Turkey and all the trimmings are not on the menu all over the world.
We may think that the traditional British Christmas dinner has been set in stone forever. After tucking one away, many feel as though their gastric system has definitely been cast in concrete and fear they will have to endure its torments until the world ends. Or at least until someone suggests making a start on the Stilton.
In fact, the centre piece of the Christmas Dinner, the turkey, did not really settle into its starring role until the first half of the last century. At that point, poultry farming had become efficient enough for turkey to offer a much more affordable alternative to the previously popular but more expensive goose.
In many other parts of the world, turkey doesn’t get a look in. Instead, dried sheep’s heads, fermented auks, carved apples and even KFC buckets are more commonly associated with Christmas.
More sheep’s head, vicar?
To anyone who has heard of hákarl, the Icelandic dish of fermented shark, it may not come as a surprise to learn that both smalahove, or dried sheep’s head, and fermented auk originate from countries which are no strangers to the Arctic Circle. The fermented auk hails from Greenland where it is known as kiviak, a winter delicacy.
Smalahove was traditionally served on the Sunday before Christmas. A sheep’s head was split, the brains removed and then, after soaking, the pieces were salted, dried and smoked. They would then be boiled or steamed before being served with beer, aquavit spirit, mashed potatoes and Swede. Apparently, it is polite to eat the eyes and ears first before starting at the front of the skull and eating towards the back of the head. Quite how many Norwegians happily dive into a plate full of smalahove these days is perhaps questionable. However, one imagines that it is frequently used to put the fear of God into tourists in the more remote fjords.
How do you like them apples?
Less likely to frighten the horses is the relatively recent Chinese custom of swapping intricately carved apples at Christmas. The Christian roots of Christmas have little traction in the supposedly communist country but this has not stopped younger Chinese from developing their own Christmas traditions. The apple swapping is said to have come about because the Mandarin for Christmas Eve, or peaceful eve, is phonetically similar to the word for apple.
The Japanese have also developed their own culinary Christmas. Perhaps surprisingly, KFC features prominently. The story goes that in 1970, the manager of Japan’s first KFC decided to create a Japanese Christmas tradition; no mean feat in a country that acknowledged but did not celebrate the festive season. Handily for his sales figures, Takeshi Okawara’s idea involved families eating a ‘party barrel’ of KFC. An idea which came to him in a dream after hearing two westerners discussing how much they missed turkey at Christmas.
Kentucky fried Christmas
Okwara decided to substitute Colonel Sander’s finest for turkey and, by 1974, his Christmas party barrel proved so popular it went national. Nearly fifty years later, going Kentucky for Christmas is still going strong with over 3.5 million Japanese families taking part in the tradition each December.
All of the above may seem a long way from what is thought of as the traditional British Christmas Dinner but some of our former gastronomic Christmas choices would also seem rather exotic today. Today’s Christmas pudding is the modern ancestor of the medieval frumenty; a thick soup made with spices, wine, dried fruit and minced beef and mutton.
And on that note, we will wish you a Merry Christmas. We’ve got to go and put the Brussels on to boil so they are nice and mushy by dinner time.