Is your kitchen home to higgledy-piggledy jars of sensational spices and herbs? Or pots and bottles of potent pastes, sauces and oils? There can be no better time to put them to aromatic use than the almighty festive meal that is Christmas.
While Christmas remains a significant religious celebration, there are many communities that celebrate it in the global, diasporic world we live in. The traditional dinner remains a staple favourite in Britain, albeit with a flavour of the world. A recent poll by Censuswide by Wise, the international money transfer company, found that three quarters (76%) of us will still have a ‘traditional’ Christmas dinner. However, many of our classic dishes will see an increase in the use of international flavours not traditionally associated with Christmas cooking, with 22% using new spices and seasonings in preparing their festive favourites.
This should come as no surprise. It reflects both Britain’s multiculturalism and our increasing confidence in the kitchen. In the last year alone, we’ve had cookbooks spotlighting the cuisine of Sierra Leone, Bangladesh, Oman, Jamaica and Antigua. Jars of harissa and zhoug take pride of place in many of our kitchens, alongside an ever-growing collection of spices and spice blends. As we embrace these flavours in our daily repertoire of cooking and eating, it makes sense to get creative with them at Christmas.
In fact, the traditional Christmas dinner is well acquainted with tastes from afar. Turkeys were imported from Mexico, via the Spanish, around the 16th century and potatoes came from Peru, while brussels sprouts made their way onto Christmas tables from our continental neighbours in Belgium. Reaching for your spice cupboard should feel like a natural meander on a well-trodden historic path.
The centrepiece sitting at the very heart of the meal is often the best place to start. Cooking timings matter. You wouldn’t want a dry marinade or rub to burn off over a long period of cooking. It might be better to infuse gravy or stuffing with flavour. If you’re worried about straying too far, think more evolution than revolution. A heady mix of subtly mouth-numbing cubeb pepper and red long pepper might be worth an experiment instead of falling back on a classic mixed peppercorn selection.
Vegetarian and vegan mains with cauliflower, mushrooms, and lentils lend themselves particularly well to spices and spice pastes. Make sure you know when best to add them, taking your steer from more traditional uses of the ingredients. Harissa, for example, cooks really well, whereas zhoug is better as a supporting condiment.
The sides are where you could let your imagination run wild. Using seasonal festive ingredients as the starting point, build flavour layers in finding the creative sweet spot between balance, clash and just having a bit of fun. If your guests are unlikely to find joy in flavour, try spiking the condiments or drinks instead. I’ve made a cranberry, ginger and panch phoron chutney for years to take to festive tables as a gift. And errant herbs and spices in drinks shouldn’t be a shock given our love of mulling!
The best thing about flavour of course, is that it deepens and intensifies with time making everything taste even better on the next day. Whether you decide to give your leftovers a fresh lease of life for Boxing Day or eat as is, you’ll be guaranteed a joyful mouthful.