Metro Manila · Traditional Noche Buena (Christmas Eve) - Food and Customs
Noche Buena is celebrated on Christmas Eve, or midnight of the 24th of December. It is the most anticipated part of the holidays for many Filipinos because it is that time of the year when Christmas delicacies are served. Among these delicacies are a number of Filipino favorites. Find out what is served in most Filipino homes for Noche Buena.
An hour before Noche Buena, the whole family attends Mass to welcome the birth of Jesus Christ. Outside the church, one can find vendors selling all sorts of Christmas treats. This includes traditional delicacies the likes of puto bumbong and bibingka -rice-based desserts and merienda items that many Filipinos love.
Christmas dinner starts at the stroke of midnight, followed by the exchanging of gifts by the Christmas tree. Some families organize a program of sorts that would include dance competitions, charades, and/or parlor games. Winners take home prizes in the form of either cash or gifts. In some neighborhoods, one would expect neighbors belting out songs from a videoke machine. This could last until the wee hours of the morning.
During Noche Buena, families are gathered at one table, enjoying not only the company of each other but also the incredible feast laid out in front of them. Mind you, one aunt is usually in-charge of preparing everything from the salads to the main courses (except lechon or roasted pig, of course). In some places however where Christmas dinners are not attended by extended family, it's the lady of the house's responsibility to prepare the food.
In rural areas, the one who prepares the Christmas spread does the cooking with the help of neighbors and friends. Normally, the family gathers in the home of grandparents -with everyone from those coming from abroad in the same house for Christmas dinner.
If you are planning to host your own Filipino Noche Buena, here are a few things you should buy or prepare:
Queso de Bola
As early as September, Manila's supermarket shelves get filled with red, round balls of cheese. Queso de Bola is the Spanish and Philippine term for Edam, the mild but savory cheese from the Netherlands. Coated in red paraffin, it is one of the highlights of a Philippine Christmas banquet. Edam cheese has long been popular among travelers, as it takes several weeks to mature and lasts a long time.
While Queso de Bola is often snubbed at the dinner table, a Filipino Christmas dinner won't be the same without it being present.
While this pasta dish can be enjoyed the whole year round, no respectable Noche Buena is complete without it. Kids love it and adults crave for it. The pasta is generously doused with sweet tomato sauce and topped with, ground beef, lots of processed cheese, and thin slices of hotdog.
The baked and glazed Christmas ham or Yule ham is usually eaten last, sometimes not at all because it is often reserved for the next day. The leftover ham will be eaten for days and sometimes even used to make sandwiches for merienda.
Pork barbecue also served during other special occasions like birthdays and office parties, is a staple for many Filipino homes during the holidays. If you are planning to host Noche Buena for family and friends, these marinated slices of pork on a stick should be present especially if kids are around.
The dish has either beef or goat meat as its main ingredient. This is cooked with tomato paste, liver spread, slices of potatoes, olives, bell pepper, and other spices. Some add melted cheese for a richer flavor and texture. Kaldereta usually tastes better when eaten the next day but it is still served at the dinner table during Noche Buena.
Roasted chicken is the Filipino version of a roasted turkey during Thanksgiving. Either you prepare it yourself or simply buy from a supermarket or street rotisseries like Andok's or Lechon Baliwag.
Chicken Relleno or Stuffed Chicken
This dish is one of the most difficult to make. For one, you need to perfectly de-bone a whole chicken. But of course, you can always ask the butcher from the supermarket to do that for you. You would need to take care of the stuffing too and this would mean preparing boiled eggs, chopped ham, vegetables, ground pork, chorizo, vienna sausage, raisins, cheese, and spices. When done, stuff the chicken, sew it up, and place it in the oven to bake. sage, raisins, cheese, and other ingredients.
Considered the "Star of Noche Buena", lechon is a roasted adult pig that everybody couldn't wait to sink their teeth into. The most favorite and most delicious part is the skin especially when it's still crispy and has bits of fat hanging onto it. Apologies to non-meat-eaters. Lechon costs a few thousand pesos so best to have a budget for it. For Filipinos hosting Christmas dinner for extended family, this is definitely a must-have on the dinner table. Large families often get two lechons just to ensure that there is enough to go around. In some areas, lechon baka or roasted cow is served.
Fruit or Buko Salad
Depending on which region they're from, Filipinos prepare either a fruit or buko (coconut) salad for dessert. To prepare a fruit salad, just pour a can of fruit cocktail into a bow and douse it with all-purpose cream. A few add condensed milk to make the salad creamier and richer in taste. Put the mix in the refrigerator or freezer for cooling. Buko salad takes a lot more effort. Filipinos usually buy the coconut fruit from the wet market or side streets. The coconut meat is then scraped off from the husk using a special tool so that they form into strips like noodles. Strips of coconut meat is tossed with fruit cocktail, slices of apple, and all-purpose cream. Some add cheese on top of it. The same goes for the fruit salad.
Fruits like oranges, apples, and grapes could serve as either desserts or table decorations. Come New Year, however, they symbolize luck and prosperity. Filipinos usually put 12 pieces of each, equivalent to the 12 months in a year to invite good luck.
This dessert is made with chopped candied fruit or dried fruit, nuts, and spices. Some add liquor like brandy or rum in the mix. Filipinos usually reserve this cake as a present to friends, colleagues or officemates.
This purple rice cake is made of glutinous rice and shaped like small logs. It is topped with margarine and brown sugar or fresh grated coconut meat. Puto bumbong is usually eaten right after attending Simbang Gabi.
A spongy flat rice cake, bibingka is made of rice flour and coconut milk or water. To prepare one, you might need a specially made terra cotta container, banana leaves, and coal. Mixing the ingredients as they cook is another matter. Best to buy from a supermarket or reputable street vendor in the neighborhood. Notice that the banana leaves lend a unique aroma and flavor to the cake, which is usually topped with butter or margarine, sugar, cheese, grated coconut, and sometimes with salted eggs.
Aside from the Christmas ham, hamonado is often served during Noche Buena. This is pork cooked in pineapple juice complete with pineapple pieces. This is a Filipino favorite because as we very well know, the Philippines loves dishes with a sweet note.
Lumpia or Lumpiang Ubod (Spring Rolls)
Lumpia is a Philippine delicacy tracing its roots from the country's Chinese influences. This is often made with shredded vegetables or meat or a mixture of both and wrapped in a lumpia wrapper made out of rice flour. This is later deep fried to golden perfection. Some like their lumpia fresh though. This is where Lumpiang Ubod enters the picture. This is made of fresh ubod (heart of a coconut) in thin slices and wrapped in a crepe-like wrapper. It is served with a peanut-based sauce.
And who could forget this creamy egg-based dessert? This is a staple for special occasions in the Philippines and during Noche Buena, it is often the most sought after dessert. Ingredients of this super sweet dessert include egg yolks - lots of it, half and half, a drop of vanilla, and lots of sugar. When done right, the sugary goodness of this dessert will prompt praises from dinner guests.
A hot cup of cocoa is often served to guests after dinner or even before dinner just to keep warm - not that it gets too cold in the country. It gets a bit cold for the Philippines during the early hours though and this is excuse is good enough to drink a nice cup of coca made from tablea - the country's traditional tsokolate.
Carbo-loading is the order of the day during the holidays that's why most Filipino homes serve big bowls of macaroni salad for Noche Buena. This is made from macaroni boiled to perfection then tossed with fruits, cream, and mayonnaise. Some make chicken macaroni salad instead of the fruit version.
The Modern Noche Buena
While the dishes listed above are often present in most Filipino homes during Noche Buena, some families now serve other fares. In upper middle class homes, turkey and lechon are served along with gourmet dishes that the family chose.
Others, on the other hand, just celebrate Christmas abroad or go on a Christmas cruise. It is interesting to note that while the traditional Christmas dinner is still something to look forward to, many families have reinvented their holidays into opportunities for travel. Those who do not want to prepare the whole spread but don't want to travel to another part of the country or the world just go to a hotel and eat their Noche Buena there.