The Philippines holds the world record for having the longest Christmas season. When the first "ber" month begins (September is the first "ber" month), malls start playing Christmas carols and selling Christmas decor and gift items. It's always amusing to find Halloween costumes being sold side by side with Christmas trees but that's how it is.
In groceries and supermarkets, traditional Christmas food start to make an appearance too. Ham and queso de bola (Edam cheese) start to fill the freezers and shelves. The hot chocolate is made from local tablea, which is a ball of ground-up cacao beans. It's usually heated and combined with water to make a traditional Filipino chocolate drink. The ham and cheese are often enjoyed with pan de sal, which is a Filipino bread roll made from flour, eggs, yeast, sugar, and salt. These are noche buena staples.
Noche buena? It's Spanish for "good night", literally, but in the Philippines, noche buena is steeped in cultural and religious significance. The country was a Spanish colony for more than three hundred years and so the Catholic traditions and legacy runs deep. For Filipinos, noche buena is the night, and the feast, before Christmas Day. More specifically, it is the meal eaten after hearing the midnight mass to welcome Christmas Day.
Explaining the Traditions
It may seem odd to Westerners that Filipino families feast on ham and cheese at midnight before Christmas. It's important to understand that The Philippines is a Third World country and more than ninety percent of the population live below the poverty line. For many of these people, ham and cheese are luxuries that they cannot afford even once a year. When you hear and read about lavish noche buena spreads in the Philippines, they are found in the homes of the middle class and upper-class families. Depending on the economic status and financial capacity, the ham-cheese-pan de sal-chocolate meal might be supplemented by other dishes, like these foods:
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Rice is, to Filipinos, what bread is to Westerners. For important occasions, rice is served in a very special way. Paella, an iconic Spanish dish, has been adopted by the Filipinos with gusto. Saffron might not be a standard in Filipino cooking but we have our own ways of coloring and flavoring our paella. Without saffron, the Filipino way to color and flavor the paella is with tomato and paprika, so it may end up more red than yellow.
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Filipino-Style Fruit Salad
When looking for holiday sweets on a Filipino menu, fruit salad is the number one choice. Filipinos have a peculiar way of serving fruit salad. It's most often with drained canned fruit cocktail, cream, and sweetened condensed milk. Guests will love this Filipino-style fruit salad!
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Finally, even in the Philipines, there's fruit cake. Families who count good bakers among its members have their own recipes; others simply buy fruit cake from local bakeries. The quality of fruit cake in the Philippines ranges from the terrible to the terrifically good. Prices vary from bakery to bakery.