Do you have your very own holiday tradition? Something uniquely yours – perhaps it’s a themed meal or a religious ceremony or just a bouquet of annual depression – something you do each year to commemorate the season. My mother once started a tradition of serving ham hocks on Christmas Eve and then upon realizing we were not cavemen, abandoned it – a tradition of one year and a story for many.

The hamhocks were hung by the chimney with care. Photo courtesy of the kitchn.

My family has a quirky Christmas tradition that started with a book and a classroom assignment. A few years back, I picked up Christmas: A Cooks Tour from a sale rack at Barnes and Nobel. The chapters, divided by country, featured Christmas traditions and menus from around the world and it flashed me back to a pivotal second grade activity of coloring in scenes of Christmas celebrations from different countries. Imagine my shock to learn that my Santa wasn’t the only Santa, my Christmas wasn’t the only Christmas, my religion wasn’t the only…and so on. You mean there are other people outside of Green Lake, Wisconsin? Thus began my Columbus need to venture out; to travel and explore – maybe that’s what brought me to Los Angeles, one of the most diverse cities in the world – or it could have been Tito’s Tacos – we’re not sure.

Back to tradition. The book sparked an idea one year to celebrate traditions of a country other than our own in the U.S. of A. My husband and I, not yet married and living in Chicago, would be alone that Christmas Eve, so we selected Japan out of the twenty two countries featured in the book.Japan was exotic and faraway, a country that would be of great contrast to our own celebrations, even though only one percent of the population celebrated Christmas. Our nod to Japan that year was nothing more than miso soup, rolling our own sushi, and getting drunk on sake while we admired our lilliputian centerpiece, a small tomato carved into a rose by a waitress at Kyoto Restaurant. Had we researched beyond the book, we might have celebrated the authentic way most Japanese celebrate Christmas – with a reserved KFC chicken dinner.

Twenty years and twenty countries later, we celebrated the Christmas traditions from yet another country this year. Having repurposed our trip to Kenya this summer by sharing safari inspired foods hereto our holiday cards there, it only made sense to use the country for our Christmas tradition too. My sister and her family were on board to share in the festivities.

Our effort becamemore an amalgam of traditions from various countries in Africa which was untraditional for our tradition, but we’ve learned over the years, that as much as we strive for authenticity, we still need to provide a welcome dinner for our family and children (don’t get me started on Russia), so we adjusted where appropriate. We didn’t roast a goat, but cheese made from the goat’s milk found it’s way in.

Like most countries outside of the U.S., the religious experience of Christmas is the central focus in Africa. Door-to-doorChristmas caroling is also a lively holiday tradition in Kenya. The most common Christmas fare includes nyama choma (roasted meat, such as cow or goat) and a popular flat bread, chapati. In Ghana, Christmas dinner includes fufu (yam balls) and okra soup, and in Liberia, rice, beef, and biscuits are on the menu. Zimbabweans have plenty of bread, jam, and tea to eat along with their goat meat.

Our meal included griddle roasted spiced nuts and goat cheese baked in vine leaves with roasted tomatoes for appetizers. Our main meal included nyama choma beef, chaptis, okra soup, cucumber and fennel salad, and fruit salad with lime cream and peanuts for dessert.

Many of these dishes called for traditional African spices and, as luck would have it, we had African spices aplenty from our trip – yes the trip I won’t shut up about.

Okra, for the uninitiated, is a mysterious vegetable -er herb -er starch and often used for gumbo. It’s green and because of that, confusing – the little round white balls inside all that green are like miniature thickening agents with gummy textures. Forgive me okra lovers, but I had to blend the crap out of that vegetable to get beyond the sticky to a pleasingly blendy place. I was A-okay with the okra taste and the soup became dense with flavors and consistency. All of the foods were robust and delicious, but I was especially fond of the beef that was charmed by my brother-in-law’s deft grilling hand – the mixture of spices catapulted the flavor and formed a tinged crust that sealed in the juices.

We sang carols, listened to recordings from authentic African Christmas performers, and the kids made mmos (moors – masks for an ancestral dance).

Now that I’ve given you my long-winded rant and deets about our Christmas traditions – please share yours with us. We lurve Christmas and celebrations and food.

a christmas tradition that’s nutty, but spicy

Griddle Spiced Nuts

Cooktime: 15 minutes Makes 3 cups

1 t olive oil

2-3 c mixture of raw nuts: Macadamia, almonds, and walnuts

1/2 c dried apricots, halved or quartered

1 T fresh lemon juice

1 t salt

1/2 t pepper

1/2 t paprika

Heat oil in cast iron skillet (or regular skillet) over medium heat. Add nuts and cook until nuts begin to toast and become fragrant. Add apricots and heat until soft. Remove pan from the heat and add lemon juice and seasonings. Adjust seasonings to taste. Let nuts cool slightly so they become crisp and serve.

Baked Goat Cheese in Vine Leaves with Roasted Tomatoes

Preptime: 15 minutes Cooktime: 25 minutes servings: 4 plated appetizers or 12 people

8 plum tomatoes

1 t salt

1 t sugar

1 t ground black pepper

2 t fresh thyme leaves, chopped

1 t dried oregano leaves

10 oz. goat cheese

1 small jar of vine leaves (in the pickles section at Whole Foods)

Split tomatoes and place cut side up on roasting tray. Mix salt, sugar, pepper, and thyme and sprinkle over tomatoes. Drizzle with olive oil and bake in 325° oven for 20-25 minutes until lightly browned and soft.

Rinse vine leaves and let pat dry. MIx goat cheese and oregano (add a scant amount of milk if your cheese is too dry). Shape the goat cheese mixture into four cakes. Wrap each cake in one or two vine leaves, depending on their size. Bake in 350° oven for 10 minutes until the leaves are well coated.

Serve one goat cheese cake and tomatoes as an individual hearty appetizer or place all cakes on a platter with cut pieces of tomatoes for party service.

Chapati (flat bread)

2 c sifted flour

1 t salt

warm water

olive oil

All ingredients should be at room temperature. Mix flour and salt and slowly mix in water to make a thick dough. Mix in one spoonful of oil. Knead on a cool surface for a few minutes, then place into a bowl, cover and let rest for thirty minutes.

Lightly grease (canola oil a little better to take heat, but olive oil okay) and pre-heat skillet (cast iron would be awesome here).

Divide dough into orange size ball and flatten to six inch circles. Fry them, turning one. Keep cooked chapatis in warm oven until all are finished cooking. Serve with soup.

Okra Soup

1-2 c okra

3 large tomatoes, chopped

2-3 garlic cloves

1 10 oz can tomato sauce

1/4 c chopped parsley

1 lemon (juiced)

1/8 t turmeric

1/2 t salt

olive oil

Remove the stems from the okra and dice into short segments. Saute in olive oil until soft.

Dice the onion and saute in olive oil in thick bottomed pot. When the onion is transparent, add the garlic and the tomatoes.

Add enough water to cover the tomatoes, also add lemon juice, turmeric, and salt.

Put okra and one cup of the tomatoes into blender and blend until smooth. Add back into the soup pot. Heat and serve.

nyama choma (roasted meat)

2-3 lbs beef tenderloin (or short ribs)

2 cloves garlic

juice from 1-2 lemons

1 t turmeric

3/4 t coriander

1 t paprika

1 t curry powder

1 t salt

1 t fresh ground pepper

Mix all the seasonings in a shallow pan large enough to hold the tenderloin. Place the meat in the marinade and let rest for 1 hour, turning to coat.

Grill on medium hot grill. It will smoke, but try to keep the lid closed.

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