Though many of us associate holiday eats with chestnuts roasting on an open fire, gingerbread men and egg nog, the face of traditional grub varies in celebrations across the world. For example, Christmas fare in Slovakia includes thin wafers or waffles dressed with honey, while in Central and South America bacalao, or dried and salted cod, is often the star of the meal. Hannukah celebrations in Israel feature a variety of fried dishes, including potato pancakes and jelly doughnuts, and Caribbean fritters called accras are popular highlights at the Kwanzaa table.
Luckily, in New York, finding a sampling of international holiday food is easier than you might expect. With a culinary scene that matches the diversity of its culture, there’s no better place to discover a new holiday tradition. Here are some of our favorite places for getting an international taste of the holidays. All you need is an open (and curious) appetite.
Julbord at Aquavit
Christmas in Scandanavia skips the turkey and fruitcake and instead goes all out with an elaborate banquet or buffet, called julbord. Typically served on Christmas Eve, the julbord (or julefrokost in Danish) is a true feast featuring a wide range of dishes, often including pickled herring, patês, terrines, cured cold meats and mulled wine or dark Christmas beer to drink. The meal has become an annual hallmark at Aquavit, a Michelin-starred restaurant specializing in Nordic cuisine. Be sure to book your tables ahead of time to experience this one-of-a-kind tradition.
Potato-Jalapeño Latke’s at Toloache
Finding a great latke in December is no difficult task in NYC (try Russ and Daughters or Barney Greengrass if it’s your first time), but few places in the city put an international spin on the Hanukkah-classic. That is, few places except for Toloache. During the remainder of the year, chef Julian Medina offers tried-and-true Mexican fare, but the menu gets a creative spin during Hanukkah, including potato-jalapeño latkes, brisket tacos, and sufganiyot (or, jelly doughnuts) filled with dulce de leche.
Panettone at Eataly
Italian experts have been making the world-famous, yeast-leavened holiday fruitcake called Panettone since the 19th century. Today, the rules for making the cake in Italy are extremely strict and follow time-honored Northern recipes. Nevertheless, the baking custom reigns supreme in the country during Christmas, and Italy manages to produce more 7,000 tons of Panettone each year (around 10% of which gets imported abroad). To grab an authentic Italian-made Panettone for your Christmas celebration, head to the downtown outpost of Eataly (just a fifteen-minute walk from The Wagner) where several popular varieties are sold.
Karaage at Ichibantei
Around Christmastime in Japan, the lines at Kentucky Fried Chicken get exceptionally long. Surprisingly, the effects of a successful marketing campaign from the ’70s remain strong as year after year millions of Japanese line-up to celebrate Christmas with a bucket of Kentucky’s Fried Chicken. Since visiting a KFC in NYC wouldn’t have the same thrill, why not try the Japanese version of the finger-lickin’ good dish? Karaage, otherwise known as Japanese fried chicken, is extremely satisfying, and arguably less guilt-ridden than the fast-food alternative. Head to the East Village’s casual outpost, Ichibantei, to try their authentically delicious version of the dish.