• Treat for the Christmas table: a rolled pastry with spinach and feta. (Anatolia)Source: Anatolia
Dilvin Yasa identifies as a 'traditionalist' when it comes to the Christmas table, but this year she's 'stuffing the turkey' in a whole new way.
Dilvin Yasa

16 Dec 2019 - 1:39 PM  UPDATED 16 Dec 2019 - 2:19 PM

Another year, another overpriced department store catalogue depicting families doing normal things like raising a toast across the table or exchanging pretty presents under a prettier tree.

I'm just going to go ahead and assume this is how everyone else's day pans out, but of course, I have no idea because my family Christmas lunches have always been a little…different.

Our food traditions are the vital ties that hold us together
Passover. Christmas. Ramadan. Lunar New Year. Passata day. Sunday lunch. No matter what your cultural background, the traditions of food are almost always central in connecting family, friends and community.

My clearest Christmas memory is of my father tearing apart the turkey with his bare hands while I screamed, "No! You're supposed to carve it with a knife!" He looked puzzled, but then said (as he began throwing mangled pieces onto our plates), "How would I know? How many Christmas turkeys do you think I've carved in my life? How many Turkish families do you know would even roast a turkey to celebrate on Christmas Day?"

"How would I know? How many Christmas turkeys do you think I've carved in my life?" 

To be fair, the man had a point.

Since they moved to Australia long before I was born, my parents were insistent their kids grow up like 'regular Aussies', celebrating Easter, Christmas and garden variety public holidays with equal gusto.

What they couldn't have anticipated when they put up their first tree, however, is how gung-ho their youngest would be about having traditional Christmas lunches with all the trimmings – just like you see in the catalogues.

Does your turkey end up like this? Maybe you should call the hotline.

"NO, YOU CANNOT SERVE HUMMUS WITH THE ROAST POTATOES!" I could be heard screaming year after year.

"WHY IS THERE NO CRANBERRY SAUCE? WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU FORGOT TO BUY IT?" Christmas wasn't about having plates of borek and dolma slowly inch their way towards the centre of the table, but about suffering as we all sat down to eat a bird none of us particularly enjoyed.

It was about a whole bunch of food so removed from our stable diet that it often felt like we were astronauts eating space food, which is more to do with the experience than the taste itself.

Still, I told myself year after year, this was how Christmas was traditionally celebrated and suffer we shall.

"No, you cannot serve hummus with the roast potatoes!" 

Last month my mother was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer and next week she will undergo a double mastectomy. Like any good Turkish family trying to distract themselves from the horror of the present moment, our thoughts have turned automatically to food and eating.

"So, what shall we do for Christmas lunch?" my mother asked as we were sitting in the waiting room of the hospital for one of her many appointments. 

Layered Turkish delight pavlova

The pink grapefruit in this pavlova has a lovely bitter flavour that cuts through the sweetness of the meringue and balances a rich meal. 

"I'm not sure that this is the time to think about it, mum," I responded. I lied to her of course; not only am I thinking about our family coming together on Christmas Day, but I'm also suddenly seeing our usual dining table in a whole new light.

When your mum is going through something like this, it's not hard for your imagination to wander into an alternate universe where she's no longer in it.

Suddenly, I'm not interested in the traditions I've insisted we all follow from day dot, but find myself yearning for a banquet filled with dishes that have been passed down through the generations of my Turkish heritage. I crave my grandmother's aşure, my mother's elmalı, and my dad’s çerkez tavuğu – dishes that remind me of a simple time when I was young and all was well. Dishes that will never taste the same again after my parents have gone.


Known as Noah’s Ark pudding to celebrate finding land after the flood, this is a dense, delicious, nutritious mix of grain, dried fruits, nuts and spices enjoyed since ancient days in Turkey.

So this year I have decided it will be the 'Year of the Turk' in our household. My parents will obviously be unable to cook, so I've begun madly thumbing through recipe books such as The Turkish Cookbook by Musa Dağdeviren and Somer Sivrioğlu's Anatolia (and some old family cookbooks which have been in our family for decades), and I'm making a list.

I know I'll stuff up many of the dishes I'm planning, but hopefully, my mother in TEN years or maybe even 20, will laugh endlessly at the memory of the day I massacred all their favourite dishes and traditions.

The difference between us? They have the generosity of spirit to keep quiet about the things that don't go to plan, and when you really think about it, isn't that what Christmas is about?

Rolled pastry with spinach and feta (ispanakli kol böreği)

The Turkish word kol means ‘arm’, and presumably gets into the Turkish name for this börek because each roll of pastry is bent to look like an arm coming round to hug you.

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