• In Mariam's Egyptian-Australian family she always makes warak enab or stuffed vine leaves at Christmas (Getty)
The festive season means different things to different people, but one thing most have in common is food.
By
Bianca Soldani

23 Dec 2016 - 4:42 PM  UPDATED 27 Dec 2016 - 9:53 PM

Christmas is a great time to break bread with family and friends, and thanks to Australia’s diverse multicultural population, that doesn’t necessarily mean stuffing it with honey-glazed ham or prawns.

My family is Italian on my dad’s side and Brazilian on my mum’s, so our Christmas table is anything but conventional.

As a child, every Christmas lunch was spent at my nonna Carmela's house in Geelong, where we’d always find a pot of Napolitana sauce on the boil.

Home-made pasta is a must in our family at Christmas, whether it be ravioli with spinach and ricotta, cannelloni or the fettuccine we enjoyed last year. And of course, no plate is taken away dirty, with any excess sauce always soaked up with a piece of fresh pane di casa bread.

Our pasta is followed by roasted veggies and capretto, or young goat, which is a meat my nonna only ever ate at Easter back in Italy. It quickly became our Christmas tradition however, after she realised she could only find it in Australia over summer. 

While my nonna is adamant we should only eat seafood on Christmas Eve, on the Brazilian side of the family, we mark the festive season by staying up til midnight on the 24th and gorging on a big chuck of meat.

This usually involves a heavily salted pernil, or smoked pork shoulder, which is paired with potato salad, farofa - a toasted cassava flour that looks not unlike sand - garlicky rice, and my mum’s famous vinaigrette - which she makes with finely chopped tomatoes, onion and balsamic vinegar.

Here’s what four other families from multicultural backgrounds dig into at this time of year:

Egyptian-Australian

In the month leading up to Christmas, Mariam George and her Egyptian-Australian family observe a strict vegan diet, so she tells SBS that Christmas dinner in her household is all about meat.

“We eat a lot of meat!” she says, “we go to church on Christmas Eve and come home to a table full of meat ready to feast.”

One of her favourite dishes is warak enab, or vine leaves stuffed with mincemeat and rice. She cooks them in a lamb rib and onion soup to infuse even more flavour, and serves the delicate parcels with the melt-in-your-mouth ribs on the side.

Another Christmas Eve staple for her family is macarona bel béchamel, a pasta bake with layers of mincemeat and béchamel sauce - and of course, no feast is complete without kofta.

“Kofta is a big thing at Christmas and is always on our table,” she says, “they’re like meatloaf pieces that you make into fingers.”

All this meat takes time to prepare, with Mariam explaining that “we usually start cooking three days before Christmas.”

One of the first things she puts into the oven is her slow roast lamb, saying “you start cooking it earlier in the week and finish it off before church on Christmas Eve so it’s ready to eat when you come back.”

While the breaking of the fast on Christmas Eve is a special celebration, it’s usually a closer affair shared with Mariam’s immediate family before all her extended relatives come over for more feasting on Christmas Day.

Sri Lankan-Australian

For Sydney-based artist Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran, Christmas means a 30-person party with plenty of vegetables and spice.

While many of his relatives come from Hindu backgrounds, Ramesh’s mother grew up celebrating Christmas and always puts out an impressive spread of “good Sri Lankan spicy food”.

“My parents host a dinner party pretty much every Christmas and all our extended family come over,” he tells SBS.

The evening usually starts out with curry fish patties before moving on to a main of lentil dhal, meat curry, and a host of vegetarian curries including eggplant, pumpkin and cabbage to name a few.

“Then it’s kind of bizarre but they also roast a turkey,” Ramesh laughs, “My dad gets one from his work every Christmas, and for my family turkey is a bit of a novelty because roast meat is something we never do, it’s always curried or fried meat.”

It all comes to a close with a giant Christmas fruit cake which his mum makes for dessert. This year, Ramesh’s family will have an extra reason to celebrate with his debut solo exhibition currently on display in Melbourne’s Ian Potter Museum.

Chilean-Chinese-Australian

Vanessa Song’s father is Chinese and mother is Chilean, making her family’s Christmas dinner table an incredible fusion of flavours.

“Normally my family celebrates on Christmas Eve with a big dinner and at 12 we open all our presents,” she tells SBS.

“It’s really exciting especially when you’re a kid because you get to stay up really late and there’s a lot of music and a lot of food.”

Vanessa’s dad does the bulk of the cooking and oysters are his signature Christmas specialty.

“They’re not really conventional because you usually eat oysters raw, but he steams them,” she says. He serves some with soy sauce, and others with chopped coriander, spring onion and a drizzling of hot oil.

Another of his favourite Christmas dishes are crab noodles which he stir-fries in fish sauce, soy sauce and sesame oil.

“A lot of the food my dad brings is what his family used to eat,” Vanessa explains, “In China seafood is really big, particularly on special occasions.”

Her mother’s side of the family meanwhile, often prepares marinated meat which they buy from a South American deli, and a variety of sides and salads.

“My grandma always brings a broad bean salad,” she says, “it’s very Chilean with a lot of chopped onion, lemon, oil and salt. It’s a really good side dish but it smells kind of funny!”

Norwegian-Australian

Christmas isn’t complete without a succulent roasted pork belly for Sydney-based Frank Mathisen.

Originally from Norway, he celebrates Christmas on the 24th with a ribbe, or whole side of pork. It’s slow cooked in the oven for hours before the heat is turned up to ensure the perfect crackling.

Potatoes, sauerkraut and gravy are served on the side along with a traditional Norwegian sausage and prunes.

And of course, the festivities don't end at the table. “We eat Christmas cookies after dinner and then Santa comes to visit with a bag of presents,” he says.

Usually one of the men in the family “goes out to look for Santa” before coming back in dressed as Saint Nick. Children get to open their presents then and there so the parents can enjoy a well-deserved sleep in on Christmas Day.

Naturally, all the leftovers from the night before make an excellent late breakfast or early Christmas Day lunch.

 

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