The Ancient Origins of 7 Noche Buena StaplesDecember 2, 2013
- Serna EstrellaWords
Some say that the delights of Christmas are solely for children (and those among us who still believe in Santa Claus), but I vehemently beg to disagree. No matter how old you get, it’s hard to remain completely indifferent to the sound of church choirs (or upscale mall PA systems) belting out festive century-old carols, the smell of bibingka wafting through the post-Simbang Gabi air, and the spectacular lights show along Ayala (which will get your mind off the horrid traffic jam for a little while). However, especially for tight-knit Filipino families, the most memorable part of the yuletide holidays is, without a doubt, the Noche Buena.
Literally “the night of goodness,” the Noche Buena is the meal shared by a family on Christmas Eve. It’s usually eaten after the traditional midnight Mass. As with many of our cultural rituals, we picked up the custom from our Spanish conquerors. Back then, however, the late night repast originated out of necessity. Early Filipino Christians were expected to fast until Christmas morning, but since anything after the midnight Mass technically qualified as morning, hungry churchgoers would then start eating the minute they leave the church.
Although many of the celebrated Noche Buena dishes are Hispanic in origin, there is one element of the Christmas Eve feast that is undeniably Filipino, rice. Even before the Spaniards arrived, Filipino natives would celebrate the year-end harvest with rice. It’s a symbol of prosperity, whole, ground, or sticky and sweetened, it was always present at the dinner table as an offering to the gods.
So, forget about that stale fruitcake. (Seriously, who eats that stuff anyway?) The following are what really count as Christmas food on this side of the Pacific.
Sweet, ball-shaped, and with a fruity glaze, jamon de bola is a popular gift given to employees working for large conglomerates (that is, if they don’t cheap you out and give you what’s practically giant spam). Cooked in a sweet broth after curing, its taste and texture is very similar to that of Chinese ham and is usually scored, glazed, and roasted prior to packaging. Though this magnificent centerpiece can be eaten either on its own or alongside your choice of carbs, I like it best the morning after, in between two slices of pan de sal with no other spread except for its own thick, sweet syrup brimming with porky goodness.
Though the Spaniards are renowned for their high standards when it comes to the quality of their ham (anyone who’s tasted jamon Serrano or jamon Iberico will attest to that), the practice of serving ham during religious feasts may have its roots from the Vikings. Ancient Norsemen would hunt boars to sacrifice to Freya, the goddess of love, beauty, and death (three characteristics that are pretty appropriate for a beautiful hock of ham, don’t you think?). Catholicism later appropriated the practice and imagery, and St. Stephen, whose feast day fell on Dec. 26, ended up being depicted as serving up a boar’s head as an offering. All this symbolism got passed down through the centuries, and like a giant game of telephone, ended with the Christmas ham eventually taking centerstage.
2. Queso de Bola
This bright red, wax-coated, ball of cheese has been a fixture of Christmas holidays in the Philippines for as long as I can remember. Queso de Bola has a salty, mildly nutty flavor, with almost no odor, making it a favorite among those who have yet to develop a taste for pungent, stinky cheese. It’s great eaten with crackers and honey, or in sandwiches with slices of Christmas ham. Some creative pastry chefs have even incorporated it into cheesecakes. Its moniker obviously refers to its round shape, but its proper name is derived from its Dutch town of origin, Edam.
Since Edam cheese doesn’t spoil (it merely dries up and hardens over time), the paraffin-dipped balls of cheese were a popular choice for sea voyages (including Spanish expeditions bent on invasion).
3. Relleno/Galantina/ Embutido/Morcon
Relleno literally means “stuffed” in Spanish, and while the term applies to all sorts of animals that can be stuffed (such as poultry, fish, teddy bears, and even squid), chicken is the most commonly used. Once deboned, the chicken’s stuffed with anything from chopped vegetables (carrots and bell peppers make for pretty colors), ham, hardboiled eggs, and chicken/fish flakes. The whole lot is then chucked into the oven and baked until it’s cooked thoroughly.
A galantina starts out the same way, except it’s steamed instead of baked and is ideally served cold rather than fresh out of the oven. The embutido, on the other hand, is a meatloaf of sorts that can be prepared with or without stuffing. It’s usually rolled into a cylindrical shape, wrapped in aluminum foil, and steamed. The morcon is the odd one out, it consists of beef slices that are flattened and rolled, with the stuffing at the center (much like a sushi roll).
Stuffed meats have been around for as long as man has been cooking and eating meat. Early man quickly realized that the empty space inside the animal (after all the guts have been taken out) needed to be filled in order for the carcass to cook evenly. Pre-farming homo sapiens might have initially used inedible items like pebbles as stuffing, but later learned to eventually incorporate vegetables, herbs, nuts, spelt (an ancient variety of wheat), and even the chopped-up meat and entrails of the roasted animal into the stuffing.
The earliest stuffing recipe on record comes from the Apicius de Coquinaria, an early Roman cookbook, but stuffed meats found their way to the Filipino table through our (again) Spanish conquerors. The recipe evolved over time to include sweetmeats, as well as modern cheaper, processed food (e.g., hotdogs) as extenders.
Long before Starbucks graced our shores with their peppermint mochas, toffee nut lattes, and ridiculously overpriced in-demand planners, a cup of steaming hot chocolate was (and still is) the drink of choice for nippy mornings. During Jose Rizal’s time, it was even utilized as a political tool. The Noli Me Tangere depicts Spanish friars dispensing cups of frothy tsokolate eh (eh as in espreso, or thick chocolate) to their favorites and tsokolate ah (ah as in aguado, or watery chocolate) to those who were not welcome.
Some say that the word “chocolate” comes from a mix of Spanish and Nahuatl (the language of the Aztecs) words that either mean “bitter water” or “beaten drink.” Prior to the arrival of Spanish conquistadors, the Aztecs consumed unsweetened chocolate, with the roasted cacao beans giving the water a tangy, bitter edge. The beverage was also beaten into frothy, but delicious, submission before it was served. The Europeans were the ones who added milk and sugar to the chocolate drink to make it more palatable, but the exotic concoction remained a luxurious treat for the nobility up until the 17th century. Traders on Spanish ships would bring sacks of cocoa beans with them on trips to the Philippines for homesick Spanish generals and friars. They, in turn, let their cronies taste the addictive drink, and the rest is history.
Roasted chestnuts are such an integral part of the holidays that someone even wrote a Christmas carol about it (and I bet you’re even singing it in your head right now). In Manila, and especially during the holidays, vendors peddle giant tubs castañas for hungry commuters. For those who prefer their nuts sans the pesky shells, supermarkets offer foil packs of peeled, ready-to-eat castañas as well. (But really, where’s the fun in that?)
Although the chestnuts we consume in Manila are Chinese in origin, we picked up the roasting method from the Spaniards. Chestnuts were a staple food in the mountainous regions of Europe (where most cereal grains couldn’t be grown) since they’re brimming with essential nutrients. Naturally, it’s hard not to get sick of eating the same kind of food over and over again, so they developed different ways of preparing the nuts. Roasting became a popular choice, as it brought out the nut’s sweetness and aroma (and kept people warm during the autumn and winter months to boot). No one knows exactly how roasted chestnuts came to the Christmas table, but there’s a theory that it may have something to do with them being the early Christian symbol for chastity (despite their rather suggestive shape). As such, they were thought to evoke the miracle of the virgin birth, the very reason behind Christmas itself.
The bibingka is so widely enjoyed in this country (and beyond) that you can nurse a craving for it anywhere from the Bibingkinitan stalls in Divisoria to the fancy Via Mare restaurants. Made with rice flour, coconut milk/water, eggs, and milk, this soft, fluffy rice cake is traditionally enjoyed as a special treat after attending Simbang Gabi. The batter is poured into custom-made terracotta pots, which are then placed over preheated coals. A good bibinka has a spongy texture on the inside and a lightly-charred, crispy crust on the outside. Traditional toppings include butter/margarine, sugar, cheese, grated coconut, and salted duck egg slices.
Unlike most yuletide staples, the bibingka is not the result of Spanish influence (hooray!). Its name supposedly originated from the Hokkien root word “bi,” which means “uncooked grain,” a nod to the raw glutinous rice that’s pounded to make the rice flour for the delicacy. However, despite the Chinese origins of its name, bibingka remains a steadfastly Filipino kakanin with pre-Hispanic roots. It’s historically been one of the traditional rice cake offerings to ancient gods and spirits.
7. Puto Bumbong
Like the bibingka and the castañas, the puto bumbong became a part of the Christmas menu because of starving churchgoers who couldn’t wait to get home before eating. Slightly bland, the tube-shaped rice cakes are characteristically dark purple in color. Smeared with butter and sprinkled with coconut flakes and brown sugar, it makes for salty-sweet, chewy mouthfuls.
Puto bumbong comes from two Tagalog words, puto (rice cake) and bumbong (bamboo cannon). The latter refers to the chimney-like cooking implement responsible for the rice cake’s elongated, cylindrical shape. It was also produced before the Spaniards arrived, but it became popular during the Spanish period when farmers would consume it with cups of salabat (ginger tea) as a restorative after the compulsory Dawn Mass.
Christmas is celebrated differently all over the world, with each dining table showcasing the best of each country’s produce and culinary ingenuity. Ours is no different, with the food on our plates reflecting the tastes of our national palate and the rich, long history that went into the making of our distinct, cultural identity.