Surprising Holiday Dishes
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20 Most Surprising Holiday Dishes from Around the World

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Surprising Holiday Dishes
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HOLIDAY FARE ABROAD

Holiday traditions can vary wildly across state and national borders, but one thing almost all have in common is food. A decadent feast is central to most every cultural celebration no matter where you go, but some will sound a lot more appetizing than others to people unacquainted with the regional cuisine. Whether tantalizing or shocking, we've compiled some of the most unconventional culinary traditions and recipes associated with the winter holidays from around the world.

Kentucky Fried Chicken, Japan
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JAPAN: KENTUCKY FRIED CHICKEN

As a predominantly Shinto and Buddhist nation, Christmas doesn't carry as much weight in Japan as it does in most Western nations. Some couples mark the occasion with romantic dinners in upscale restaurants, while as many as 3.6 million Japanese families celebrate with a Party Barrel of fried chicken from the American fast food chain KFC. The tradition started as a national marketing effort in 1974, and it's grown in popularity to the point that many will order their fried chicken feasts weeks in advance, or else risk waiting in line for hours.

Eel, Italy
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ITALY: EEL

Though not consumed much in the U.S. except in sushi restaurants, grilled or fried eel is a traditional part of Christmas Eve dinner throughout much of Italy, where Catholic tradition dictates one abstain from eating meat before Christmas day. In some Italian-American households, the oily sea snake is included as part of a seafood-centric "Feast of the Seven Fishes."

Smalahove, Norway
Smalahove, Norway by Per Arne Slotte (CC BY)

NORWAY: SMALAHOVE

Traditionally consumed the Sunday before Christmas in Western Norway, Smalahove is a dish consisting of nothing more than a brined whole sheep's head with the fleece torched off and the brain scooped out. Served with rutabaga, potato, or other root vegetables, the tradition originates from the region's poor residents, who had little choice but to make good use of every shred of meat they had.

Fried Caterpillars, South Africa
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SOUTH AFRICA: FRIED CATERPILLARS

Emperor Moth caterpillars, also called Mopane worms, are an important protein source in parts of Africa usually harvested around December. Some will be dried and preserved for the colder seasons (during the Northern hemisphere's summer months), while the fresh specimens are fried up for a protein-rich Christmas dinner.

Raw Whale and Fermented Seabird, Greenland
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GREENLAND: RAW WHALE AND FERMENTED SEABIRD

You'll have a hard time finding Greenland's Christmas delicacies anywhere outside the Arctic, not that most of us would really want to. Mattak, for example, is raw whale skin diced into symmetrical squares before serving. Kiviak is even stranger, prepared by stuffing a seal skin full with hundreds of seabirds, called auks, and letting them ferment inside it for seven months. When finally ready, the birds are removed and served straight from the hollowed seal carcass.

Night of the Radishes, Oaxaca
Night of the Radishes, Oaxaca by Travis (CC BY)

OAXACA: NIGHT OF THE RADISHES

Before and after Christmas church services on December 23, merchants in the southern Mexican city of Oaxaca aim to attract business in local holiday markets using intricately carved radish sculptures. In 1897, the mayor made the Night of the Radishes an official celebration, so now farmers grow a larger variety of the deep red root vegetable just to carve for the occasion.

Puto Bumbong, The Philippines
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THE PHILIPPINES: PUTO BUMBONG

Puto bumbong is an oblong sweet cake prepared by steaming ground purple rice inside a bamboo tube, then served on a banana leaf topped with margarine, grated coconut, and molasses-rich sugar. It's most often sold as a street food by vendors outside churches during Simbang Gabi, a nine-day series of masses attended by Filipino Roman Catholics and Aglipayans honoring the Virgin Mary.

Lutefisk, Sweden
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SWEDEN: LUTEFISK

Lutefisk is a truly unique dish commonly enjoyed around Christmas in Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland, and parts of the U.S. like Minnesota with a large populations of Scandinavian heritage. It's made from a dried fish such as cod or haddock soaked in lye, aka sodium hydroxide, and steamed to create its unusual gelatinous texture.

Christmas Pudding and Mincemeat Pies, England
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ENGLAND: CHRISTMAS PUDDING AND MINCEMEAT PIES

"A Christmas Carol" and other U.K.-originated holiday stories frequently mention seasonal dishes like plum pudding and mince pies, whose recipes sound about as enticing as most traditional English cuisine. The former is made from a variety of dried fruits suspended in a batter of egg and suet, or beef fat, while the latter traditionally contained the same mixture of ingredients with the addition of imported spices like cloves, cinnamon, and nutmeg.

Bathtub Carp, Czech Republic
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CZECH REPUBLIC: BATHTUB CARP

Fried, breaded carp with potato salad and fish soup constitutes a traditional Czech Christmas meal. These days, street vendors will sell the live fish from large tubs leading up to the holiday, but it used to be common custom for families to keep the carp alive in their home bathtubs for up to a week before the holiday so they could be enjoyed as fresh as possible.

Salty Cake, Spain
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SPAIN: SALTY CAKE

In Spain, December 28 is the Day of the Holy Innocents, commemorating the infants slaughtered by order of King Herod on the day of Jesus' birth with a day of practical jokes not dissimilar to April Fools' Day in the U.S. Though no longer celebrated as widely in many Spanish cities, one of the most amusing traditions originated with the nation's bakers making cakes with salt instead of sugar to confuse customers.

Joulutorttu, Finland
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FINLAND: JOULUTORTTU

According to some legends, the Lapland region of Northern Finland contains the real home of Santa Claus, so it's only fitting the nation has plenty of culinary Christmas traditions. One of the tastiest sounding are Joulutorttu, light and flaky star- or windmill-shaped cookies made with ricotta and filled with a dollop of prune jam.

Kholodets, Russia
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RUSSIA: KHOLODETS

In Russia and other parts of Eastern Europe, a traditional holiday meal will generally include kholodets, also called meat aspic, which essentially means a savory vegetable salad made by boiling meat until the stock becomes gelatinous. If you're not using a premade package of gelatin, this will entail boiling meat portions rich in collagen like chicken legs and pork foot for at least five hours to achieve the right consistency.

Pasteles, Puerto Rico
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PUERTO RICO: PASTELES

Families in Puerto Rico and other parts of Latin America may devote an entire day or more to preparing pasteles to freeze and enjoy throughout the Christmas season. The tamale-like specialty is made with a meat like chicken or pork combined with chickpeas, raisins, and olives, enfolded in a root-vegetable dough and steamed inside a banana leaf.

Christopsomo, Greece
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GREECE: CHRISTOPSOMO

Literally translated to "Christ's bread," Christopsomo is a buttery sweet bread rich in religious symbolism and thus integral to holiday feasts in Greek Orthodox families. Usually prepared on Christmas Eve, the round loaf is infused with cloves, cinnamon, and orange, then topped with an intricate cross of dough with its ends wrapped around walnuts.

Pineapple Sorbet Champagne Float, Chile
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CHILE: PINEAPPLE SORBET CHAMPAGNE FLOAT

A popular drink in Chile throughout the holiday season, this champagne float made with a scoop of pineapple sorbet or sherbet — also called Roman Punch — is especially associated with New Year's celebrations. Children usually get to enjoy a non-alcoholic version made with sparkling cider or even Sprite instead of champagne.

Red Bean Paste Porridge, Korea
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KOREA: RED BEAN PASTE PORRIDGE

Winter solstice is a major cause for celebration in Korea, and the main dish served to honor the occasion is a rich soup made from overcooked rice balls and red beans simmered until they form a thick paste. The red beans symbolize warding off bad spirits while the rice balls represent new life, with some Koreans traditionally eating one for each year they have lived.

Whole Fish and Uncut Noodles, China
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CHINA: WHOLE FISH AND UNCUT NOODLES

China's standard New Year's Eve staples of whole cooked fish and uncut noodles are rich with symbolism. Both are believed to aid in longevity — the longer the noodles, the longer your life. Most sweets prepared for the occasion are made with dates, chestnuts, and seeds, which represent fertility.

Galette Des Rois, France
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FRANCE: GALETTE DES ROIS

On January 6, Epiphany Day commemorates the day the Three Kings (aka les rois) visited the infant Jesus. The French celebrate the occasion with Galette des Rois, a flaky cake with sugary, buttery almond filling that's as much a party game as it is a pastry. Baked into the batter is a small trinket called a "feve," and whoever discovers it in their slice gets to wear a paper crown and play king or queen for the night.

Kutia, Ukraine
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UKRAINE: KUTIA

Like many Catholics, adherents of the Ukrainian Orthodox church are expected to abstain from certain foods leading up to Christmas, including those containing added fat, sugar, and meat. Thus, a typical Christmas dish like kutia — translated as wheat berry pudding — is made with little but cereal ingredients like wheat, poppy seeds, and nuts, sweetened with honey and topped with dried or fresh fruits.