Everyone who knows me well knows that my birthday in September is my favourite time of the year, but Christmas comes a close second because it’s when my two greatest loves – food and family – meet in the most magnificent way. Each year we gather to spend 12 days over the Christmas period doing what my family does best: eating. I’m often asked whether everyone in my life always expects me to do all the cooking for every occasion. Luckily not. As my aunt always says, “cooking is how we fellowship”. And fellowship we do.
It all starts with the chosen protein – we decide in our family WhatsApp group chat what we will slaughter. But not all Christmases are created equal. The Christmases of my grandfather’s tombstone unveiling and my aunt’s retirement and 60th birthday celebrations featured a whole cow to feed more than 100 guests. The Christmas of a baby’s baptism or a graduation, still a big deal, will get a sheep because the number of guests will be significantly less. By that I mean there are only 60 or so mouths to feed.
Then, when it’s just me, my parents, their siblings and their children, a few roast chickens will do, although we always include a second option such as fish, pork, or sometimes even a goat from one of my uncles’ herds. As you can tell, we are a truly South African bunch – we love our meat. Otherwise, our Christmas menu doesn’t change much. Everyone has their trusted side that only they can make. My dad’s potato salad, my cousin’s baked cabbage, my sister’s beetroot-and-fig salad, my mom’s curry, my uncle’s braaied snoek and my aunt’s mango atchar that she makes from scratch. (In true Come Dine With Me fashion, my family will judge anyone who chooses a store-bought version instead of making it themselves.)
The same goes for the dessert station. My younger cousins make two different ice creams, I make my lemon-and-thyme cake that everyone loves, my aunt provides her famous trifle with custard, my mom her malva pudding and fruit loaf, my uncle his berry tart, and my dad a chocolate tart.
This year, it will all start when we arrive at my late Koko’s home in Ga-Mphahlele, Limpopo. Even though she has passed,
we always try to spend Christmas there. My uncles will start preparing to slaughter the lamb the next day, most likely on Christmas Eve, which officially marks the beginning of the festivities. The first meal from that lamb will be a tripe stew served with pap and morogo. The legs and shanks will be reserved for Christmas Day, and the rest will go into making tshohlo, a kind of pulled meat, cooked low and slow on the fire for a delicious, melt-in-your-mouth result. It also becomes the saving grace for much of the remainder of our stay. Want to talk repurposing leftovers? Come talk to us!
The pulled lamb will be added to sautéed onion with cumin, coriander, garlic and ginger, then placed in ramekins
and covered with puff pastry for some wholesome pot pies to eat with salad. Or we could put it on toasted bread with rocket, tomato and cheese for the most delicious sandwich, which the teens are tasked with making. But perhaps my best loved way to enjoy these leftovers is in lasagne. All we have to do is make the white sauce and assemble the dish as we sit in the kitchen enjoying ginger beer and scones. About half an hour later, it’s ready, piping hot and begging for us to devour it. Afterwards comes a phenomenon called the itis – a kind of food coma that requires you to undo the first button of whatever bottoms you have on and find the nearest couch or mat and doze off for a bit. The best Christmases are that simple – and so memorable.