The holidays are a perfect time to appreciate the city’s richly diverse makeup. As of the last census, Philadelphia’s population is around two fifths African-American and black, one sixth Hispanic and Latinx, one third white and the rest a wide variety of other ethnic and racial backgrounds.
But you don’t have to have the demographic statistics memorized to figure this out. Just look to the food.
Philly’s distinctive neighborhoods hold a myriad of culinary traditions. As part of the various solstice celebrations in late December (and early January, for those that celebrate the Epiphany), communities around the city have a chance to showcase the food that represents both their religious identity and their ancestry.
Here’s how various Philly cultures nosh their way through the winter holidays, one date-filled cookie or strip of fried chicken at a time.
Where: Eastern Europe
What: Similar in shape to a bundt cake, but less cakey and more flakey, babka consists of layers of dough between sticky swirls of cinnamon, chocolate or a fruit filling. Babka is usually topped either with streusel or with powdered sugar and can be structured in either twists or in pleats. It’s commonly enjoyed by Belarusians, Ukrainians, Macedonians, Bulgarians, Russians and Poles in the month of December. Rugelach and kokosh are Jewish iterations of babka, typically eaten during Hannukah.
What: Commonly eaten during Christmas and Easter, beigli (also known as kolache) is a Hungarian poppy seed roll consisting of rich, sweet yeast-leavened dough, which is sometimes flavored with citrus zest, coffee or rum. The dense, bittersweet paste inside of the bread is classically made of poppy seeds, but can also be made out of walnuts, chestnuts, pistachios or raisins. It’s all usually flavored with vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg, clove or honey, and some recipes add icing.
Find it: Balkan Express
Bûche de Noël
What: This intricately decorated roulade is traditionally eaten during Christmas in not only France but also former French colonies and francophone countries such as Belgium, Switzerland, Quebec and Lebanon. Though the shape gives the impression it might be tough or overwhelmingly sweet — like an American fruitcake — it is anything but. The dessert is made of sponge cake and chocolate buttercream, usually garnished or flavored with coffee, meringue, marzipan, berries, powdered sugar, liqueurs, ganache and fondant. Here’s a video of Night Kitchen Bakery making theirs.
Where: Puerto Rico
What: This adult spin on the classic Christmas eggnog is most popular in Puerto Rico, but is also imbibed in other Latin American and Caribbean countries during the holidays. Instead of being overly thick, the base of coconut milk and coconut cream is smooth and easy-drinking. The added sweetened condensed milk, vanilla extract and fresh cinnamon are what gives coquito shots their signature aftertaste — you can hardly tell they’re usually loaded with Bacardí.
What: Though you can order Doro Wat at most Ethiopian restaurants year-round, the curried chicken stew is traditionally eaten during the Advent season because the twelve chunks of seasoned, tangy chicken in it represent the twelve apostles of Christ. The dish is sometimes served with a boiled egg, and, like most Ethiopian dishes, is often accompanied by injera bread, which sponges up the sauces. To get the full authentic experience, forgo the fork and eat the dish with your hands.
Feast of the Seven Fishes
Where: Southern Italy (and American-Italian enclaves)
What: Leave room in your stomach for this Italian-American tradition, because come Christmas Eve night, you’re going to need all the digestive space you can muster in order to devour seven distinctive seafood dishes. Some people (and restaurants) take it even further, serving as many as 13 or more marine courses throughout the celebration. There are several theories as to why it is known as the “Feast of the Seven Fishes,” but one aspect that remains uniform is that there should be at least one serving of baccalà (salted codfish) provided on the menu.
What: Billy Penn learned how to make hallacas, the popular Latin American stuffed corn dough dish, at Puyero this past November. The dough is stuffed with stew (which can be made in different varieties, such as chicken and pork or veggie), potatoes, raisins, olives and plantain leaves, then wrapped like a present in a banana leaf and boiled before serving. The result is simultaneously sweet and savory. This dish is popular during the holidays not only in Venezuela, but also in Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Colombia and eastern Cuba.
Kentucky Fried Chicken
What: Thanks to KFC’s wildly successful Kurisumasu ni wa kentakkii! -which translates to “Kentucky for Christmas!” — marketing campaign in December 1974, which promoted Christmas meal specials of fried chicken and wine for 2,920 yen, a holiday pilgrimage the fast-food outpost has become a tradition. These days, the holiday specials are marked up to quadruple the price in Japan, and come with cake and champagne. You can’t get that luxury in Philly, but you can still use this as an excuse to chow down on a bucket.
Find it: At one of several KFC locations in Philadelphia proper
What: In the Ukraine, where Orthodox Christianity is common, most people celebrate Christmas Even on Jan. 6. A staple dish during the religious ritual is kutia (also spelled kutya), made out of wheatberries, poppy seeds and honey. Sometimes walnuts, dried fruit and raisins are included in the mix. It is most similar in texture to a quinoa bowl, but the taste is sweet.
Where: Cuba and the Philippines
What: Having a roasted suckling pig (el lechón in Spanish), is a crucial component of both Cuban and Filipino Christmas celebrations, especially on Noche Buena (Christmas Eve). Both islands were once colonies of Spain, where lechón is a popular dish. In this preparation, the pig is whole — except for the insides, which are removed before the rest is heavily seasoned and marinated. The resulting meat is tender and juicy on the inside and crispy on the outside. A Puerto Rican restaurant in Kensington sells whole sucking pigs that can be roasted at home or on their brick charcoal pit out back.
Find it: Restaurante y Lechonera Príncipe
Where: Greece, Middle East
What: On the feast of the Epiphany — also known as Three Kings’ Day — many Arab Christians and Greeks eat ma’amoul cookies, which are delectable, date-filled morsels. Their semolina dough shell is typically marked with either with crosses or with rings (the rings are meant to symbolize the crown of Jesus). Ma’amoul cookies can also be stuffed with walnuts, pistachios, almonds and figs.
Find it: Old Thyme Café
Spiced hot chocolate
What: The average high in Peru during the month of December is roughly 86°F, but on Christmas Day — no matter how sweltering it is outdoors — most Peruvians will have a tazita of chocolate caliente with a piece of panettone. Like most hot chocolate variations throughout Central and South America, this version is spiced (usually with cayenne and cinnamon), and can also include Agave syrup for a jolt of sweetness or Maca root powder for a nutty kick. We tried finding a spot in Philly that had the authentic Peruvian Christmas experience and, though there wasn’t any, Aztec hot chocolate with churros is an excellent substitute.
What: Tangyuan — which translates to “soup ball” — is a sticky, glutinous rice-based dessert (similar in consistency to mochi) drowned in syrup and eaten throughout China and Taiwan for special family-focused occasions such as the Lantern Festival, weddings and the winter solstice. The exterior of tangyuan comes in rainbow colors and can be filled with several pastes, like fruit preserves, chocolate, pumpkin, mashed potato, red beans and rock candy, but the most common is a sesame paste made up of ground black sesame mixed with sugar and lard.
Find it: ShangHai 1