Family enjoying Nochebuena. Ariel Skelley, Blend Images, Getty Images
Table settings may vary; some pull out the fine china while others prefer disposable plates. Schedules may differ; some start the festivities in the early evening while others kick off the party after dark and go until the wee hours. But the typical Nochebuena dinner party in most Latino households has at least a few things in common, among them, of course, the copious amounts of food and the gathering of loved ones.
Some traditions – the raucous caroling or traditional aginaldos of Puerto Rico or the gaitas of Venezuela - haven’t quite caught on in the United States, but what has made the voyage north are the culinary traditions of Nochebuena.
Chef Miguel Aguilar, Executive Chef of Wynwood Kitchen & Bar in Miami - who grew up in Venezuela before working in kitchens for foodie gurus like Doug Rodriguez and Philadelphia restaurateur Stephen Star - says the Venezuelan holiday essentials include a fat juicy pernil, roast pork shoulder; pan de jamon (a long delicious bread filled with cooked ham and raisins as well as ensalada de gallina Navideña), a potato salad with chopped carrots, apple, peas and hen.
Chef Richard Sandoval, whose innovative pan-Latin dining concept Toro Toro has delighted diners from Dubai to Miami, says preparation for Nochebuena is a massive undertaking.
“My grandmother used to do most of the cooking. Traditional Latin homes normally have a couple of cooks, you would start three or four days before. It was a big, big event, so it would take a few days,” says Sandoval
Born in Mexico, Sandoval says that pork loin is common on Mexican Nochebuena menus, but that the spread can vary depending on the region with families who come from the coastal areas incorporating more seafood into the dishes.
Most countries have their own variation of the tamal that is a Nochebuena staple; Dominicans have pasteles en ojas, pureed plantain stuffed with ground beef or chicken and wrapped in plantain leaves. In Venezuela, they adorn the table with a pile of hallacas, corn meal-based tamales which Chef Aguilar says will be stuffed with ground beef, raisins, olives and capers and wrapped in plantain leaves. Sandoval says that for Mexicans, tamales are a mandatory offering on Nochebuena.
“Our tamales, the traditional ones, are wrapped in a banana leaf, stuffed with chicken and mole. The ones wrapped in a corn husk are generally stuffed with pork with a green tomatillo sauce,” says Sandoval.
Of course, no Nochebuena can end without the quintessential ponche. In Venezuela it’s called ponche crema.
“It’s a drink with condensed milk, eggs, sugar and rum. It’s our version of eggnog,” says Chef Aguilar.
For Puerto Ricans, it's coquito, a similar recipe but with a heavy dose of coconut milk. For dessert, every country has their favorites but most Hispanic households have their own flan recipe that each claims is superior.
So while the neighbors have tucked the kids into bed early on Christmas Eve in anticipation of Santa Claus’ midnight arrival, Hispanics in the United States are reveling in a tradition that has endured for generations; a tradition that celebrates our regional dishes, our unique culinary heritage, but most importantly, our belief that there is nothing more important than to enjoy life’s bounty with those you love.