Far flung feasts: Ethnic markets provide novel holiday flavors from around the world
Ethnic markets provide novel holiday flavors from around the world
by Richard Foss
Think of the smells of Christmas for just a moment – got it? You probably thought of baking spices, the cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and cloves that accent everything from fruitcakes to holiday candles.
Those seasonal flavorings go back to nineteenth century London, to Queen Victoria and her German-born husband Albert who took such delight in Christmas that they turned a minor holiday into a commercial bonanza. The Christmas tree, sled rides, and candy canes from Albert’s boyhood in Bavaria and the bright Scottish plaids and steamed plum puddings Victoria favored became part of our culture as well as theirs. The eccentricity of a beloved and trend-setting royal couple captured the world’s imagination.
Other flavors might come to mind if you didn’t grow up in England or the U.S., or if your family honored their ancestral holiday traditions. Romanians get nostalgic over cakes filled with brandied cherries, Ukrainians over sweet nut and grain pudding, Argentines a heady mix of sparkling wine and pineapple juice. Some of the foods from around the globe involve rare ingredients or are difficult to make, and since you only get one chance to serve the perfect holiday meal you’d rather buy them premade. With that in mind, we present this short guide to the delicacies of the Christmas season and where you can get them. We assume you’re willing to travel off the Hill, because celebrating the season right is worth the drive.
English – Mincemeat pie has gone through a curious evolution, beginning as a medieval mutton pie laced with chopped dried fruit and spices. It became a Christmas treat at least as early as Elizabethan England, so much so that Puritans regarded eating them as a Catholic vice. Over the centuries the pies became less meaty and more sweet, and now many mince pies are all fruit, nuts, and spices with no meat at all. That’s the case at Hof’s Hut, which bakes them only on Christmas Eve. This is a rare treat, and if you want one you need to put in your order now.
(23635 Crenshaw Blvd., Torr. 310-325-0470)
German, Northern European – Building and decorating a gingerbread house is one of the most enjoyable family traditions, and Alpine Village Market offers the materials in an easy kit form. But call first to be sure they have gingerbread kits available, because they are known to run out. They also have everything for a complete German holiday meal, including weisswurst, the veal and pork sausages that are a holiday treat in Bavaria, and stollen, the fruit bread scented with orange zest. Whole froze geese and ducks are also available. Pick up a bottle of glühwein, the spiced wine that is served heated, to make things even more festive. Alpine Village has items from other holiday traditions too – Hungarians will want to pick up szaloncukor, the colorful candies that are used to decorate the Christmas tree.
(833 W. Torrance Blvd., Torrance. 310-327-4384)
Hawaiian – At holiday luaus Hawaiians enjoy haupia, coconut milk thickened with arrowroot starch so it resembles gelatin. This is usually cut into blocks and served on a ti leaf. You can get these and other pastries at King’s Hawaiian Bakery in Torrance, and munch on classic items like a kalua pork sandwich, loco moco, or saimin soup while you’re there.
(2808 Sepulveda Blvd., Torr. 310-530-0050)
Italian – Most Americans look forward to the roast beef, turkey, or ham during this season, but Italians look forward to the Feast of Seven Fishes. A-1 Market in San Pedro stocks up both on fresh fish and the salted codfish called baccalà that is served fried in cod cakes, braised with milk, anchovy, and onions, or cooked into stews. A-1 also carries the nougat candies called torrone and imported panettone breads.
If you’d like your panettone made in Rancho Palos Verdes instead then Amalfitano Bakery will be happy to oblige. They also make the Neapolitan honey pastries called struffoli, mostaccioli (not the pasta, the walnut cookie), rococo spice cookies, and cuccidati fig cookies.
(A-1 Market, 348 W. 8th Street, SP. 310-833-3430)
(Amalfitano Bakery, 29111 S. Western Ave., RPV. 310-833-2253)
Japanese – There is nothing wildly innovative about the Japanese Christmas cake: it’s a sponge cake topped with whipped cream and strawberries. Nevertheless it has great symbolism in modern Japan. The red and white cake has the colors of the Japanese flag, its ornate decoration evokes traditional Shinto shrines, and it’s a symbol of prosperity. The local Japanese community buys their cakes at Nijiya Market, generally ordering in advance because they sell out quickly.
(2533 Pacific Coast Hwy. Torr. 310-534-3000)
Mexican – At this time of year many Mexican restaurants and bakeries sell fruit tamales – one of the most popular variants includes pineapple, raisins, cinnamon, and honey. They wash those tamales down with Ponche Navideno, and some Mexican markets stock the hawthorn berries and guavas that are pulped to make this sweet concoction. The distinctive pastry of the season is buñuelos, fried pastries scented with anise or cinnamon and sometimes served with syrup. Mi Lupita Bakery has those fragrant holiday doughnuts, but you need to call to reserve them, as they aren’t made every day.
(1640 W. Carson Street #A1, Torr. 310-533-1884)
Spanish – Marzipan may have been invented in Spain, and whether or not that is true the ground almond and honey confection is important in their Christmas celebrations. La Española is where we go for all things Spanish, and the side street deli in Harbor City offers many varieties of Christmas candy at this time of year. Turrón de Jijona is a luxurious marzipan that is 74 percent almonds by weight, and is one of several sweets that they import from Spain just for the season. Others include mantecados y polvorones, a selection of frosted and unfrosted Christmas cookies, and bombón de higo, chocolate-coated figs injected with brandy. You’ll want to pick up some cheeses, sausage, and Iberico-style ham for tapas before the meal, because who could pass that deli case without doing so?
(25020 Doble Ave., Harbor City. 310-539-0455)
Whether your Christmas is a holiday of great reverence or an excuse to gather the family and give presents, connecting your menu with your heritage helps make a connection with your culture. Whatever you eat and drink, we wish you a joyous season.
by Richard Foss