Christmas Is Barbecue Time for Holy Land Christians

Whole stuffed lambs, mounds of mutton ribs and a host of barbecued meats are some of the traditional Christmas dishes served by Arab Christians living in the land of Jesus.

Israeli Arab chef Johnny Goric poses during a Arab Food Festival in Haifa, December 8, 2015.
Israeli Arab chef Johnny Goric poses during a Arab Food Festival in Haifa, December 8, 2015. AP

It’s Christmas Eve in Nazareth. Extended families are gathering for the traditional holiday meal. The mezzes are ready - the table is laden with Arab classics like tabbouleh, fattoush and of course, hummus. And now, it’s time to fire up the barbecue to prepare the meal’s centerpiece - grilled meats.

Christian Arabs in Israel and the Palestinian territories have their own culinary traditions that vary based on location, explains Chef Johnny Goric. Goric is a native of Jerusalem and a member of the city’s Armenian minority. The executive chef at the Legacy Hotel’s Cardo restaurant, Goric was a judge on the Palestinian version of the Masterchef reality show and recently opened a cooking school in Ramallah.

On Christmas Eve, though, someone else will be doing the cooking.

“Christmas for Christians in the holy land is considered a major event, as you all know,” said Goric. “It brings the family together.”

In many cases, that means the extended family. Goric and his mother, father and brothers, as well as his wife and three kids, will be heading off to celebrate Christmas Eve with his brother’s in-laws in Bethlehem.

The family will have a meal, followed by midnight mass. The following day, on Christmas, there’ll be another large meal.

“It’s a bit of a festive 24 hours,” Goric noted.

Israel is home to some 160,000 Christians, about 2% of the population. An estimated 50,000 live in the Palestinian territories as well.

Sfiha - handmade dumplings topped with meat cooked with yogurt and pine nuts.
Courtesy of chef Elias Mattar.

Instead of the roast ham or Christmas goose common in the West, Christian families in and around Jerusalem and Bethlehem are likely to have lamb for the holiday. That means “leg of lamb, even a whole stuffed lamb with Arabic rice” - rice mixed with ground beef and spices - Goric explained.

Ham isn’t so common in the area, due to the sensitivities of the Muslim population, which make up the majority of the region’s Arab residents, added Goric.

Lambs for stuffing are generally between 10 and 15 kilos - small enough to fit into a home oven, he noted.

When Goric makes stuffed lamb, he’ll fill it with tiny stuffed zucchini and vine leaves - each one individually filled, a time-intensive task. He’ll surround the lamb with roasted potatoes and other root vegetables.

Some people might serve chicken stuffed with freekeh - smoked green wheat - and rice, if a lamb is too much food, he suggested. Others actually roast a turkey, a tradition probably imported from the West.

The table will also likely contain classic Arab salads and appetizers - tabbouleh, cucumber and yogurt salad, kubbeh and hummus.

While their Muslim neighbors generally don’t drink, as alcohol is forbidden by Islam, “we as Christians tend also to drink some arak beforehand or whisky with the food,” said Goric.

In northern Israel, the traditions are slightly different. There, they show the influences of Lebanese and Syrian cuisine; many community members have relatives from those countries, notes chef Elias Mattar.

Mattar, originally from the northern coastal city of Acre, used to run a restaurant, Dante, in Nazareth. Nazareth, the largest Arab city in Israel, is traditionally regarded as the place where Jesus grew up, and until recently had a majority Christian Arab population. Mattar now lives in the mixed Arab-Jewish city of Haifa and works primarily in catering.

He, too, plans to attend a large celebration with the extended family on Christmas Eve. This year he’ll be starting the evening at his wife’s grandmother’s house in Nazareth, before continuing on to his brother’s house in Haifa.

“The fun part is that each family member makes something, and of course there's competition over who made the best food,” said Mattar.

Chef Elias Mattar.
Alaazatre Photography

Christmas Eve meals are a longer affair in the north than in the Jerusalem area. Christians from the towns in Israel’s north traditionally have a barbecue on Christmas Eve; weather permitting, they’ll even be celebrating outside.

Other festive dishes include Lebanese-style kubbeh - balls of kubbeh nayeh, a raw-meat dish similar to tartare, stuffed with a filling of cooked ground beef, onions and olive oil. On Christmas Day, the leftovers will be roasted in the oven to make another dish, kubbeh siniyeh.

Another festive, labor-intensive dish is mutton ribs with vine leaves. The ribs are arranged on the bottom of a pot, which is then filled with leaves intricately filled with rice, ground meat and spices. Skilled cooks can finish the preparation within an hour to an hour and a half, says Mattar. After cooking, the pot is flipped over to create a mound of vine leaves topped with ribs, he explains.

Christians in the north generally don’t go to church for midnight mass, but rather only on Christmas morning, said Mattar. That means that Christmas Eve dinners can last well into the night.

“By the end of the evening, everyone is drunk,” he said.

As the evening winds down, kebabs are stuffed into pitas, which are grilled on the barbecue before being served with a bit of tahini. That grill is also likely to contain pork, presuming there aren't any Muslim guests who would take offense, added Mattar.

But the party doesn’t end on December 25. Their wives happen to be Catholic, but both Goric and Mattar are Eastern Orthodox. That means they’ll be celebrating Christmas again – and hosting their own meals – on Eastern Orthodox Christmas in two weeks.

“On January 6, I’m cooking stuffed lamb and bringing everybody to my house,” declared Goric.