When Christmas Dinner Comes with a Side of Rice and Peas

Migration to any country creates a collision of cultures that often manifests itself in food. As a third-generation British Jamaican, I know this all too well.
December 14, 2018, 10:44am
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Britain’s ethnic minority population is steadily on the increase and over the past two decades, many different nationalities have chosen to call this island home. In 2017 alone, there were 3.7 million people residing in the UK who were born abroad but held British nationality.

Migration to any country creates a collision of cultures that often manifests itself in food. As a third-generation Brit of Jamaican heritage, I know this all too well, and it always becomes most apparent at Christmas, when we indulge in a British and Caribbean food fusion.

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When I lived at home, Christmas Day started with a traditional English breakfast with a Jamaican twist. In addition to our beans, sausage, egg, and toast, my dad would add fried plantain and fried dumplings to our plates. And for Christmas dinner, alongside our turkey, stuffing, and roast potatoes, my mum adds rice and peas cooked with coconut milk and thyme, while I get to work on the macaroni and cheese pie.

Jini Reddy also has memories of food fusions at Christmas. Born in London to Indian parents who are from South Africa, she grew up in Quebec but moved back to the UK as an adult.

“These days, it’s my mother and myself at Christmas. My mum likes curry and I like a roast so we usually do both. We’re very hybrid here.” she tells me. “This year, the meat for the curry and the roast will be duck which we’ll have with roast potatoes, gravy, Brussels sprouts and stuffing. The curry is made with turmeric, onions, garlic, and ginger and we’ll usually have it with basmati rice.”

Also of Asian heritage is Harvinder Bhogal. With his mum and dad hailing from the Punjab region of India, Bhogal, who was born in London and practices Sikhism, says the Christmas frenzy we whip up in the UK was lost on his parents for years after they arrived here.

“When my parents came to this country, they were like, ‘Christmas? What is this?’”

Coming from a family of vegetarians who’ve never eaten meat, Bhogal’s Christmas dinners have certainly developed over the years. He’s gone from Indian food to pizza, “I think Pizza Hut was open or something,” to now what is as close to a traditional Christmas dinner as he’ll probably get.

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“About ten to 15 years ago, you started to get meat substitutes on the market like Quorn and they’d have their own version of a roast, so it’s just evolved since then,” explains Bhogal. “We always get some kind of meat-based substitute, then we’ll just make loads of vegetables like roast potatoes and Brussels sprouts. My mum sometimes makes an Indian-style dish but it’s just about how creative we want to get.”

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A British-Arab Christmas spread. Photo courtesy Petra Ayar Jahchan.

Someone who knows all about creativity is Petra Ayar Jahchan. As a Christian Arab who was born and raised in Lebanon, she and her family serve up a mini feast which she describes as an “absolutely delicious” selection of Middle Eastern dishes.

She explains: “There’s not a lot of turkeys in the Middle East so it tends to be a big roast chicken, which may sound boring to some but we use special rubs on the meat like seven spice and allspice. In certain parts of the Middle East, they may put cardamom with it so it tends to be quite fragrant.

“We always have side dishes, so things like stuffed vine leaves, hummus and baba ghanoush. You’ve got your tabbouleh which is a parsley salad typical of the Levant region, or the fattoush salad which is basically loads of vegetables with a bit of crispy bread and sumac which is a tangy herb.”

The table looks very different at Nigerian-born Tosin Adewumi’s house.

“Throughout the whole week of Christmas, people can come round at any time so it’s important that you always have food at home,” she says.

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So, what do they typically serve?

“We usually have jollof rice which is a common Nigerian dish, fried fish, and plantain as well as meat stew which is normally quite spicy so there’s a lot of Scotch bonnet in my house,” Adewumi explains. “We also incorporate some traditional English food, so some years we’ll have turkey or chicken. Then there’s snack foods like fried yam which is called dundu in Nigeria, along with puff puff [sweet fried dough balls] which is something moreish you can eat throughout the day.”

“We also do a roast beef, occasionally. I’ve never touched a turkey either professionally or personally.”

In the lead-up to Christmas, it’s not just home-cooked meals that incorporate cultural twists. Restaurants famed for their international cuisines are also on board. Tonia Buxton, former host of the television show My Greek Kitchen, is a consultant for The Real Greek restaurants, and has included subtle nods to British cuisine in the brand’s 2018 Christmas menu.

“In order to keep the British feel to it, we made a turkey roll which is a dish made with a cranberry sauce,” she says. “I think people get fed up of the typical turkey, gravy, and stuffing and want to try something different.”

Jan Woroniecki, owner of London restaurants Baltic and Ognisko which both specialise in Polish and Baltic dishes, has a similar idea.

“Traditionally the Poles have 12 courses of fish and vegetables on December 24th which is a festival called wigilia,” he says. “We approach our set Christmas menus trying to keep some degree of authenticity but always keeping in mind the customers who are predominantly not Polish or Eastern European. Therefore they have to be a little bit safer than our normal menus might be. We do goose which is a more traditional, old English style of having Christmas dinner.”

Woroniecki adds, laughing: “We also do a roast beef, occasionally. I’ve never touched a turkey either professionally or personally.”

With talk of Brexit negotiations dominating every news outlet and a heightened awareness of intolerant attitudes towards multiculturalism in Britain, celebrating the beauty in cross-cultural food is probably more important now than ever before.