SINGAPORE, Dec 22 (Reuters Life!) - Dogs, bats, Kentucky Fried Chicken and barramundi will grace dinner tables across the Asia Pacific this Christmas, a festival celebrated with lots of cheer, and very little turkey, in this mainly non-Christian region.
Christmas Day is seen as a foreign, Western festival in many countries in Asia but that doesn’t stop millions of people from cooking up banquets of local food unheard of in the West.
In Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country which also has a substantial Christian community, Christmas feasts include delicacies such as pork soaked in blood and dog meat.
“We usually hold a family gathering at our parents’ house or in-laws’ house after Christmas eve mass,” said Ermida Simanjuntak, a Batak Christian Indonesian. “We do not exchange gifts, we use this event more to meet and talk.”
In the eastern island of Sulawesi, some Manado Christians swear by kawok, or garden rats, cooked with chilies and garlic, and paniki, or bats, cooked in coconut milk.
“Paniki’s meat tastes almost the same as kawok but it has more muscles,” said Manadonese Stephen Lapian. “But if you cut the arm pit in a wrong way, it will be very stinky.”
In Japan, many people head to Kentucky on Christmas — Kentucky Fried Chicken, that is.
The fast food joints do a roaring trade over the Christmas period, with restaurants turning away customers on December 24 if they haven’t booked their chicken in advance.
“Over the period from 23rd to 25th December, sales can be as high as ten times normal levels,” said Sumeo Yokokawa, of the public relations department at Kentucky Fried Chicken Japan.
The Kentucky Christmas habit started in 1974, after a foreign customer mentioned to a store manager that he had come to buy fried chicken because he was unable to find turkey in Japan. His words inspired a sales campaign that paid off.
“The fashion at the time was to have a nice American-style Christmas,” said Yokokawa. “So we offered the chicken as a set with a bottle of wine and it was very popular.”
Chinese sweet ham is a popular centerpiece for Christmas Eve dinner in the Philippines, where the affluent serve up roast pig or turkey. Filipinos pride themselves on celebrating the longest Christmas in the world, with decorations going up in September.
Although Christmas is a normal working day in officially atheist Communist China, big hotels in Beijing and Shanghai offer glitzy Christmas lunches and dinners.
Many smaller restaurants also get into the spirit with staff wearing Santa hats and windows decorated with tinsel, unthinkable in Chairman Mao Zedong’s time.
Down Under, where Christmas falls in high summer, an Australian Christmas lunch is more likely to be seafood and salad than roast turkey and pudding.
Popular Christmas fare includes prawns or lobster, followed by barbecued barramundi or snapper, alongside cold meats.
“As the weather gets hotter and hotter, people just don’t want to be inside cooking over the stove,” fish market marketing manager Louise Nock told Reuters.
And if you still have room, try the region’s vast array of desserts, which range from Filipino bibingka — an egg-based rice cake topped with grated cheese and coconut — to a Portuguese-style rice and fruit cake in Bangladesh.
In Japan, many families opt for a plain sponge cake topped with whipped cream and strawberries. As delicious as it sounds, the term “Christmas cake” was long used to refer to unmarried women over the age of 25, who were said to be past their best, like cakes after December 25.
Reporting by Isabel Reynolds and Elaine Lies in Tokyo, Mita Valina Liem in Jakarta, Azad Majumder in Dhaka, James Grubel in Canberra, Carmel Crimmins and Karen Iema in Manila, Ben Blanchard in Beijing and Jon Herskovitz in Seoul