Steadfast in the British psyche is the Yuletide fowl, as essential to Christmas as Dickens, irritating relations and the Queen's speech. However, the flavour and form of the Christmas banquet varies around the world, according to culture, caste and the Christians who colonised the terrain

Steadfast in the British psyche is the Yuletide fowl, as essential to Christmas as Dickens, irritating relations and the Queen's speech. However, the flavour and form of the Christmas banquet varies around the world, according to culture, caste and the Christians who colonised the terrain

Mexico

Roast turkey is rather bland for a Christmas treat in a country where most people prefer it dished up in chocolate and chilli sauce. On the big night, before midnight Mass in the cathedral, bacalao - salt cod - is a favourite feast in Mexico City, and most families prepare at least one seasonal side dish: romeritos, a wild rosemary sauce ground with piquant spices and served on dumplings of dried shrimp. To cut through the salty tang, rum punch or vintage sipping tequila is best.

On the chilly nights leading up to Christmas, friends traditionally organise an informal procession from house to house, singing carols, and re-enacting that search for a place at a Bethlehem inn some 2000 years ago. A platter of hot tamales usually awaits. These are individual servings of steamed corn meal around a chunk of savoury meat, all wrapped up in a corn husk. An alternative is pozole. This hearty stew of maize, pork, fresh coriander, oregano, and lime juice is garnished with shredded radish, cabbage, and pork crackling - then drizzled with a thin chilli sauce. For afters, blindfolded children take swipes with a stick at a papier mâché piñata, an oversized Christmas star bursting with sweeties.

Jan Mcgirk

Kerala

The Syrian Christians of Kerala in Southern India are one of the oldest congregations in Christendom: tradition says that their church was established by Thomas the apostle 2,000 years ago. When they return home from a two-hour church service on Christmas morning, they launch into a feast that can stretch from 11 in the morning to 11 at night.

After a mid-morning snack of uppams; rice and coconut sweetmeats; and achappams; deep-fried rice cakes moulded in the form of a lily or other flower; accompanied by Malabar coffee or masala tea, the real Christmas feast begins. This could consist of mutton biryani (acknowledging the Muslim influence on Kerala cuisine) and fried cubes of beef, served with boiled and mashed tapioca; chicken curry cooked in coconut milk gravy; then the fish and seafood in which Kerala excels: prawns of different sizes, cuttlefish, crabs, sea snails, stewed in sauce or grilled; sardine-like fish called matti, deep-fried and eaten with rice, and a fish called meen cooked in an earthenware pot with the slightly sour and bitter tamarind to bring out the flavour.

The feast is accompanied by nothing stronger than warm water, flavoured and coloured a delicate yellow with cumin (to help the digestion), and rounded off with a sweet such as paisam - rice boiled in milk, garnished with nuts and raisins.

Peter Popham

Budapest

Christmas in Hungary is truly a holiday for turkeys. No self-respecting household would serve poultry on this intensely family-orientated day. The national dish is a plump freshwater carp, often kept alive in the bathtub until 24 December when it is ceremoniously dispatched with a quick blow to the head. As the holiday season approaches fishmonger's glass tanks fill up with live carp, waiting to be turned into Christmas dinner.

The main holiday is on 24 December, when the whole country, it seems, stops. The streets are still and silent as everyone heads home. The Christmas meal is served in the late afternoon or early evening, and, like the holiday itself, is taken very seriously. To deviate from the accepted piscine menu, part of Hungary's Catholic tradition, is regarded as near-heresy. There will be a soup to start, usually the red, peppery fish soup, rich in paprika, known as halaszle. The carp will probably be fried in breadcrumbs to disguise its often muddy taste, and served with potatoes. Dessert will be the rich, rolled pastry known as beigli, a Hungarian version of a Swiss roll. Between the layers of dense pastry will be a filling of poppy seeds or walnuts, symbolic of prosperity and a wealthy New Year. Christmas is often toasted with palinka, the country's national spirit of fruit-flavoured brandy.

Adam LeBor

Los Angeles

Given the reliable blue skies and sunshine of late December, Californians might be expected to stray from the tried and tested Christmas food formula. But the truth is that the state's festive habits were formed by Midwesterners who migrated west but never forgot the freezing winters and hearty foods of their homeland (hence the sentiments behind Bing Crosby's "White Christmas"). There are few barbecues or alfresco lunches. Instead, there are sweet potatoes, creamed baby onions, green beans and biscuits and gravy.

It does not help that December is one of the few months of the year when strawberries, grapes, asparagus and other staples of California's bountiful agricultural output are not in season. Nuts and oranges dominate the holiday sideboards, just as they do in New York or London.

Having eaten it four weeks earlier for Thanksgiving, the biggest challenge for Americans at Christmas is how to avoid eating that fowl again. Honey-glazed ham is one possible variant, but that's generally prescribed for Easter. Roast beef seems a bit pedestrian; lamb is popular with Iranians, Arabs and Greeks, but few others; home-made tamales are fine for the Mexicans; latkes are ubiquitous in west Los Angeles and other Jewish areas where Hannukah is celebrated. Quite a few families, for better or worse, go for turkey.

Andrew Gumbel

Philippines

No country in Asia takes Christmas more seriously than the Philippines, and few countries have a more unusual Christmas meal. On the evening of 24 December - Noche Buena, or the Night of Goodness - families in the Philippines go to midnight Mass, see in Christmas Day, and return home to eat the biggest and heaviest meal of the year in the middle of the night.

The traditional dishes are Spanish, but are varied according to local tastes and, above all, income. The central dish is ham, and the other traditional staples are quesa de bola (round Edam cheese) and tsokolate (hot chocolate). Roast turkey is also eaten, although many families can afford only roast chicken - it is stuffed with spicy chorizo de Bilbao which Filipinos inherited from their Spanish colonisers, along with Christmas paella, morcon (beef roll), galantina (chicken roll) and, indeed, Christianity itself.

But the feast also has traces of the pre-colonial food which is eaten at Filipino festivals. The classic fiesta dish is lechon: a roast suckling pig presented whole on a palm leaf, and served with various forms of the quintessential Asian food and sacrament - rice. Suman is glutinous rice wrapped in banana leaves; puto-bumbong is rice pounded into a sticky cakes and coloured purple; arroz caldo is chicken rice porridge. After all that, eaten between midnight and dawn accompanied by wine made from grapes, rice or coconuts, it is no surprise that Christmas day itself does not begin until the late afternoon.

Richard Lloyd Parry

Sydney

It is 3am on 23 December, not a conventional hour to shop for food, but the queues at the Sydney Fish Markets in Blackwattle Bay stretch around the block. Ask Australians what they plan to eat on Christmas Day, and the answer will be simple: fish, fish and more fish. Time was when Australians, full of nostalgia for the mother country, sat inside on a baking hot day and ate roast turkey and Christmas pudding. But they no longer think of themselves as transplanted Englishmen, and the food revolution of recent years has transformed eating habits.

A typical Christmas meal is light, easy to prepare, and exploits the variety of fresh produce available. A starter might be oysters, sushi or smoked salmon. Then follows a mixture of seafood cooked on the barbecue: prawns, lobster and whole fish such as snapper, served with salads - octopus and olive salad, for instance, or rocket and parmesan. To finish, a favourite Australian treat: Pavlova, topped with seasonal berries. All washed down with sparkling wine. Then off to the beach for a swim. What could be more perfect?

Kathy Marks

France

The French are less turkey-centric than the British. A typical Christmas meal in France can mean pheasant, goose, duck or even a special piece of beef (although beef will be rarer this year, with the omnipresent fear of Vaches Folles still stalking the country).

I asked our Norman neighbour, Madeleine Lechartier, what she would be serving her family this year and was surprised when she said "turkey". In previous years, she has favoured capons - large, fat, emasculated cockerels. The Lechartier turkey will be no plastic-wrapped, battery-bred bird, however. Madeleine and her husband Michel, though not wealthy, are country gourmets. They will travel 30 miles to buy precisely the right variety of mussels from a particular market stall, and for several weeks, their name has been written (metaphorically) on a particular turkey in a farmyard a few kilometres from their home in the Norman hills. Madeleine will serve the bird stuffed with a chestnut recipe handed down from her grandmother.

The Lechartiers and their two daughters and sons-in-law will begin their family lunch on 25 December with Issigny oysters from the Norman coast. Afterwards, there will be a home-made Bûche de Noël - an iced sponge cake in the shape of a log, decorated with chocolate holly and marzipan robins. It may sound modest compared to the fuss surrounding the British Christmas dinner, but the Lechartiers, like many French families, set great store by eating well together all year round.

John Lichfield

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