The taste of home: Christmas recipes from the Dominican Republic

In the Dominican Republic, Christmas is time for a feast. But how do you recreate the taste of home when you’re far away? Clara Gonzalez gets creative

Pan de batata. Photograph by Clara Gonzalez

It’s easy to underestimate the importance of Christmas for Dominicans. Other countries celebrate many holidays with equal fervour, but this is not the case in the Dominican Republic, where Christmas is the year’s most noteworthy occasion.

With the exception of the Lenten season, no other festivity has dishes that are indelibly connected with the feast. The Christmas Eve dinner brings Dominican families together — it is a time to celebrate the ties that bind us. And wherever we find ourselves, we’ll try to bring a little of the flavour of the homeland with us. If you happen to end up in an area remote and disconnected from the Dominican Republic, well, it just means a little more effort has to be made, but nothing will stop a Dominican from keeping the tradition.

Over ten years ago I was in Denmark, where my husband hails from, spending the holiday season with his family. Cold as it was, I was determined to bring a little of my own culture into a celebration which in Denmark is also steeped in ancient traditions.

I had the brilliant (read: insane) idea of treating everybody to an “authentic” traditional Dominican Christmas meal on 23 December. But, enthusiasm aside, creating dishes with ingredients native to, or popular in, the Caribbean turned out to be quite the predicament. To make matters worse, we were not even in the capital, Copenhagen, where finding some of the ingredients had a slightly better chance than a snowball in hell — or a snowball in the Caribbean, for that matter. Instead we were in a small tourist town far away from any major city.

This idea of mine proved to be the type of challenge that reality TV is made of. Even under these conditions, I was still able to procure yuca (cassava) and platanos (plantains) in a nearby city, and with considerable diligence, a pernil.

It’s easy to forget that what is common to the point of being unremarkable in our country may be considered exotic in another. For a country that consumes a heck of a lot of pork, finding a fresh ham in Denmark proved to be quite the achievement. Luckily, my in-laws own a hotel and restaurant. They have a good relationship with the town’s butcher, who got us one after a couple of days’ waiting.

Whatever ingredients I couldn’t find, I adapted and substituted. No whole-grain bulgur for kipes (fried bulgur rolls)? I made kipes with peeled bulgur and added a bit of flour to help with the consistency. No yautia or ñame, Caribbean root vegetables? I made pasteles en hoja (traditional Dominican savoury cakes wrapped in plantain leaves) with yuca and platanos, and added a grated potato to add more starch. Since finding plantain leaves would be impossible in Denmark, I wrapped them in parchment paper.

The most difficult part proved to be guandules (pigeon peas) for a moro de guandules (rice and pigeon peas). Nobody in Denmark had ever heard of them. They seem to be quite uncommon outside the Caribbean. So I gambled and bought mung beans, based on appearance only, and decided to try them. Their taste is similar to the “ashy”, nutty taste of guandules. It turned out not a lot unlike the real thing. Or perhaps it was homesickness that convinced me of that.

And since finding batatas (Dominican sweet potatoes) in cold Denmark would be akin to finding rødgrød med fløde being served in the Dominican Republic, I used the more common sweet potatoes (the ones with the orangey flesh) and some corn starch (they have less starch than batatas) for my favorite dessert of the season.

While pan de batata (spiced sweet potato pudding) is not commonly associated with Christmas in the Dominican Republic, it has become a staple of our family Christmas celebration. Its spicy, gingery taste is the perfect ending to the night, and I wasn’t going to have a “Dominican” Christmas dinner without it.
Adaptation, experimentation, sweat, and frustration were the words to describe that feat of stubbornness. I wasn’t sure how it would turn out, but that didn’t stop me.

It worked.

Everybody loved the dishes, the “exotic” flavors, and the idea of a Christmas from beyond the sea, transplanted from an island of palm trees to the land of Vikings.
A holiday miracle!

Recipes

Pan de batata (sweet potato pudding)

Pan de batata is a delicious dessert with a very exotic and spicy taste. The aroma of cinnamon and cloves and the touch of ginger make it the very embodiment of tropical cuisine.

The variety of sweet potato used for this dessert, although common in the Dominican Republic, may be more difficult to find elsewhere. It is bright purple with greenish flesh, and very sweet once cooked. If you can’t find this type, you should add three tablespoons of cornstarch to the mixture to compensate for the lower amount of starch in other varieties.

2 lbs sweet potatoes
2 eggs
1½ cup brown sugar
1 cup whole milk
1 teaspoon salt
½ cup butter at room temperature (or 1/3 cup vegetable oil)
½ cup finely chopped coconut
2 tsp grated ginger
1 tsp cinnamon powder
1 tsp clove powder
½ tsp nutmeg powder

Preheat the oven to 350ºF (175ºC). Use a teaspoon of butter to cover a nine-inch baking pan.
Peel the sweet potatoes. Grate with the least coarse side of your grater or pulse in the food processor until you obtain a paste. Add all the remaining ingredients to the sweet potato and whisk until it is well mixed.
Pour the mixture into the pan and bake until you test with a clean knife and it comes out clean (about thirty-five minutes). Cool to room temperature before removing from the pan.

Christmas rice

Each family seems to have its own version of this dish, which has become an inseparable part of the traditional Christmas and New Year’s Eve dinner.

3 cups long-grain rice
1 cup golden and dark raisins, mixed
1 cup of flaked blanched almonds
4 cups vegetable stock (see note below)
4 tbs oil
Salt

Heat the vegetable stock until it breaks a boil, and keep hot. Heat the oil over low heat in a cast iron or aluminium pot. Add two teaspoons of salt (but see note below).
Add the rice and stir for about three minutes. The rice should change a bit in colour, but do not let it burn. Add the vegetable stock and stir (careful with splatters!). Cook over low heat, stir two to three minutes. When the water has nearly evaporated, add the raisins and stir. Cover and cook over very, very low heat for twenty minutes.
Heat a skillet over medium heat. Add the almonds and stir until they turn light golden, but do not let them burn. Uncover the rice, stir, and add the almonds. Stir again to mix them. Serve immediately.

Note: If you do not have homemade vegetable stock, you can use a store-bought version, or dissolve a vegetable bouillon cube in boiling water. Take into consideration that they contain salt, so taste it. If the amount of salt seems sufficient for the rice, omit the additional salt from the recipe.