Christmas dinners around the world

Fishmonger Kevin Little
Image caption Kevin Little gets his fresh carp from fish farms in France

Ask fishmonger Kevin Little if he'd happily eat the carp he sells, and he shakes his head sheepishly.

"I don't really like it," he says.

"But a lot of my eastern European customers don't particularly like carp either, it is just their tradition to eat them for their Christmas dinner.

"It's like being British and easting roast turkey on Christmas Day - it is what most of us do, even though many of us would prefer to have beef, or something else instead."

The thought of eating carp - at any time of the year - would horrify most people in the UK.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Carp is farmed across Europe especially for Christmas

It is a portly fresh water fish that conjures up images of murky canals, with half-submerged supermarket trolleys and industrial backdrops.

It is supposed to taste of mud, and while many British anglers obsess about catching them, they wouldn't dream of taking one home for the table.

Yet tens of millions of people across central and eastern Europe - who have their main festive meal on Christmas Eve rather than Christmas Day - will this evening be sitting down to eat carp.

From Poland to the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia and eastern parts of Germany, more often than not the fish is the centrepiece of people's Christmas dinner, as it has been for generations.

Image caption Mr Little has been selling carp for more than 40 years

For eastern Europeans living in the UK, having carp for their Christmas dinner is a tradition they wish to hold onto, and Mr Little and other independent fishmongers are happy to meet the demand.

Mr Little who has owned and run the Smelly Alley Fish Company in the Berkshire town of Reading for more than 50 years, buys in fresh mirror carp from fish farms in France. At £11 per kg, it is roughly the same price as haddock or cod.

The 68-year-old says: "In a normal month we sell about 20kg of carp, but at Christmas this goes up to 300kg. The fish are between 1kg and 3 kg in weight.

"I have been selling carp since the early 1970s to serve the Polish people who didn't go back to Poland after the end of the Second World War, including one man who was a Spitfire pilot.

"But sales have really taken off in recent years thanks to the new influx of Poles and other people from eastern Europe."

'Like cod'

Tadeusz Stenzel, chairman of the Federation of Poles in Great Britain, says it is wrong to think that carp doesn't taste good.

"Carp is similar to cod, but a bit sweeter," he says. "Muddy flavours are very rare, as the live fish are transferred from lakes or ponds into containers of clean water for a few days before being sold.

Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption There is no standard recipe for cooking a Christmas carp
Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption The carp can be served whole, or cut into smaller pieces

"Traditionally in Poland you'd buy your carp still alive, and people would keep them in a bucket or their bath until Christmas Eve, but these days more people buy their carp fresh [but already killed], or frozen."

But why the tradition for fish on Christmas Eve across eastern Europe?

Mr Stenzel explains that it is the Roman Catholic practice in the region, and that Christmas Eve dinner marks the big final meal of the pre-Christmas, or advent fast period, during which meat is forbidden.

Carp became the most popular Christmas fish because it was the easiest one to farm, with the fish happily living in the village pond, he says.

He adds that unlike the Angle-Saxon Christmas turkey, which is invariably roasted, there are many different ways in which Polish people cook their festive carp.

"Some do roast it whole, but others cook it with onions, or fry steaks in breadcrumbs, or make jellied carp," says the 66-year-old, who lives in Leicestershire.

He adds: "I like my carp pan fried with a cream and almond sauce, made from roasted almonds, fish stock, blended with double cream.

"This tastes fantastic, but does not help the waistline!"

Festive fried chicken

But if it has to be carp for Christmas dinner in eastern Europe, what do people eat for their main festive meal in other parts of the world?

Japan provides perhaps the most surprising answer, as the most popular Christmas meal in the land of the rising sun is a visit to KFC. Yes, you are reading correctly - Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption KFC is considered to be a festive food in Japan

Historically the Japanese didn't celebrate Christmas, as less than 1% of the population is Christian.

Against that blank canvas, in 1974 KFC decided to introduce Christmas to Japan, or most specifically - promoting the eating of KFC for Christmas.

Its "Kentucky for Christmas!" marketing campaign was a tremendous success that year, and ever since, Japanese people have flocked to the chain's restaurants for some festive fried chicken.

Mioko Fujisaki, a 37-year-old who moved to the UK from Japan nine years ago, says: "Christmas in Japan is different from in the West. In Japan, it is more commercially focused."

"KFC for Christmas is popular for families," she says."We have a TV ad every year and you will see Colonel Sanders in the Santa outfit at the shop front."

In the Philippines, the Asian country that does have a majority Christian population, fish and KFC hold little interest at Christmas. Instead the country goes mad for suckling pig.

Image copyright JES AZNAR
Image caption Suckling pig is the main event on Christmas Day in the Philippines
Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption Nacatamales are the festive dish in Honduras and Nicaragua
Image copyright peredniankina
Image caption Fried cheese balls are among the delicacies eaten on Christmas Day in Colombia

Meanwhile, in the Americas, fried cheese balls are popular in Colombia, while in Honduras and Nicaragua they feast on nacatamales, which are steamed leaf parcels filled with corn meal, rice and meat and vegetables.

'Celebrate with food'

Returning to Europe, fish is also the main festive focus in Italy and Portugal, where like Poland, the main Christmas meal is held on Christmas Eve.

For the Portuguese, it has to be salt cod, which requires soaking in fresh water for a few days before it can be cooked.

Image caption Portugal is said to have a different salt cod recipe for every day of the year
Image copyright filipe frazao
Image caption One popular way of serving salt cod in Portugal is "Lisbon style" with onions, olives and potatoes

Joao Diogo, 44, owner of the Super Mercado Portugal supermarket in west London, which serves the local Portuguese community, says: "Sales of salt cod start rising two months before Christmas, there is a really big increase."

Across in Italy, a typical Christmas Eve meal can have seven or more different fish dishes.

James Albanese, 39, from Rome, says: "You know Italians, we celebrate with food, and Christmas Eve is fish!"

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