Diverse Holiday Cuisine – A Very Canadian New Year’s Fete

Rebecca Field Jager | December 26th, 2016

We are the world! Here, how to host a family gathering or a New Year’s fete with a multi-cultural tasting party menu.

When Jolanta Petrycha remembers her childhood Christmases in Poland, she recalls the scent of a freshly cut tree set up and decorated on Dec. 24, an extra place setting at the table in case an unexpected friend or stranger showed up and a large carp swimming in the bathtub.

The latter, she explains, would eventually find its way onto the table as part of Wigilia, the Polish Christmas Eve feast, but to ensure freshness, the fish had to be kept alive as long as possible. “My parents, grandmother, brother and I all lived in an apartment, so there was no other place to put it,” laughs the 58-year-old Torontonian who, along with her husband and children, immigrated to Canada in 1983.

Like most Canadians, Petrycha’s present-day celebrations include a blend of old and new traditions with strict adherence to some rules, the bending or obliteration of others. She’s maintained the custom of serving 12 meatless dishes – one for each Apostle – and while her husband’s homemade uszka, dumplings, are a must, she sometimes cheats and includes bread as a serving. Regrettably, the Polish tradition of serving dinner only after someone spots the first star in the evening sky was lost, but, on the upside, says Petrycha, so too was the carp.

Dawn Johnston, a professor at University of Calgary who teaches a food culture course, says that our desire to follow family traditions stems from the need to connect with our pasts. Smell and taste are powerful memory senses, and so food is a sort of gateway drug. “Through food, we evoke our youth and recapture happy times.”

But what about folks whose holidays weren’t always ideal?

“Food satisfies a longing for the things we had … or wish we had,” she says. “We can’t change our families or our history but making traditional dishes gives us a sense of control over the holidays, the feeling that this time we can get it right.”

Interestingly, breaking tradition can be a no-no as Filipino-Canadian, Patricia Candido, 68, of Kingston, Ont., found out. “I’ve lived in Canada for almost 45 years, and my children were born and raised here. One year, I decided to replace what has become our customary turkey with the Filipino tradition of lechon, a whole, stuffed and roasted pig. The kids were upset – they said it didn’t ‘taste like Christmas.'”

Thankfully, Candido has always prepared several of her homeland’s favourites to go along with the bird. Lumpia Shanghai, deep-fried spring rolls; quezo de bola, an Edam-like cheese; and leche flan, a dessert similar to crème brûlée, take her back to Christmas Eves past when, after midnight mass, she and about 55 members of her extended family would sit down to a massive Noche Buena meal.

In Ethiopia, perhaps because presents are not part of the holiday tradition, the Christmas Day feast plays an enormous role. Woinshet Bayssie Mekuria, 43, of Enderby, B.C., remembers lying awake the night before Christmas, – which, in accordance with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, Christmas is celebrated on Jan. 7 – with visions of kitfo, raw ground beef marinated in spices; tibbs, cubes of seared beef with butter, onion, garlic and ginger; and doro wat, chicken stew, dancing in her head.

“We fasted for 40 days leading up to Christmas with no meat or dairy so everyone woke up greatly anticipating the meal. My father, around mid-morning, would slaughter a goat, and I was the one to go help him butcher and clean it. As a reward, he’d give me a kidney which I would eat raw and share with my sisters.” In the 10 years since she has been in Canada, Mekuria has combined her husband’s turkey tradition with Ethiopian sides.

Although culinary customs vary greatly around the world, in his travels, the one thing celeb chef Michael Smith has noted all cultures have in common is the willingness to put time and effort into their holiday – any holiday – fare. In Smith’s P.E.I. household, holiday baking is the big thing. “Every weekend, starting at the beginning of December, the whole family bakes, creating baskets of goodies to give to family and friends.” It’s his way, he says, of trying to instill in his children that the holidays are about giving and not just getting.

“Food is not just about eating. It’s about the journey, not just the destination,” the Food Network star says. His mother, he points out, spends six months making their traditional plum pudding. “Even I’m not allowed to make it. Yet.”

Although it may be not be a good idea to change up your own holiday menu on the big day, the entertaining season presents the perfect opportunity to host a tasting party celebrating different cultures’ holiday fare. The idea here is to create a communal feast, cocktail-party style, so to add to the table as well as the conversation, ask guests to bring along a hot or cold dish that symbolizes what the holidays taste like to them. Don’t be surprised that those of Italian descent show up with a dish from their feast of seven fishes tradition, that the French bring seafood – or Quebecois, tourtière – mainstays of réveillon, a lavish Christmas Eve affair; and Latin Americans share their take on tamales, pasteles and rice and peas.

On your end, go with your own customary dishes or expand your culinary repertoire to include the following authentic recipes: Polish Uszka; Filipino Lumpia Shanghai; and Ethiopian Tibbs. The first two can be assembled (and even frozen) ahead of time. And yes, you’re allowed to cheat and tap into the ethnic resources in your communities to have a dish or two prepared.

Booze-wise, have international wines and beers on hand. To kick off the feast, invite everyone to raise a glass to what truly makes the holidays in Canada merry – the mouth-watering diversity of our collective cuisine.

Next: What You’ll Need

What You’ll Need

– 2 platters for the uszka and the lumpia plus one earthenware bowl for the tibbs

– small bowls for plum sauce and guests’ sauces one basket of different types of bread

Set-Up and Ambience  

– Set place cards next to dish with name of dish and country listed; have extra place cards for guests to use to describe their contributions.

– Don’t worry about full-blown holiday decor; a few strings of white lights are nice with non-scented candles on the feast table.

– Create a playlist of songs from around the world, carols and otherwise …

– Gather guests around feast table; start conversation with stories behind traditions of dishes you’ve prepared then, while everyone digs in, invite guests to talk about their own memories/traditions their dish evokes.

Next: Recipe for Uszka

Uszka (pronounced oosh-kah)

Contributed by home chef Pavel Petrychi


100 g
dried boletus mushrooms (available at Polish delicatessens and gourmet grocery stores but you can substitute any aromatic mushroom)
3             small onions, chopped
2 tsp      butter
1             egg
Salt and freshly ground pepper
2 tsp      breadcrumbs


2 cups   wheat flour, sifted
3 drops sunflower oil
Warm water, previously boiled


Rinse mushrooms with cold water.
In a pot in warm water, cover mushrooms a centimetre or so of water. Let soak for 15 minutes, then bring to simmer. Cook until soft. Drain thoroughly. Taste one to see if gritty; if so, rinse again.

In the meantime, in skillet, caramelize onions gently in butter. Add onions to mushrooms and grind them finely. Add egg and mix. Mix in salt, pepper and breadcrumbs. (Stuffing should be thick so draining mushrooms is important.)

Dough Build flour into a heap on pastry board. Add sunflower oil. Pour ½ cup of the warm water onto flour mixture. Mix with hands to form dough. Add additional warm water tablespoon by tablespoon until dough is elastic and kneadable but not too soft. Knead until all pellets are crumbled and colour is uniform. Put dough in a bowl and cover with a clean cloth for 20 minutes. Take half the dough out of the bowl, leaving the other half covered. Place on lightly floured board and roll to 1 to 2 mm thickness. Cut into 4- by 4-cm squares. Put about a teaspoon of stuffing on each square (not so much that “gluing” dough is impossible and not so stingily that you can’t taste filling). Fold each square in half to make a triangle. Join together with your fingers, closing the filling inside. Now wrap two opposite corners together join together with fingers forming something like an envelope. Add to boiling salted water, throwing each uszka into pot, one after the other. Once each uszka floats to the surface, let boil another minute or two, remove and drain thoroughly. Serve with melted butter and/or fried onions.

Makes about 35

Next: Recipe for Lumpia Shanghai

Lumpia Shanghai

Contributed by home chef Patricia Candido

Lumpia (spring roll) wrappers (medium)
Cooking oil for deep frying
Plum sauce


1 lb          ground pork
½ lb       minced raw shrimp
1              egg
¼ cup    chopped green onion
⅓ cup    roughly chopped
water chestnuts
1              small carrot, grated
2 drops  sesame oil
1 tbsp     cornstarch
1 tsp       salt
pinch ground pepper


Mix pork, shrimp, egg, onion, water chestnuts, carrot, oil, cornstarch, salt and pepper thoroughly.

Lay wrapper on flat surface. Place about 1½ tsp of filling on wrapper, shaped in a log. Roll up into a “stick.” Deep fry in cooking oil until golden brown. When lumpia float, they are done. Drain on paper towels. Cut each in half and serve with plum sauce.

Makes about 15

Next: Recipe for Tibbs Wott

Ye Tibbs Wott

By chef Maritu Asnakaw, East Africa Restaurant, Montreal


2 tsp       oil
1              onion, chopped
1              clove garlic, minced
1 tsp       ginger, chopped
2 tbsp    berbere (African spice mix available in international section of some grocery stores and specialty food            boutiques)
¼ tsp    cumin
¼ tsp    salt
1 lb         sirloin beef, cut in ½-inch cubes

In sauté pan, heat oil. Sauté onion, garlic, ginger, berbere, cumin and salt until onions are soft, about 5 minutes. Add beef, cover and cook on medium heat for about 30 minutes or until beef is cooked through. Ethiopians eat with their right hands using injera (bread) to scoop up food. If you can’t find injera, use another mild-tasting bread as a substitute.

Makes 6 to 8 appetizers