Each year ends in much the same fashion. The early morning frantic searches for missing travel accessories. The march with two-weeks worth of luggage through a foot of snow. Braving the construction maze of Union Station. Finally, watching the snow-covered landscape of Eastern Canada quietly roll by my train window. Now, comfortably speeding at 160 km/hr, I am full of anticipation to see all of the people I’ve missed - and to eat all of the special treats exclusively reserved for holiday consumption. There is nothing like going home for the holidays.
As it is for many, my holiday traditions begin a good month before Christmas. For us, though, there’s no tree decoration or Christmas music blaring from a radio. It’s all about the people in our life that I’ve come to call our family away from family. And the food - don’t forget about the food.
Each December begins with a much-awaited tradition at the Wong-Kwo household; we make cabbage rolls.
Referred to simply as The Romanians, Irina and her husband, Alex, have been my friends for almost ten years. Irina and I used to work together, and I’ve always looked forward to Christmas and Orthodox Easter - the only times of the year sarmale, Romanian cabbage rolls, are “in season”. Irina would pack extra of the plump meat and potato stuffed cabbage leaves for me for lunch and talk about how many bottles of wine were sacrificed in the making.
It was one fateful year that Irina invited us to help with the preparations. With parents no-longer in the city, their tradition took a one-year hiatus. A year later, Irina and Alex decided to carry on the tradition. An invitation was extended to this most intimate and prestigious affair to two giddy Asians who compared the honour to winning top high school math prizes.
The evening begins with the uncorking of wine bottles; these flow freely throughout the night. Then, large pots are arranged around the table and lined with sauerkraut and thick chunks of smoked bacon. Once removed from the jar, the pickled cabbage leaves are then unfurled and the harder ribs are sliced off. Meanwhile, copious amounts of fatty ground pork and beef are hand mixed with rice, mashed potatoes, and spices. Prep work complete, assembly begins as the meat mixture is rolled into the cabbage, and sips of wine are had in-between.
As honorary Romanians, Nick and I now proudly hold positions in the production line of this BYOP (bring your own pot) operation. The result? We leave more sauced than our pot of sarmale, which is now lined with enough cabbage rolls to feed us through the cold winter, as well as provide a year’s worth of frozen emergency rations.
For the 3 Spoons, our own holiday food specialty tends more towards sweet than savoury. When I first moved to Toronto as a fresh graduate, my modest living meant having to cut down on giving material gifts for Christmas. Everyone makes cookies, but cookies are too … safe. I wanted a challenge that would potentially make me sweat, cry, curse, and rejoice in the triumph of its (somewhat amateur) mastery. The answer was chocolate truffles.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, it was the day after that emergency room visit that we had our first date. All I saw was Kim, holding a small wrapped parcel of her homemade truffles. We walked for an hour after the date in the cold, talking - I don’t think I’d have suggested that had I known about the stitches … It all worked out in the end!
While candy making seems tame enough, the craft isn’t without its hazards; one year was so intense that I ended up in the emergency room at 2:00 am with two deep cuts under my left foot. Truffle making is a literal blood, sweat, and tears endeavour, but the end-product is a satisfying accomplishment I look forward to every year.
I’m a self-taught chocolatier; I went to the bookstore, found the only truffle-making book available, and started from there. In my first year I stuck to simple ganache rolled into basic coatings: cocoa, nuts, shredded coconut. As the years progressed the complexity increased. I graduated to tempering chocolate to create hard shells for my creations, now with more creative flavours.
Tempering chocolate with everyday kitchen implements is a lesson in patience and a testament to the strength of human character. To get the chocolate just right - so that it cools to a smooth, glossy finish - is a balancing act with little margin for error. Most truffle making nights involve a double-boiler method on stove-top, with a candy thermometer awkwardly strapped in, and a bowl of ice water for emergency cooling. No doubt a test to a relationship as formidable as assembling Ikea furniture.
Abhi joined the truffle-making madness, bringing with him a plethora of flavour ideas. And soon after, Nick followed with theories on how to use a sous-vide to simplify the tempering process.
After lovingly packaging and gifting our pride and joy to those we love, we finally indulge in our creations together as part of our very own 3 Spoons Holiday Dinner.
3 Spoons Holiday Dinners
Abhi and I once lived together; though only a short four-month stint as roommates, the experience was life changing, to say the least. When we moved in, we hardly knew each other, but our mutual love for food became the anchor to an unusual friendship. We still lived together when we celebrated our first Christmas. The week before travelling to our respective hometowns - me to Montreal and him to Calgary - we got dressed up and had our own Christmas dinner; that year it was at Scaramouche.
It’s since become a yearly celebration of our friendship - Roomie Christmas Dinner; just the two of us trying something new. We do this to remind ourselves of the parallel culinary journeys we’ve travelled and the many still to come.
Over the years, our family has grown, and the 3 Spoons was born. Roomie Christmas Dinner remains the same, but a new tradition has started. It’s not an elaborate affair - just a home cooked Christmas dinner with those who matter most. More practically, it also allows us to try and clear the fridge before leaving the city to our respective families; this plan often backfires - no matter how hard we try, there’s always more leftovers than when we started. The next days are filled with the hurried packing of freezers and bags: the 3 Spoons are departing for the year.
Since Nick and I have been together, we have split our holiday travels between two cities. Christmas Eve is spent with my family in Montreal, Christmas Day with his family - Canadians now living in New Jersey.
Christmas Eve dinner usually includes no less than 30 people, an unreasonable burden to place on any host to feed alone. So, for as long as I can remember, our family shindigs have always been potlucks. The result is a table-buckling affair that reflects how culturally diverse my family has become. I have aunts, uncles, and cousins who are Romanian, French Canadian, Vietnamese, Italian, and Egyptian. Each brings their speciality: whole suckling piglet, sarmale, pasta, tourtiere (Quebec meat pies), fried noodles - anything goes and everything gets eaten.
And, of course, no meal is complete without drink. Like many family gatherings, it’s a delightful snowball effect of questionable decisions. The night usually begins with cocktails, then moves on to beer and wine with the meal, gets interspersed with much-regretted tequila shots, and gets topped off with samples from Uncle Marius’ prodigious whisky collection; so extensive it belongs in a museum.
Then, once appropriately glassy-eyed from rich food and good drink, the dancing begins. Between the Montreal-based families, we have two basements fully outfitted with state-of-the-art sound, lasers, strobe light, smoke machines, and other completely ridiculous and completely awesome pieces of theatrical sound and lighting equipment. By the time the lasers come out, everything is a drunken haze of european club hits and we’ve forgotten all about unwrapping presents.
The next day, Christmas Day, then becomes - slightly - hungover a travel day for us. But not this year - the Wongs are invading Montreal. For years, we have recounted my family’s bacchanalian parties at Christmas dinner and the Wongs want in.
I’ve never considered myself as loving Christmas the way others do - like getting giddy at tree ornaments in November. But I love my traditions, and in turn love Christmas because of them. In a way they also make me feel very Canadian; what are we as a nation if not a mosaic of people looking to call a place home?
I realize, now, that I’m fortunate to have so many different traditions to share with so many people. After all, it’s family - the ones we were born into, and the ones we created - that make Christmas even more special.
Words by Kimberley Kwo. Photos by Abhishek Dekate.