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Unusual Winter Food & Holiday Traditions from Around the World

Guest Blogger: Matt Boyce, Program Assistant at the Illinois Study Abroad Office

I like traveling. I like traveling a lot. Exploring the world is one of my favorite hobbies, and if I’m not actually traveling somewhere at the given time, I’m probably plotting out my next adventure. It is pretty universal that one of the first rules of international travel is to “do as the locals do.” But sometimes it’s difficult to do this, especially regarding food. Still, taking a deep breath and trying a new food or custom, while hopefully keeping your “yuck” face stashed away, can show respect for your hosts and the country or place you’re visiting. Fortunately for me, I also like to eat, a lot, and am pretty open to trying new foods so long as it’s not leafy and green. In my personal travels I’ve tried a wide variety of foods, from rattlesnake, to durians, to conch, to jellyfish. Still, there are a number of foods I’m not sure I could muster up the courage to eat and “do as the locals do.” To help give you an idea of the range of foods and traditions out there, and since it is the “most wonderful time of the year,” here are a few of the more unusual winter customs I’ve heard about from around the world:

Piftie (Romania)
This Eastern European dish may or may not have been the inspiration for Midwestern and Southern supermarket chain Piggly Wiggly. Because that is really the best way to describe it. Piftie is a garlicky, pork stock gelatin made from pig liver, and is commonly served as an appetizer on Christmas. Don’t get me wrong, I like jello and pork products, but I might prefer those two entities remain separate on my plate.


KFC (Japan)
In my family, whenever we get together for the holidays, my Grandma makes a turkey, with the rest of the spread rounded out with green beans, yams, homemade bread, and usually mashed potatoes. But in Japan, it has become more or less a holiday tradition to holiday food provided by a smiling man you and I both know: Colonel Sanders. This custom, embraced by millions of Japanese, began nearly 40 years ago when KFC launched a marketing campaign in Japan in which they presented fried chicken as a yuletide norm. But my favorite part of this tradition is that they dress the Colonel up like Santa during the season. I guess they both have white beards and wear red?


Kiviaq (Greenland)

Kiviaq is more or less a winter dish that consists of fermented sea bird. Strange, but not entirely crazy. What makes me unsure about this dish is the preparation process. The BBC describes it in the following manner:

“The delicacy is created by first preparing a seal skin: all the [seal] meat is removed and only a thick layer of fat remains. The skin is then sewn into a bag shape, which is stuffed with auk birds. Once full and airtight, the skin is sewn up and seal fat is smeared over all over the join, which acts as a repellent to flies. The seal skin is then left under a pile of rocks to ferment for a minimum of three months to a maximum of 18 months.“


Night of the Radishes (Mexico)
Noche de los Rábanos or Night of the Radishes is a celebration held in Oaxaca, Mexico on December 23. Though this tradition doesn’t involve the consumption of radishes, it does involve the carving of the root vegetable into intricate scenes and figures. This “rad” celebration (ba-dum-tsss) then continues into Christmas Eve and Christmas, where parades, dancing, and fireworks ensue.


Hakarl (Iceland)
Hakarl is the national dish of Iceland and is actually similar to kiviaq (see above). This delicacy is actually rotten shark meat that is buried and left to decompose for several months, which allows for the uric acid to decay, making the meat edible.  After this, the meat is cured for another 2 months before a layer of edible flesh is enjoyed as part of a meal. Though it is now available year round, it was traditionally served at the Midwinter Festival.



If you have the chance to try any of these, and do so, I commend you. Maybe you’ll end up with a newfound favorite food or holiday tradition! If you’re going (or have gone) abroad in the winter, let the Study Abroad Office know about any cool things you tried or experienced.

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