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Viva Latin: Preparation of holiday fare epitomizes Hispanic culture

I've never been in a Latin or Hispanic home during the holidays, but there is one thing for certain: After looking at the traditional foods served around Christmas and New Year's by the many cultures that make up this diverse ethnic group, I woul...

Jeff Tiedeman
Jeff Tiedeman

I've never been in a Latin or Hispanic home during the holidays, but there is one thing for certain:

After looking at the traditional foods served around Christmas and New Year's by the many cultures that make up this diverse ethnic group, I would welcome the opportunity.

The thing I like about traditional Hispanic food is that it's full of flavor and a variety of textures, including crunchy (tacos and nachos), chewy (rice), gooey and stringy (cheesy queso and quesadillas).

When it comes to traditional Latin and Hispanic holiday food, you don't have to venture south of the border to get your first glimpse. Many areas of this country boast large Hispanic populations, some well-established, others newly formed by recent immigrants. This might help explain partly why Americans' penchant for Latin or Hispanic food is growing by leaps and bounds.

And right around here, we have a large Hispanic population (mostly of Mexican descent), some of whom have roots that go back three or four generations.

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The relationship between Hispanics and food is somewhat different than for other populations. Food is not just another basic activity. Hispanics socialize around food and because of that, they tend to get together with family and make food more than just a necessity.

And that's no more evident than this time of the year, when many Hispanic women gather to cook large amounts of food for the holidays.

A few years ago, I discovered that one of the most popular Mexican holiday foods is the tamale. When talking with Joe Campos Sr. of East Grand Forks, he said that in many Hispanic families, the women stay up late after work on the Friday before Christmas making tamales for the season.

The reason tamales top the list of favorite holiday fare in Mexico, as well as many other Latin countries, is because they take so much time to make and usually are made only a few times a year and in big batches. Some say they are the perfect holiday food, since you have to unwrap them like a little present.

Hispanic Christmas foods have as many ingredients and customs as countries are involved. Countries that are physically near each other have similar food customs, but many are unique, as is the case of Panama, which celebrates "Nochebuena" with "arroz con pollo" -- rice with chicken spiced up with saffron, vegetables and small onions; "lechón asado" -- barbecued pig in Cuba; and -- niño envuelto" --stuffed cabbage in the Dominican Republic.

When it comes to holiday desserts, almost all Hispanic countries include "flan," a delightfully creamy dessert. Others include cinnamon tortillas; the traditional "buñuelos" -- fritters; "almendrado" -- a light and refreshing dessert; "churros" -- which are crispy on the outside and moist on the inside; and "postre de tres leches" -- three-milk cake.

My experience with authentic Hispanic food is very limited, and none that I've sampled has been of the holiday variety. My only encounter with a traditional Christmas food was when I had empanadas (popular in several South American countries), which were made by the Rev. Raul Perez-Cobo (from Colombia), at the time an associate pastor at East Grand Forks Sacred Heart Catholic Church. (He's now at St. Joseph's in Moorhead.) I would rate his "10."

I wonder if Father Raul is serving empanadas for Christmas.

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Tiedeman is food editor at the Herald. Reach him at 780-1136 or toll-free at (800) 477-6572, or e-mail at jtiedeman@gfherald.com .

Related Topics: FOOD
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