Must-Have Eats for Pinoy HolidaysApril 21, 2020
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We Filipinos love celebrating our holidays—and the food that comes with it. It’s become tradition for us to create feasts, from simple to lavish, to bring our families together, no matter what the occasion, but there are certain seasons where we celebrate that little bit more. Especially for Filipinos living broad, having a taste of homegrown cuisine from time to time can definitely ease the pangs for home.
Here are just a few of our special holidays, and the culinary traditions that come with it.
There’s always a running joke that Pinoys start celebrating Christmas as soon as the -Ber months start: malls start selling gilded decorations, restaurants start popping in the Christmas playlist a little too early. As a predominantly Catholic country, it’s no surprise that Christmas is our biggest holiday of the year, and one that isn’t just celebrated on the day itself. Sometimes we start when Simbang Gabi begins and only end on New Year. It’s a whole season that has everyone getting into the mood, especially when it comes to snacking.
When it comes to eating, the most important occasion during Pinoy Pasko is Noche Buena. On Christmas Eve, a table-long spread is set up to be eaten after Misa de Gallo, in order to greet Christmas day. This is when families are really all together, when extended family and cousins you hardly ever see make appearances again, and all lolos and lolas from every side are seated around the table. It’s bound to be a buffet: supermarkets and specialty stores will have all peddled their own versions of ham and keso de bola, and a beautiful round of each will make their way onto the setting. There is of course, lechon, a full roasted pig that will barely feed the bulging crowd. And don’t forget sweets—purple puto bumbong with its delicious brown caramelized sugar, cake-y bibingka with salted egg, leche flan that is golden and sweet, and a cup of tsokolate batirol which caps off the night.
New Year (Bagong Taon)
The way Filipinos celebrate New Year is a spectacle. It’s the end of a holiday season and the symbol of new things to come. The family affair is littered with customs—from fireworks, to envelopes of money being passed around, to even jumping when the clock strikes twelve so you get that much taller. As with most Pinoy holidays, mass is incredibly important, and the feasting only starts after saying your prayers on New Year’s Eve.
Then, it’s Media Noche—another feast that many regard as important as Noche Buena. It is symbolic because this holds hopes for how the new year will begin, with prayers of good health and prosperity marking the event. The feast can be just as grand, there is almost always lechon, too, but more importantly, the superstitious beliefs carry over into the dishes. Pancit is served as it symbolizes long life; there are many variations that changes with each region, from luglug to canton. 12 round fruits representing each month mark the coming new year, and having a round grape in your mouth at the stroke of midnight will also bring luck. Any malagkit or kakanin must be eaten, too, to make your good fortune stick throughout the year.
Holy Week (Semana Santa)
Most Filipino holidays revolve around a religious occasion, and Holy Week or Semana Santa is probably the epitome of this. Most Catholic Filipinos follow a regime that includes fasting and abstinence, which starts weeks before, entailing a diet free from any red meat and one-meal-only on Fridays. Holy Week is a solemn affair that begins with rites on Palm Sunday, when palm fronds are brought to church to be blessed by the priest. This will then be followed by prayers and masses on Maundy Thursday, which includes the Washing of the Feet of the Twelve Apostles, and many families use this day to honor the tradition of Visita Iglesia as well, by visiting churches and praying the signs of the Cross. After Maundy Thursday, it is Good Friday, which is an huge event for many Filipinos who observe Semana Santa. This is when Jesus’ death occurs, and many indulge in Pasyon, an epic narration of Christ’s life, passion, and death, or even the play Senakulo.
The province of Pampanga in particular, is known for their Senakulo, where many devotees reenact Christ’s death by self-flagellation, and even crucifixion. On Easter Sunday, when veneration is complete, feasts are generally less ostentatious than others as it comes after a week of solemn prayer. In Pampanga, people eat pistu or pistou, a simple combination of ground pork and shrimp which breaks abstinence from meat, without being too over-the-top or hedonistic. Many people continue to eat fish and seafood to honor the Risen Christ, and in some places where processions are held, it is important that food is shared within the community.
While the Philippines is known as predominantly Catholic, our Muslim community consists of a huge population, and their holidays are honored as well. None more so than Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of the month-long fasting during Ramadan season, and signals the beginning of Shawwal, or the tenth month of the lunar Islamic calendar. The day is often a national public holiday, and is a way of giving thanks to Allah. Since it is the end of Ramadan, fasts are over, and instead, it is a day of widespread celebration. Muslims usually practice a ritual washing before gathering at the Mosque.
Food is an incredibly important part of Eid al-Fitr because of Zakat al-Fitr, which requires Muslims to give charity to the poor in the form of food, at the end of Ramadan. Zakat usually means providing food, grain or dried fruit that is equivalent to each member of the family. Afterwards, many Muslim Filipinos choose to celebrate during a feast with their extended family and friends, usually serving many sweet dishes. Around the world, sheer charm is eaten with dates, but in the Philippines a hot dessert similar to gentian is eaten. Known as Sindol, it is a stew of bananas, sweet potato, jack fruit and sticky rice balls that are cooked and stewed in sweetened coconut milk. Aside from sweet dishes, a variety of savories are prepared on the day, including meats that are sometimes slaughtered at home. In the Philippines, some Muslims eat pastil, a parcel of banana leaf that holds a simple, hearty treasure of steamed rice and flakes of chicken.
All Souls’ Day
The way Filipinos celebrate All Souls’ Day is a unique one, which many see as a blend of Western and Eastern cultures. It is both solemn and celebratory; it is not celebrated with as much fanfare as Mexico’s Dias de los Muertos, but is still a reason for families to come together and eat. Venerating ancestors is an incredibly pertinent part of the season, and many families gather at their loved ones’ graves and tombs, light candles, say prayers, and hold mass. Part of this is similar to Mexican culture—candles, flowers, and food are left at the tomb, and families can even sit around the grave from morning until night, making it an occasion to gather relatives.
Visiting cemeteries during All Souls’ Day can be hectic: many people litter the streets and alleyways, and there are vendors everywhere, giving it an atmosphere akin to a festival. There are platters of food brought by every side of the family, usually merienda and snacks that can easily be eaten in the graveyards. There’s often lumpia, shanghai with pork, or sariwa with various vegetables, puto, fruit salad, and various rice cakes like sapin-sapin. Vendors peddle soft drinks, red hot dog, barbeque and even dirty ice cream or ice candy.