By Wanda A. Adams
From roast turkey to midnight soup, holiday fare runs the global gamut and creates a lifetime of recollections.

FOOD IS THE DOORWAY TO MEMORY. ASK ABOUT A FAMILY’S FOODWAYS AND YOU’LL HEAR ABOUT CULTURE, CUSTOMS AND treasured experiences that live on in fading snapshots—and in recollections that never do fully fade. This is especially true of the year-end holidays: Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s.

We asked some of the islands’ most distinguished residents what dishes on their celebratory tables were essential. For Mihana Aluli Souza of the widely known Hawaiian singing group, Puamana, and her husband, Henry “Chuckie” Souza, the word that came to mind is “imu.” Every year, the sprawling family gathers at the Souza’s Kailua home, near that of her famous mother, the late composer and performer Auntie Irmgard Farden Aluli. There were 10 in the elder Aluli generation, most of them musicians, and every one had multiples of children who now have multiples of children; parties run to 50-100 people. The men would set to work digging the earth oven while the women prepped the food to be steam-baked overnight in the back yard. For Eddie Flores, co-founder and owner of the multi-state L & L Hawaiian Barbecue chain, the word is pig’s blood—the key ingredient in the beloved Filipino stew, dinaguaan. This was one of dozens of dishes the women in his family would set out at Christmas in his parents’ Hong Kong home. Virtually the all the Filipino people in his area would be there, he recalls. For Chef George “Mavro” Mavrothalassitis, the memories of Noel in Marseilles are as rich as the customary menu for the gargantuan meal taken in the wee hours of the morning, after midnight Mass—the one time of year when the clan became devout, he admits. Frank De Lima, the king of ethnic comedy, thinks about “midnight soup” and his mother’s mania for decorations. For philanthropist Dr. Lawrence Tseu, his holiday food wishes of feasting on turkey as child has now become a holiday tradition in his household.

While many people can point to one particular dish, which epitomized the holidays, the Souzas say that, their imu was an equal-opportunity cooking tool.

“You put in anything,” says Mihana Souza. Everyone brought something for steaming in the earth oven—turkey, of course, but also duck, beef, pork, ribs, chicken and even Henry’s specialty, corned beef. “It’s not creative cooking,” Henry Souza said, “You just put it in and [leave it] overnight.”

Music was a feature of L&L’s Eddie Flores’ small-kid-time Christmas celebrations in Hong Kong. His father was a musician, and he’d invite his fellow players for the holiday. The entire, small Tagalog community would join to prepare favorites: the aforementioned dinaguaan (pig’s blood stew), lumpia (stuffed, deep-fried Filipino spring rolls), adobo (sour braised pork), flan (creamy custard) and bibingka (rice flour “fudge”). The party began in the wee hours, after the musicians had played their Christmas Eve gigs, and everyone had gone to midnight Mass. There’d be plenty of strong black coffee, Filipino-style, to keep everyone awake.

“It was the biggest event of the year. We all looked forward to it. [This question] brings back good memories,” says Flores, who has grown his business from one Liliha store to a chain in 10 states and three countries. But he admits that, even more than the food, what he looked forward to was seeing his godparents. This relationship is a very special one in Filipino culture and, as a child, he knew ninong (godfather) and ninang (godmother) would give the best presents of all.

Midnight parties were common to any culture with a Roman Catholic background, thanks to the custom of attending midnight services, and because, until recently, one could not eat for some time prior to services if one was to partake of communion.

So it would be a hungry bunch who would arrive at the home of Frank De Lima Sr. and his wife, Pearl, to enjoy her famed “midnight soup”—a chicken and vermicelli mixture, a Portuguese staple.

But what set the holidays apart in the De Lima household was his mother’s insistence that the house be decorated within an inch of its life—perhaps a clever ploy to keep the kids busy while she cooked.

There would, of course, also be a lapingha: a creche or nativity scene. Portuguese tradition dictated that this not be just some small grouping of statues, but a tiered arrangement in which every piece had symbolic meaning. The De Limas went their own way, using paper bags, painted brown and green and crumpled to become boulders; these they formed into a hillside and a cave in which the “Baby Jesus” was placed.

Similarly, George Mavrothalassitis’ family, in Marseilles, followed the important custom of carefully arranging and rearranging small, clay figurines called Le Santon, which included not only the Holy Family but as many as 55 statuettes to represent everyone in the village: the fisherman, the tradesmen, even the village idiot.

And eat? “We would sit down at the table and we would get up 24 hours later,” says Mavrothalassitis with characteristic enthusiasm. “I am not kidding!”

On Christmas Eve in the early evening, there would be the traditional light supper of garlic soup (garlic, fennel, herbs, water) followed by church and then by a lavish spread (oysters, foie gras, goose, duck, lamb, whatever the family could afford and anything in season), culminating with the Thirteen Desserts of Christmas.

More recently, Chef Mavro offers a private “Christmas in Provence” dinner every year to a limited number of givers to his favorite non-profit, Hawaii Public Radio, and the Thirteen Desserts are a feature.

Speaking of giving, one of Hawai‘i’s most-generous denizens, Dr. Lawrence Tseu, still clearly recalls his more humble Christmas celebrations. He says, “As a child, I always considered myself as just a very poor shoe-shine boy and a newspaper boy that grew up in Kalihi. The only holiday we celebrated was Christmas. We could afford only a can of ham or chicken as our holiday meal. I never knew what a turkey was until I was about 13 years old.

We never took pictures of our holiday dinner celebration because there wasn’t much to take pictures of.”

Fortunately, there was one occasion where the family was able to come together for a portrait—the one and only time. Tseu was just 14 years old and back then, it was Tseu’s father who was the star cook and prepared the turkey for the entire family.

Clearly, the beloved philanthropist has reached great heights since the days of his youth, but now, you can bet that turkey—Tseu’s favorite—is always a main event come Christmas dinner. Apparently, just because Tseu was born in Hong Kong doesn’t mean he’s attached to Far Eastern fare. In fact, Tseu jokes, “As far as our particular choice of food we prefer—whether Eastern or Western? We all prefer a ‘See Food Diet.’ We eat anything and everything we SEE!”

Make the Perfect Gravy

Do not use mixes—gravy made from meat drippings takes just minutes while the meat is resting; supplement with melted butter or bacon fat.

The secret to lump-free gravy is gradual scattering of the thickening agent, not dumping it in. Always use a whisk, not a spoon, to stir as you scatter.

SIMPLE DRIPPING GRAVY:

Loosen browned bits in roasting pan. Measure 3tbsp fat right into the pan. Heat on stovetop over two burners. Whisk in 3tbsp flour and simmer, whisking, 5 minutes.

Gradually stir in 3 cups room-temperature chicken broth, giblet-and-neck broth, wine, milk, half-and-half, non-fat half-and-half or a combination of the above. Season to taste.

If you’ve used a particular herb or spice in the meat, a further layer of that flavor should be added to the gravy.

Taken from Adams’ new book, Celebrations, Island Style. Now out in bookstores from Island Heritage press.