The plane touched down and the entire cabin broke into thunderous applause. The group of balikbayan nurses in the last row cheered “Merry Christmas!” while the lady seated next to me teared up and gestured the Sign of the Cross. As we taxied to the gate, I gazed at the dawn sky breaking outside. Festive lanterns and lights were still blinking frenziedly throughout the city that was beginning to wake up.

I couldn’t believe I was back in Manila. Not too long ago, I was at the same airport, on a crowded China Airlines flight bound for Taipei then California. “You’re on your own now,” my mom said as she tried to hold back her tears in a bittersweet sendoff. “Take good care of yourself and always remember that we love you.” I told her and my dad how much I love them and promised to give them a call once I land in Los Angeles. “I will see you in two years,” I said as I bade them farewell.

But it didn’t take two years before I returned. I was back after only four short months. Four short months that seemed like forever. It wasn’t about graduate school. I breezed through my first quarter effortlessly with gleaming A’s. It was starting over on my own that proved far too difficult. My plan was to save as much money as I could and to return home after graduation. But after spending my first Thanksgiving in California I was wrought with homesickness and I was determined to ditch the plan. I couldn’t face the thought of spending Christmas alone. At least, not just yet.

I spent the next couple of weeks madly scouring through travel agencies for the most inexpensive ticket to Manila. Sadly, nothing fit my miniscule budget. I was even willing to fly as an air courier in exchange for a cheap ticket. I was ready to quit until I met Linda. She worked for a travel agency in the city that I chanced upon in a local paper. She was a Filipino mother of three who juggled booking flights to the Philippines with two other jobs, one in Macy’s selling linens and the other in a law firm downtown greeting guests and running errands. “Living here is tough,” she said. “A single job isn’t enough. I hardly have time to be with my kids.” She confided in me like we were long-lost friends.

Linda had to place me on a wait list because all the flights to Manila were overbooked.  She promised to call as soon as something came up, even something beyond my budget. I waited for the phone to ring.  Everyday, I waited for the call. By a stroke of luck, a window seat in an Asiana flight bound for Manila the day after the last day of fall quarter opened.  Eight hundred and ninety three dollars plus some change.  The fortuitous plane ticket cost me a fortune but it was the best Christmas present ever.

 

Noche Buena

 

“Merry Christmas,” the man in the counter greeted me as he stamped my passport. “Welcome back home.”

“Merry Christmas to you, too,” I said. I reveled in another inked mark in my passport to add to my collection.

The terminal was bustling with repatriates and their boxes heavy with pasalubong. I barely had the time to shop but still managed to pack a few bottles of Oil of Olay for my mom, a pack of Marlboro for my dad, and boxes of See’s candies for the kids. I spotted my balikbayan box on the snail-paced carousel surprisingly quickly and was relieved it arrived in one piece.

As I inched my way to meet my family waiting outside, thoughts of Christmases past lingered in my mind. I remembered the time when I was little and I handed out bags of cotton balls and bottles of astringent as presents for my sisters. I remembered the time when my youngest sister got married and my dad, my mom, and I spent a quiet Noche Buena together, the first time with just the three of us.

I remembered shopping for bargains in Divisoria and burning paychecks in midnight markets. I remembered the relentless carolers. Our fake Christmas tree.  The paról my brother-in-law madeSimbang Gabi and Noche Buena. Rice cakes in toasted banana leaves. Fruitcakes in cellophane. Red delicious apples in cardboard crates.  Suman and tsokolate. Jamón and queso de bola.

“Jun, we’re over here!” My sister waved and hollered loudly from across the sea of well-wishers. Next to her was my mom grinning from ear to ear and behind her was my dad wearing his favorite baseball cap.

The long journey was finally over. I was happy to be home.

 

Noche Buena

 

Pineapple, Brown Sugar, and Star Anise Glaze Recipe

1 cup pineapple juice
3/4 cup brown sugar
1 to 2 pieces star anise

Combine pineapple juice, brown sugar, and star anise in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Simmer until reduced in half.  The glaze will thicken as it cools. Brush ham generously with the pineapple glaze near the end of cooking it.

 

Noche Buena

 

Noche Buena is the Filipino feast on Christmas Eve. After the traditional Misa de Gallo, my family shares a simple meal together. The menu changes from year to year but there will always be jamón and queso de bola with pan de sal and hot cocoa. The following morning, on Christmas day, my mom and my sisters cook an even bigger feast for Christmas lunch when my extended family gathers together to eat and exchange presents. Nothing compares to a Filipino Christmas. It’s all about family, friends, traditions, and good food.

 

Bibingka Recipe

When I think of Christmas I think of the beloved bibingka — rice cakes in banana leaves baked traditionally in clay ovens over hot coals. The cakes are moist and mildly sweet and the sliced salted eggs on top and the grated coconut with sugar give them a distinctly delightful flavor and texture. In this recipe, I use tart pans and ramekins lined with banana leaves. From the rice flour to the salted eggs, all the ingredients for these gluten-free rice cakes are readily available in most Asian grocery stores.  And by the way, this recipe was recently featured in the San Francisco Chronicle.

 

Pan de salPan de Sal Recipe

The biggest challenge in making homemade pan de sal is making it light and fluffy and not at all dense. The trick is to make sure that yeast is active and dough is kneaded well. A key thing to remember when making pan de sal is patience. Be patient, let the bread rise, and you will be rewarded with light and fluffy rolls.

 

Leche Flan Recipe

My mom’s recipe uses a dozen egg yolks. Everyone does flan differently. Using only yolks gives a denser and richer flan similar to tocino del cielo, another classic dessert. Adding whites makes the flan lighter. My mom uses both evaporated and condensed milk but whole milk can be used as well.

 

Fruit Salad with Creme Fraiche Recipe

I remember so many birthdays and Christmases spent enjoying bowl after bowl of my mom’s creamy fruit salad — a wonderful hodgepodge of canned fruit cocktail, thick strands of fresh young coconut, and chewy cubes of sweet nata de coco dressed with cream and condensed milk. She would drain the thick, heavy syrup, which I obligingly drank, and would mix the peaches, pears, maraschino cherries, and nata de coco with freshly shredded young coconut she bought from the farmers’ market. She would add table cream and sweet condensed milk, mix everything together, and chill before serving. It was delicious.

 

Learn the alphabet of Filipino food through our glossary. So much is lost in translation, I know, but I hope this glossary will help those unfamiliar with Filipino food become more informed.

A is for Achuete
B is for Barako Coffee
C is for Camarón
D is for Dinuguan
E is for Ensaimada
F is for Fish Balls
G is for Gata
H is for Himagas
I is for Itlog na Maalat
J is for Jackfruit
K is for Kamayan
L is for Longganisa
M is for Mani
N is for Noche Buena

 

Kulinarya-Cooking-Club N is for Noche Buena is Jun-blog’s entry to this month’s Kulinarya Cooking Club, a friendly group of Filipino food lovers from all around the world. Each month the club assigns a theme to showcase a new Filipino dish. For the month of December, the challenge was to celebrate Noche Buena, the Filipino feast on Christmas Eve.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000778884759 Maria Teresa Mortero

    This article made me homesick. Christmas in the Philippines is really different. I live here in CA (Bay Area too) for  7 months now and I cant wait for my travel documents so me and my hubby could visit home again! We will spend our Christmas, i think, just the three of us — me, hubby, and doggie — and I had been thinking of what Noche Buena food I could prepare. Thanks for giving me ideas! Will do our shopping within the week. :) Merry Christmas!

  • http://twitter.com/mrfredbriones Aka fred

    Thank you for sharing your great story! I think I enjoy the stories just as much as your recipes. Once again, thanks for the inspiration. Have a great holiday Jun.

  • http://www.asianinamericamag.com/ Betty Ann @Mango_Queen

    What a delish spread of all our family favorites, Jun! Thanks for sharing this beautiful story. Wishes for a very Merry Christmas to you and your family! All the best for the New Year!

  • http://blog.junbelen.com/ Jun Belen

    Thank you, Maria for your wonderful note.  I’m crossing my fingers that you’ll get your travel documents soon.  Nothing compares to Christmas back home but that’s what food and traditions are all about.  Happy Holidays to you and your family!

  • malou

    Hello jun,
    For some weird reason the song Pasko na Sinta ko came to mind while I was reading your post. The SIYA in my head is the Philippines. There’s nothing like being home for Christmas.
    Maligayang pasko sa yo.

  • http://samanthafoodgeek.com/ samantha

    Thanks for this wonderful story Jun. I am very glad you got to go home! Wishing you and your loved ones a wonderful Christmas and a bountiful New Year!

  • Felix Villanueva

    Jun, I will home too in about 22 hours  from now. Your moving story made me wish the clock could turn much faster. :-) Your featured foods of “keso de bola”, ham and “pandesal”  are in my first-to-eat list too … lol  Merry Christmas!

  • Anonymous

    Nice memory.

  • http://wokwithray.net/ wok with ray

    Hamon, Queso de Bola, and Pan de Sal – great trio of yums!  And of course they are not complete without THE  hot, hot cup of coco. Beautiful combination, Jun.  Merry Christmas and a Prosperous New Year to you Jun and your family.

    ~ ray ~

  • http://blog.junbelen.com/ Jun Belen

    Felix, thank you!! Have a safe trip home and enjoy your visit.  How long will you be there for?  Merry Christmas to you and your family!!

  • Jonathan Itchon

    Having just had my family here with me, I know exactly what you mean, Jun.  The holidays are always a wonderful reminder of what’s truly important in life.  A wonderful post with beautiful recipes and photos. Maligayang Pasko!

  • http://www.confessionsofachocoholic.com/ Bianca Garcia

    Hi Jun, just wanted to say hello from the Philippines :) I’ve been enjoying many of the Christmas treats you mentioned here. Hope you are having a wonderful holiday season in SF. Merry Christmas!!

  • Anonymous

    Thank you for that story, made me teary eyed.  A merry christmas to you, Jun!

  • Adora’s Box

    This post made me want to fly home. The most precious moment is when you see your family waving outside the airport doors. You are are lucky to have queso de bola. Can’t find that here. Maligayang pasko, Jun.

  • http://twitter.com/SBayRantsnRaves SouthBay RantsnRaves

    Such a joyous posting! Merry Christmas to you too! My husband made some homemade Pan De Sal on Sunday. It’s so delicious & reminds me of growing up in NY & having them for breakfast!

  • Nancy

    I’m at my non-Filipino in-laws for Christmas right now, far from any Asian market, and longing for a Filipino Christmas. I ran across your article on sfgate, which brought me back to your blog. I want to thank you for the warm fuzzies your blog brings, especially this Christmas. At least your beautiful pictures, and thoughts worked to satisfy my heart. You continue to inspire me to bring more of the Filipino traditions to my family. (We also made paroles together this year.). Thanks again, and Merry Christmas!

  • Kate aka stinkydudette

    Merry Christmas! I’m in Brisbane, Australia and nothing beats the Traditional Filipino Christmas. Love the atmosphere, celebrating relationships, visiting and of course, the food!! Haven’t been home for Christmas 18yrs! Sad…

  • http://twitter.com/didipaterno Didi Paterno

    Merry Christmas Jun! It is my first Xmas away from home and there is nothing like the Xmases at home with family. I spent my Xmas with my husband (newly wed!) and some friends…I have a queso de bola (sent by my family), but i did not get the chance to open it just yet. I think I will try the  ham glaze soon. that is as soon as leftovers from our noche buena get depleted! Merry Christmas and have a great 2012!

  • http://blog.junbelen.com/ Jun Belen

    Didi, thank you for your wonderful note. First Christmas away from home? I know it’s tough but I hope you had a lovely one. We’re having some queso de bola tonight for media noche.

    Happy New Year to you and here’s wishing all the best for the New Year!

  • http://blog.junbelen.com/ Jun Belen

    I hope you get to visit home soon.  Eighteen years is a long time! Hope you had a wonderful Christmas and Happy New Year!!

  • http://blog.junbelen.com/ Jun Belen

    Nancy, thank you for your wonderful note! I know, nothing compares our Christmases back home.  At least, we have our parol, our food, and memories to remember those Holidays by.  Hope you had a lovely Holiday and Happy New Year!  All the best in the coming year and I hope you’ll come visit Jun-blog again soon.

  • http://twitter.com/didipaterno Didi Paterno

    Yes! It is my very first Christmas away from home :-) It was tough, especially when I realized how much I missed my big crazy family. Happy New Year to you too!

  • http://saberkite.com saberkite

    Hi Jun! Just browsing back on your posts hehe. This one is just beautiful, and it brings to mind the many Christmases I’ve spent with my family. True enough, over the years, things change in our lives but I think it’ll always be about the family and the people we love who make the season extra special. I hope you had a good one. :)

  • http://blog.junbelen.com/ Jun Belen

    Hey Kat, thank you for writing.  Happy New Year to you!!  We had a lovely Christmas and New Year’s.  Quiet but it was spent around a lot of good food, family, and friends.  I hope you had a good one, too. 

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  • Noche Buena

    Noche Buena, which means ‘the Good night’, is a Spanish term that refers to Christmas Eve. Cuban customs, the night is celebrated in the house. family get together and circle around the lech on or the pig roast. In spain celebrated like entire family by having a meal together, they eat seafood and homemade soup.In Latin America people meet their loved ones over a dinner.Philippines celebrated like roasted chicken, rice cakes, pig roast, quezo de bola etc.

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  • http://www.tndcallphilippines.com/ M Delrosario68

    this one got me teary eyed. I love your blog!:)

  • http://blog.junbelen.com/ Jun Belen

    Thank you for following the blog! I hope you’ll tell your family and friends about it.

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  • bged

    I really love the recipes here:-)