A Noche Buena is a must-have Christmas tradition for Filipinos, whether they’ll be celebrating the holidays in the country or abroad. Just as this Yuletide feast gathers countless families and friends for the season, Interestingly, just as family and friends gather for a savory banquet, the buffet table becomes a collection of dishes with diverse origins. For one, did you know that leche flan was created because of a surplus of eggs? Or that the earliest form of tsokolate was consumed unsweetened? Here are the origins of 10 dishes you’ll find on most Noche Buena tables.
The Stories Behind 10 Classic Noche Buena Dishes
1. Jamon de Bola
Always expect to receive a few balls of juicy ham from well-off relatives or from the noche buena baskets of generous companies when Christmas season comes around. The earliest versions of jamon de bola were nowhere as round, however. The first people in the world to serve ham during a religious celebration were the Vikings. These Norse warriors would offer boar sacrifices to the goddess Freya in exchange for her blessing at the turn of the year. When Catholicism entered Scandinavia and England later on, the tradition was linked to St. Stephen, whose feast day fell on December 26. Various pieces of Swedish artwork depicted St. Stephen bringing a boar’s head to Yuletide celebrations. This symbolism evolved with the dish through the centuries, resulting in what we now know as Christmas ham.
2. Quezo de Bola
For many, it’s hard to imagine a Noche Buena celebration without a giant ball of pungent cheese in a red wax shell. It might be even harder to imagine that this Filipino dish with a Spanish name actually originated from the Netherlands!The proper term for quezo de bola is Edam cheese, echoing the name of its Dutch hometown. This kind of cheese simply dried up and hardened over time instead of spoiling, so it often found its way onto sea voyages. So it’s no surprise that a shipment of Edam cheese would survive a trip from Spain to the Philippines.
“Relleno” is the Spanish word for “stuffed.” For this dish, chicken, fish, and large chili peppers are often stuffed with vegetables and herbs before being cooked. This cooking method has been present for thousands of years, as humans figured out that a stuffed carcass roasted more evenly. Roman cookbook Apicius de Coquinaria contained the earliest recipe on record, but the Spaniards were responsible for bringing relleno, embutido, and other stuffed meats to the Philippines.
From town fiesta to Noche Buena, Filipino celebrations often feature an entire roast pig as both a dish and a centerpiece. “Lechon” is the exact word that the Spanish use for “roasted suckling pig,” Despite the dish’s foreign name, however, Filipinos were already cooking pork over coal fire in pre-Hispanic times! Spanish scribe Antonio Pigafetta even mentions a local feast that featured roast pig on the menu. However, the infusion of foreign flavors gave rise to the modern-day lechon. It helps that Spain itself (particularly Segovia) is famous for its roast piglets, tender enough to be carved with the edge of a plate.
5. Leche Flan
From its name alone, you can already tell that Filipinos have also adopted this dish from the Spanish. Leche or milk is one of the main ingredients of this beloved Noche Buena dessert. However, the first flans actually came from Rome! Back when ancient Romans had just learned to harvest eggs from tamed chickens, they began to experiment with eggs in their kitchens. They soon whipped up a delicious custard dish. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the custard recipe spread to the rest of Europe. The French called it flaon, derived from the Old German word flado (flat cake). By the time the Spanish were ready to colonize the Philippines, the dessert’s name had changed into flan de leche.
6. Fruit Salad
You’ll often see a bowl of colorful fruit salad sitting next to the plate of leche flan on a Noche Buena table. This dish is a bit young compared to the other entries on this list, as it originated from the mid-19th century. Back then, salads were occasionally mixed with sugar and alcohol to form fruit cocktails. Non-alcoholic salads became popular later on in the 1920s. When World War II erupted almost two decades later, the fruit salad entered the diet of the common American as a
Vitamin C supplement.
A sip of thick, creamy tsokolate perfectly caps off a hearty Noche Buena feast. “Chocolate” comes from chocolatl, which is composed of the Mayan word chocol (hot) and the Aztec term atl (water). Ancient Aztecs ground dried cacao beans, mixed the powder into water, and drank it frothy yet unsweetened. After Hernán Cortés brought South American cocoa beans to Spain, Europeans added milk and sugar to recipes to make hot chocolate. Spanish sailors brought the beloved beans to the Philippines, where generals and friars eventually introduced tsokolate to the locals.
This toasty snack is mentioned in both “A Christmas Song” (“Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…”) and “Sa Paskong Darating” (“May kendi at tsokolate, peras, kastanyas na marami…”),, both of which you can include on your Noche Buena playlist. Interestingly, chestnuts were the equivalent of rice or bread in ancient Europe! In fact, Alexander the Great and his army would plant chestnut trees for additional food during their conquests. Roasting in particular became a popular way of preparing the nuts. First, it enhanced the chestnuts’ flavor, and second, it provided a fire for people to huddle around. Early Christians associated the chestnut with chastity, believing that the spiky fruit symbolized protection from original sin, and later linked it to Jesus’ virgin birth.
A fresh, warm bibingka is a welcome sight on any Noche Buena menu. The name for this glutinous rice cake has its roots in the Hokkien word bi, or “uncooked grain.” However, Filipinos have been making bibingka even before the Spanish or the Chinese arrived in the Philippines. Natives traditionally served rice cakes
as food offerings to appease deities and spirits. Hosts would also prepare bibingka for highly-esteemed guests as a gift.
10. Puto Bumbong
This Noche Buena treat is iconic for its striking purple color. Puto is Tagalog for rice cake while bumbong means bamboo cannon, or the bamboo tube used to steam the cake to chewy perfection. Like bibingka, it was also a common pre-Hispanic dish. However, puto bumbong became more widely-known during the Spanish period, when it was often paired with salabat as a post-simbang gabi snack.
Yes, there are stories behind the food you eat as well! Try mentioning these to Mom or the aunts as you compliment them on their Noche Buena cooking. Relatives and friends from overseas will enjoy these delicious bits of Noche Buena trivia, too. Here’s to a happy, hearty holiday feast!
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