An expat festive feast  

December 16, 2019

Christmas can be a tricky season for some expats. It’s a time of great excitement, family reunions and epic, belly-bursting feasts that go on for hours. But if you’re far from home, it can be a little bittersweet. You might be celebrating without your loved ones, or trying to recreate long-held traditions in a very different setting.

There’s no right way or wrong way to celebrate the holidays -  I’ve toasted Christmas with phở bò on the Mekong, mojo pork in balmy Havana and roast game on the South African veld - but there are a few handy tips I’ve developed over the years when it comes to recreating a traditional Western Christmas while you’re far away.

In the past, I’ve organised expat get-togethers for the holidays, inviting similarly far-away-from-home friends and co-workers to celebrate the season. These are often a great way to learn about other cultures and customs, picking up some new recipes along the way.

Every family has its own unique traditions around festive food, but it's exciting to add your own: by mixing a little of your new home with your old, you can create lasting memories that will stay with you forever, wherever you are in the world. 

In Britain and Ireland, where I’m from, the main dish on Christmas Day is usually roast turkey - I’ve even been known to carry a vacuum-packed bird in my hand luggage - but if you can’t find one, other poultry or fowl will work just as well: chicken, duck, goose or even pigeon. It’s all about the roasting, really - there’s nothing like that delicious aroma filling your kitchen as you lay the table with Christmas crackers and festive paper hats. 

If you have a small oven, it might be easier to choose a turkey crown or a boned and rolled version. Make sure to keep the bones for stock if you can - they're the key to making your gravy sing.

There’s no reason why you can’t incorporate your local flavours when preparing your main dish: duck works brilliantly with Chinese five-spice powder, chicken roasted in a tandoori marinade is delicious, and ras-el-hanout will elevate even the simplest chicken thighs to a flavoursome feast.

Other families prefer game, beef, pork or seafood, and still others will prefer a vegetarian main, such as a hearty nut roast or a swish vegetable Wellington.

Stuffing recipes are different in almost every house: it’s usually bread-based, but after that, the rules go out the window.

My approach is to keep it simple, with dried breadcrumbs, fresh sage and diced onion. So good I could eat it with a spoon - and I have done! But when we’re in France, we borrow ideas from our neighbours, adding ground Toulouse sausage and chopped chestnuts for a delicious rustic accompaniment.

The options are endless: friends in America use cornbread, my sister prepares hers with rice in Hong Kong, and I’ve enjoyed it with almonds, dates and dried fruit and pomegranates in the Middle East, a dish I still make today.

Experiment with whatever ingredients are popular in your new home, and who knows, your grandchildren could be following Granny or Grandpa’s ‘special expat stuffing’ recipe in years to come.

This is where you can go a little wild, incorporating the unique flavours of your expat home into your festive spread. Every cuisine of the world has staple dishes that are a beloved part of special meals. In my home we love potatoes, and at Christmas we like to roast them until they’re golden and crisp on the outside, and fluffy and flavoursome on the inside.

In other countries, you might find it easier (and more in keeping with your surroundings) to base your sides around rice, noodles, pasta, dumplings or local vegetables and legumes. Baked ratatouille is always a favourite, as is braised cabbage and boiled brussel sprouts. Mushrooms are popular at this time of year, and depending on your location, you might be able to get your hands on some exotic varieties.

When i've celebrated the holiday season abroad, I usually like to surprise my guests with recipes that blend the best of two traditions, like this festive pilaf, made with wild rice, cranberries and winter vegetables.

The holidays are a time of indulgence, and a great excuse for tucking into something sweet. 

Every culture in the world features a range of desserts that make for a satisfying end to a family feast. Whether it’s English trifle, French Bûche de Noël, German stollen, Russian sharlottka, Egyptian umm ali, Indian laddoo, American pecan pie or Turkish delight, we all have our favourite ways to celebrate special occasions with a sweet treat. 

My mother would always make Christmas cake, a whiskey-soaked, icing-covered variation of the fruitcake. Although it’s a much-loved Irish dish, it incorporates lots of ingredients from overseas such as ginger, nutmeg, cloves, sultanas and raisins, proving that most ‘national cuisines’ are a delightful combination of borrowed ideas and popular imports.

In your overseas kitchen, you could try using a local liquor instead of whiskey and dried native fruit instead of cherries. If you can’t find instant icing sugar, homemade buttercream will do the trick too.

Made the traditional way, Christmas cake travels well and lasts a long time - my father has been known to enjoy a slice all the way through spring - so it makes for a lovely handmade holiday gift, especially if you’d added a little expat spice to the mix. 


Wherever you are, and however you like to celebrate the festive season - whether it’s in a snow-capped mountain or on a sun-drenched beach - the holidays are a great opportunity to blend your own traditions with local customs, creating new and delicious dishes as well as treasured family memories. Happy Holidays!