How Dutch Edam Became a Christmas Tradition in the Philippines
Designed to last on long trade route voyages, Edam spread and became popular from Asia to South America.
Composite image by MUNCHIES staff; original images via Getty Images
This article originally appeared on VICE US.
In the Philippines, where the Christmas season is said to start with the “-ber” months, Christmas is celebrated in many ways, but largely through food. Throughout the country, which has a large Catholic majority, Christmas Eve is typically spent first at church for midnight mass, followed by the late-night celebration known as Noche Buena.
While the specifics of holiday feasts vary depending on family size or finances, it’s common to find foods associated with superstition, like pancit—long noodles are thought to herald long life—and queso de bola, “ball of cheese.” Round and wrapped in red wax, queso de bola is rife with good omens: round things symbolize money and red is a symbol of good luck.
Cheese doesn’t feature too prominently in Filipino cuisine, yet Noche Buena inevitably brings forth packages of queso de bola to be served alongside ham or warm pandesal. Breaking bread over queso de bola at the holiday table might feel like a distinctly Filipino tradition, but its roots can be traced back to the Netherlands, and as with many things, queso de bola’s popularity both in the Philippines and around the world can be tied to colonialism.
While Spain and the United States were undoubtedly the most influential colonial powers in the Philippines, the Dutch were present to a smaller extent. In the mid 1600s, the Dutch, at war with the Spanish, repeatedly engaged in naval battles around the Philippines, raiding Spanish posts and engaging in secretive trade with Filipinos. Filipino food historian Felice Prudente Sta. Maria told the Philippine Star in 2015 that just as Noche Buena is a tradition brought to the Philippines by colonizing Spaniards, the round cheese was introduced to the country “as a maritime staple for officers in galleons.”
Though the Dutch never quite made a foothold in the Philippines—the country remained under Spanish control until 1898, at which point it was ceded to the United States—the Dutch were a maritime trading power, sailing the seas from Asia to the Caribbean throughout the 17th to 19th centuries. And since they were bringing cheese along with them, the global force of Dutch colonialism can explain why the Philippines’ beloved queso de bola is just as integral in countries a world away, like Mexico, Venezuela, and Belize.
Around the world, the cheese is known by a few names. In Europe, it tends to be known as Edam, eponymous for the town in the Netherlands where it was created. In the United States, Edam might be more commonly known in branded form: the little red rounds of Babybel. In the Philippines and other former Spanish colonies, queso de bola is a common moniker.
Call it what you will, the scope of the Dutch cheese is global. According to a report from multinational dairy company FrieslandCampina, its factory at Marum is the largest plant producing Edam in Western Europe. Between 80 to 90 percent of Edam output is used for export to countries including Egypt, the Philippines, France, Japan, Morocco, and Mexico.
Edam is popular in Belize, where it was, for a time, apparently one of few available cheeses. In the island of Curacao, the stuffed Edam dish keshi yena was born of slaves of the Dutch Empire who placed scraps of meat inside hollowed out cheese. Nearby analogs abound: In Venezuela, queso de bola relleno is a ball of Edam also stuffed with spiced meat, and a dish called queso relleno is prominent in Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula.
Just as queso de bola is a centerpiece of Filipino Christmas, Edam is so ingrained into Yucatecan culture that in his book Foodscapes, Foodfields, and Identities in the Yucatán, Steffan Igor Ayora Díaz, a professor of anthropology at the Universidad Autónoma de Yucatán, wrote, “...for a dish to be considered ‘Yucatecan,’ cooks usually choose between Dutch Edam and fresh cheese.” In an email to MUNCHIES, Ayora Díaz added that “the culinary, referring to everyday domestic cooking, uses Edam cheese on an everyday basis.”
Specifically how Edam got there is the stuff of lore: In the Yucatán peninsula, legend has it that rich hacienda owners brought the cheese back from European travel, while others say that ships meant for the Dutch Antilles were blown off-course and ended up in Mexico instead. Ayora Díaz told MUNCHIES that throughout his research, the story passed on by elderly locals was that “the cheese arrived, washed in by the sea, on the coast of Quintana Roo, probably from sunk ships.” In any case, it’s clear that trade between the Netherlands and Central America accounts for the cheese’s footing in Mexico.
It’s no accident that Edam ended up in all these places worldwide—in fact, the cheese was tailored for transport. Between around 1500 to 1700, cheese was the Netherlands’ main agricultural export, Paul Kindstedt, a professor of food science at the University of Vermont and author of Cheese and Culture: A History of Cheese and its Place in Western Civilization, told MUNCHIES.
“At the time that the Dutch were colonising in the West Indies and in Asia, Edam was shipped to colonies,” Kindstedt said. In those colonies, Kindstedt said, Edam would have been “front and centre of the food culture brought in by the Dutch.”
When colonies gained independence, the dispersal of former colonists likely brought Edam along into new regions. The fact that the Dutch were colonizing heavily in South America and then scattering into nearby regions, Kindstedt suggested, might explain the cheese’s popularity in Central America.
For the Dutch, a global cheese trade was born out of necessity, Kindstedt said. Between 1000 and 1300 A.D., the Dutch had relied on wheat, grown on land that had once been swampy bogs. By 1300, however, catastrophe hit: Because bogs, once drained, contract, the sea began to flood in, making wheat unsustainable. “The Dutch have to figure out what to do to survive,” he said. Shifting away from wheat, they grew barley, which gave rise to the beer industry, and grass, allowing a shift into dairying.
By the 16th century, Kindstedt told MUNCHIES, trade networks were booming and the Dutch needed something to ship around the world, so they began to design cheeses for export. “[Edam] was really built to be shipped overseas,” he said. “Both Edam and Gouda were revolutionary in being able to be shipped around the world at this time.”
Everything about Edam—from its round shape to its wax covering to its salt content—was chosen to ensure that the cheese survived the journey from the Netherlands to colonies worldwide. An almost-spherical shape meant that balls of Edam could easily fit into barrels for shipping, and it prevented bits of the cheese from breaking off during transit, which can ruin cheese by exposing its interior to maggots and spoilage.
Because a cheese that needs to travel long distances also should retain its moisture, the round shape also serves to minimize surface area, which decreases the moisture that’s lost through evaporation. That line between too moist and not moist enough is a fine one, Kindstedt said, and one the Dutch balanced perfectly: With Edam, they ensure enough moisture to allow the cheese to ripen and be flavorful, but not too much that the cheese would rot on its travels.
Though Edam’s red wax covering is now one of its hallmarks, that wasn’t always the case. Originally, the balls of cheese were scalded in hot whey in order to developed a tough, durable rind, a necessity given that there was no packaging at the time. To this, the Dutch added turnsole, a plant material that imparted a reddish tint and also had properties that prevented pests.
Around the 19th century, the Dutch adopted the red paraffin wax that makes the cheese identifiable today. That decision boiled down to economics: “When moisture evaporates out of the cheese, the weight goes down and you’re literally evaporating dollars or euros,” Kindstedt said.
Referring to its rind, shape, and moisture, Kindstedt said, “All of that made Edam a cheese that could go anywhere.”
It’s been centuries since Edam was introduced to the Philippines and Central America; Edam has become so integrated into its new homelands that people eat it without necessarily seeing it as a part of Dutch culture, but a part of their own food cultures. In the Yucatán, Ayora Díaz implied that it’s simply seen as local culture; he wrote, “I know that people are aware it is Dutch. But I have never heard any association, real or imagined, with Dutch culture.”
In the Philippines, though the labels on balls of Edam still tout the marker “Imported from Holland,” queso de bola is inseparable from Noche Buena, and Noche Buena is just Filipino tradition—though it came from the Spanish, Filipinos have made it our own. And though the story of queso de bola is part of a much larger history, at face value, queso de bola is, at this point, distinctly Filipino.
“Cheese history is this amazing lens into the world,” Kindstedt reflected. “It’s extremely helpful to know where we were to know who we are now.”