A December To Savor

As a Filipino born and raised in Southern California, I’ve often viewed Christmastime in the Philippines with much wonderment and awe. Now, I’ve never witnessed the holidays firsthand in the Philippines, but my mother often regales my brothers and I with stories of month-long celebrations, huge feasts with family and friends, and Christmas caroling “back home.”

Even though Christmas caroling is a practice long extinct here in the U.S. (I probably wouldn’t answer my door if I knew carolers were outside), I’m admittedly quite jealous of all the merriment and eating that goes on in the Philippines leading up to, and moving right on through Christmas. For instance, my cousins in the Philippines usually all gather together for Noche Buena and dine on an array of dishes that include lumpia, noodles, stuffed chicken, ham and/or lechon, sweet rice cakes, and a whole bunch of other things of which I’m jealous. And that’s just for one night on Christmas Eve! Even weeks before Christmas there’s a whole lot more going on that I can’t even wrap my head around.

Luckily for us here in the U.S., the spirit of Christmas in the Philippines is captured in the pages of the December issue of Saveur Magazine (thanks to MarketMan for the heads up). Although I’ve found some mention of Filipino food in magazines like Sunset, this month’s Saveur perhaps provides the most coverage given to Filipino food in a mainstream “foodie” publication. And it’s about time.

In fact, Saveur dedicates nine (NINE!) pages of text and pictures to Filipino food and traditions under the title of “Days of Feasting: Home Cooking–Lot’s Of It–Is the Lifeblood of Christmas Celebrations in the Philippines”. Not surprisingly, the thoughtful words and beautiful pictures in Saveur are provided by Robyn and Dave from Eating Asia.

In the article, Dave sets the scene with his wonderful photography while Robyn describes in great detail the time they spent, and the food they ate, in the Philippines during Christmas last year. Here’s a snippet from the article:

“It was the occasion of the first misa de gallo (morning mass) of the Christmas season in the Philippines, the sprawling archipelago of more than 7,000 islands in the western Pacific Ocean. Starting nine days before Chrismas and stretching on until the Feast of the Epiphany, on January 6, millions of churchgoing Filipinos–nearly 80 percent of the citizens of this former Spanish colony are practicing Catholics–embark on a series of spirited, family-style and communal feasts.”

In addition, there are also four wonderful Filipino recipes provided in the article for Pinakbet (Philippine Vegetable Stew), Ensaimada (Philippine-Style Brioche), Chicken Adobo, and Ulang Sa Gata (Prawns in Coconut Milk).

I actually made the Ulang Sa Gata from the Saveur recipe and found that it was as easy to prepare as it was delicious. To make it, all you really have to do is saute some garlic and onions, then throw in a bit of vinegar, patis, and coconut milk and then simmer that all together with head-on shrimp.

Shrimp in Coconut Milk

If you’d like the exact recipe for the Shrimp in Coconut Milk, or the other dishes I mentioned earlier, it’s very much worth it to pick up the December issue of Saveur. If the recipes aren’t enough, I do encourage you to pick up Saveur as you will also learn a bit about Filipino food and culture.

And sure, the wife and I do get into the holdiay spirit at my parents’ house every Christmas Eve. We go to Midnight Mass, tuck in to some warm and comforting Arroz Caldo, and perhaps even open a few presents. And although I’m very grateful for my family’s own mini version of Noche Buena, I can’t help the feeling that we’re just not feasting and eating the way we could be feasting and eating.

One of these Decembers, I hope to find myself in the Philippines.

  • Manggy December 2, 2008, 7:00 am

    Ah, if you want the full-on Noche Buena effect, there are ways. To. Remedy. That. 😉 I’m glad the recipe was a success (would’ve been a shame if the first mainstream article on the Philippines in a long while had some dud recipes)! Certainly looks delicious :)
    I have to admit my initial reaction was to be kind of let down by the cover, but I just remembered Saveur doesn’t really feature the country inside on the cover :/

  • Joelen December 2, 2008, 7:05 am

    I’m glad you caught the article in Saveur. When I got my issue in the mail, it was such a pleasure to read!

  • Jessica Voloudakis December 2, 2008, 8:06 am

    This looks really delicious. I don’t think I’ve ever looked through Saveur, but I might need to pick it up!
    Our Christmas Eve dinner is supposed to be big and elaborate with seven different types of fish, but we’ve never done that in my family. My mother just won’t allow fish! Someday…

  • rita December 2, 2008, 8:09 am

    glad i found the website with full recipes on it, because, i don’t know if they sell that here in germany. unless, i just never paid attention to it.

  • Erin December 2, 2008, 9:13 am

    Sounds like a great way to spend the holidays. I think I’ll have to pick up that edition of Saveur.
    Happy holidays!

  • caninecologne December 2, 2008, 7:26 pm

    very cool that Saveur focused on Filipino food. must go to Borders to pick up my copy. :) my mom makes a mean ulang sa gata! one of our holiday traditions is eating arroz caldo on new year’s eve. for dessert, it’s palitaw.

  • Ning December 2, 2008, 7:58 pm

    Personally, I don’t think you are missing anything much, except probably for the carolling. :) Noche Buena is about family. Yes, feasting is a part of it, you can prepare the traditional Filipino Noche Buena fare wherever you are; but the most important thing is celebrating the season with people who matters – you wife, your parents. And I think you’ve been doing that all these years. :)

  • Tangled Noodle December 2, 2008, 9:09 pm

    My husband and I will be celebrating Christmas in the Philippines this year – for me, the first time in 18 years and for him, the first time ever (he’s not Filipino). We can hardly wait! I’m going to pick up mag so that I can prep my hubby.

  • Beth Loggins December 2, 2008, 10:39 pm

    There’s no Christmas like a Philippine Christmas. But it all starts with the family. That’s the number 1 reason why it is great. I’ve heard of some non-Filipinos who went to the Philippines to spend Christmas but were a bit disappointed because they were expecting a bit more activity in the streets. They soon found out that all or most of the merriment was in the homes where families were.
    But of course, as you mentioned, there are other aspects that make Christmas back home the best. The constant, if not excessive, caroling. The food. The cool air. The Christmas lights and parols. And of course, the underlying focus on the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, which is the real reason to feel joy and happiness.

  • paoix December 3, 2008, 8:59 am

    i agree with everyone here the christmas celebration is all about the family but those bibingka after misa de gallo is a very big plus :)

  • diva December 3, 2008, 11:45 am

    OH that looks and sounds amazing!! love coconut milk…and of course i love shrimp..could use a bowl of that and some warm bread.

  • [eatingclub] vancouver || js December 3, 2008, 7:30 pm

    Ooh, Philippine Christmases are the best. When we first got to North America, Christmas season just seemed so quiet. Where’s the saya?
    I saw these shrimps the other day with heads and cannot for the life of me think of what to do with them. Now I have a plan and I don’t even have to peel them!

  • Julie December 4, 2008, 9:51 am

    Awesome! Time to hit a Borders to find that issue–and I’m glad to see it’s the Eating Asia gang! Thanks for the heads-up!

  • oggi December 4, 2008, 2:16 pm

    It’s true, Christmas in the Philippines is more festive and more family centered, there’s tons of food, and as I remember very religious too. When we were still in the Philippines, my bro and sis-in law would call from their home in Texas and the first words my sis-in-law would utter: HEY WHAT ARE YOU GUYS EATING? and she would sigh at the mention of the food.:)
    Thanks for the Saveur info, will get a copy.

  • Dione December 4, 2008, 8:10 pm

    Totally saw the copy of this month’s Saveur at my MD’s waiting room today, came home and saw that you already WROTE about it! Awesome! I haven’t read your blog in a few weeks (sorry!), but I’m reassured that you are up on all foods Pinoy! Keep it up! I’m gonna try to make the ensaymada, but in a gluten-free version. :) Maligayang Pasko!

  • Jude December 4, 2008, 11:46 pm

    Got pretty excited when I saw Filipino recipes pop up in Saveur’s website. It’s about damn time, for sure.

  • Robyn December 5, 2008, 4:11 am

    Thanks for your very kind words about the text and photos. Last Christmas was, for us, one of the best ever – and I’m not talking just about the food. We hope to find ourselves in the PHI for Christmas again, one day.
    If you can find huge head-on shrimp – something like the one pictured in the article (the length of an adult’s hand, at least) – try the ulang sa gata again. I’ve heard that they’re often sold frozen in Asian food stores in the States, and it would be worth the splurge. The magic of Lucia’s dish is that when the huge shrimp are slowly simmered in coconut milk they release some of the fat from their heads, while the rest mixes in their with the coconut milk as it reduces to curds. When you break that head off the body and all that those coconut milk-mixed-with-prawn-fat falls out over rice … well what can I say? A dish more than appropriate for the excesses of the holidays. (And make the adobo with half-pork/half-chicken. C’mon, it’s Christmas!)
    Happy Holidays to you and yours!

  • dp December 5, 2008, 10:09 am

    First off, congratulations on being a published writer! Yay for Yummy!
    Saveur is my favorite food magazine because it’s real places and real food. It is, by far, the best food magazine widely available. I did read the article in this month’s issue and it was a good read as usual.

  • Lori Lynn @ Taste With The Eyes December 6, 2008, 1:48 pm

    The shrimp looks delicious. I hope that you are able to experience Christmas in the Philippines sometime soon. And then tell us more about it!
    Happy holidays Marvin.

  • Burnt Lumpia December 7, 2008, 2:10 pm

    The recipe definitely was a success, manggy. And it’s something I’ll return to multiple times.
    Hi Joelen, it was a pleasure for me to read as well. I’ll probably be subscribing to Saveur soon as well.
    Seven types of fish, Jessica? That sounds like a pretty good feast too.
    I wasn’t aware that the recipes were online, rita. Thanks!
    Hi Erin! I definitely recommend this month’s issue. Happy holidays to you too.
    Hey there caninecologne! We have arroz caldo too, but not the palitaw.
    I agree with you Ning, but it would be nice to see it first hand in the Philippines too.
    Hi Tangled Noodle. You and your husband are very lucky! I’m sure the both of you will have a great christmas this year.
    Well said, beth!
    Hi paoix. Bibinka is good anytime! 😉
    Hello diva. The shrimp and coconut milk are indeed amazing, and it probably would be good with some warm bread.
    Hi js! Yes, not having to peel the shrimp makes the recipe that much easier!
    No prob, julie. Make sure to pick it up!
    I would also sigh at the mention of the food, oggi;). It always sounds so good.
    Hi Dione. The ensaymada recipe looked good didn’t it? I’m going to give it a try as well.
    Hopefully there will be more coverage of Filipino foods in other places too, jude.
    Hello Robyn, thanks for leaving a comment here. And thanks very much also for writing such a great article! You’re very right about the fat from the shrimp heads too, even from the smaller shrimps there is plenty of fat, I can only imagine how rich it would be with the giant prawns!
    Thanks dp! Saveur is definitely one of the best mags out there.
    Happy holidays to you too, Lori Lynn:)

  • Arnold December 8, 2008, 3:45 pm

    Seriously, I had no idea you covered this last week. I just stumbled on the magazine when I was at Borders last night and wrote about it before going to bed. Great minds, huh? :)
    (Of course I had to include a gratuitous Pacquiao reference.)
    My best friend’s family does an extensive Noche Buena every Christmas Eve, so I’m always at their place a little after midnight. I’m thinking of writing about it this year.

  • Burnt Lumpia December 16, 2008, 2:46 pm

    Great minds, indeed, Arnold;)


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