pan and slice in half, lengthwise.
- Drain raisins and in a small bowl, combine with the Italian sausage, using your hands to mix them together until well combined. Set aside.
- Remove chicken breasts from brine solution and rinse. Pat dry, then cover with plastic wrap and pound until about half of its original thickness.
- Lay out flattened chicken breast, skin side down, and spoon half of meat mixture on top, spreading out evenly. Stud the sausage with olives, then down the middle, lay half of the Chinese sausages and egg quarters side by side.
- Gently grasp both long sides of the chicken breast and carefully bring together to form a log shape. Use kitchen twine to secure the roll.
- Generously rub with softened butter and place on a greased baking dish.
- Repeat steps 6-9 with the remaining ingredients.
- Bake at 350F for approximately 40 minutes or until chicken is cooked through. To prevent overbrowning, loosely cover with foil for the last 20 minutes of cooking.
- When done, remove from the oven and let cool. To serve, slice into 1/2"-thick rounds. May be served warm or chilled.
Tracey Paska lives, eats and writes in Manila, Philippines, where she revels in the fact that she can wear flip-flops outdoors in January. When she's not exploring Manila's foodscape, she freelances for a national food magazine and writes about the complex and fascinating connections between food, culture, and society on her blog Tangled Noodle. Her last post for us was: The Healthy Taste of Sour Foods.