Why Do We Eat Turkey?

Swan restaurant - Shakespeare's Globe, 21 New Globe Walk, London SE1 9DT

Swan restaurant – Shakespeare’s Globe, 21 New Globe Walk, London SE1 9DT

Christmas dinner for most of us is turkey with all the trimmings: stuffing, roast potatoes, sprouts, parsnips, gravy, sausages — the more you can get on that plate the better.

While we have come to think of what we eat and drink at Christmas as British, the traditions we follow have clocked up a fair few historical miles.

Over the years our festive food has adopted ingredients and dishes from all over the world, be it cranberry sauce from the States or mulled wine from Germany.

Turkey itself only became popular after Henry VIII decided to eat it for Christmas following the import of some of the big birds from America.

Around the world different seasonal foods and cultural traditions mean that Christmas eating can look very different.

If you are looking for some inspiration for an alternative Christmas menu, or just fancy cooking something different over the holiday, here are some of the festive foods that people will be enjoying around the world this year


The Norwegians go all out and eat Christmas food for every meal, not just lunch! pinnekjøtt, best translated as fermented mutton ribs, are popular and a lot nicer that they sound. Pork ribs are also widely eaten, with eggs and gravlax thrown in for breakfast. It might sound a million miles away from a roast, but smoked salmon and eggs doesn’t sound too far away from a British brunch menu!


Swedes celebrate Christmas with a seasonal Smörgåsbord made up of ham, pork, sausage, egg, gubbröra (an egg and anchovy salad) and of course lashings of pickled herring and rye bread or vörtbröd. Sweden also has a favourite fermented, bony fish dish called lutefisk, something that probably won’t be finding its way onto our Christmas menu anytime soon.


The people of Spain love tapas, indeed who doesn’t, and Christmas is no exception. Think starters of gambas a la plancha (grilled prawns) and champinones al ajillo, which are mushrooms dripping in olive, garlic and Spanish sherry — maybe one for Grandma? Mains mean meat and in Spain suckling pig or cochinillo asado is roasted for the festive season, it makes an excellent alternative to the British turkey roast. If you live in Spain and want a taste of home over the festive season, why not give The Carvery Company a try?


In Kenya Christmas means gathering the family and neighbours together for a big Nyama Choma (barbecue) with roasted meats including goat, beef or sometimes chicken trimmed with chunky flakes of salt and chapati flatbread. Markets in the capital, Nairobi, are packed to the brim with locals buying and selling chickens, pigs and goats in preparation — frozen meat isn’t too popular, Kenyans like their meat fresh and locally-produced. There are a few things which are a bit more familiar, too — a version of Christmas cake is also popular.


The Japanese Christmas tradition also involves poultry, but these birds are fried not roast. Christmas cake is the traditional festive food, although it is not a rich, boozy fruitcake, but a sponge topped with strawberries and whipped cream. The only dates at this time of year are ones spent in a restaurant with your lover — the most popular thing to do on Christmas eve is a festive dinner date. So no sprouts here then and probably the less said about the trend for Christmas KFC the better.


India also likes its cake (and we are much more likely to eat it). Plum cake is made from fruit and nuts which are soaked for almost a month before. In the run up to Christmas fried snacks are prepared, but for those with a savoury seasonal tooth then the meals are the star of the show. Mutton or chicken curry for breakfast with other snacks, and a lunch made of meaty biryani dishes followed bright and elaborate desserts are traditional. Curry for breakfast has been known to tempt the odd soul in the UK, perhaps a festive tradition that might catch on?


Noche Buena or Christmas Eve is the big foodie event in Mexico. Salad is on the menu, but not as we know it. Ensalada de Noche Buena (that’s simply Christmas Eve salad) is fresh, zingy and contains orange, pineapple, beetroot, pecans, pomegranate. Cornmeal dumplings called tamales are a more filling Christmas treat and are prepared by wrapping the dumplings in corn husks and steaming them. They are so time consuming to make that families do them in big batches at special parties called tamaladas. Sounds a bit like the opposite of pass the parcel!

If you are looking for ideas to jazz up the turkey this year? Mexican families often serve it with mole, a rich sauce made of ground chillies and spices.

Well there you have it. All around the world people sit down at the same time of year to celebrate with their own very different seasonal meal. If you’re bored of your usual, there’s no shortage of inspiration for alternative Christmas food ideas, but in honesty you just can’t beat a Great British roast. Merry Christmas.

About Diccon Wright

Christopher Diccon Wright is a restaurateur and property specialist who has established and grown successful operations in the UK and Mediterranean. He has also worked on a consultancy and advisory basis for a wide range of food and property clients.