What are you cooking up for Christmas?

By 13/12/2018July 23rd, 2019Stories

Today is International Migrants’ Day with it being so close to Christmas we thought we’d find out what different people like to cook and eat during the festivities.

Many people who have migrated to the UK choose to make traditional dishes from their home countries over the holidays and some like to mix it up with classic British food. What’s clear is that pretty much everyone loves food and feasting together with friends and family is what really makes the celebrations special.


‘I grew up in Poland in a town called Poznan, which is the second oldest town in Poland. In 1974 I moved here to practice speaking English because I was studying the subject at University in Poland. I went back after that; in the meantime I met my future husband. We got married in Poland and then moved to England. I came back to study at Queen Mary University in London but became pregnant and had my first son, Michael, before I finished my studies. I wasn’t looking forward to making England my permanent home because at the time I was living in Brixton and it was a bit tense in the 1970s. But I soon came to love living here – and I’ve loved it ever since.

We celebrate on Christmas Eve. There is a holy atmosphere – we go to Midnight Mass. We eat a very special meal beforehand without meat. We usually fast for the day and wait until the first star appears in the sky and then we begin by sharing a Communion wafer with everyone around the table. We eat fish in jelly followed by mushroom soup, then carp with sauerkraut and potatoes, then prunes and finally poppy seed cake. There‘s always an empty seat for an unexpected guest. The meal is followed by exchanging presents.

We celebrate on Christmas Eve as though we were in Poland and then on Christmas Day we have turkey and all the trimmings. The best of both worlds!’

Stephanie and family

‘We have a very big mix of cultures around our table – Ruben our uncle is Indian, Sky the little one is half Chinese, half Indian and born in England (Newcastle), and Sinead and Mandy are half Chinese, half Irish and Geordies. We also have a white Irish auntie who lives in Port Arlington who converted to Islam in a very Catholic village!

The meal is made by Apo (Grandma) and Gung (Grandad) for 14 people every year. The food is shared between the whole family. You have rice and then pick what you like.

There is steamed veg, fried seafood in a sweet sauce with celery, roast duck, lobster, chicken in black bean sauce and a special soup that is boiled for nearly half a day, with special vegetables, lychees and goji berries, loads of nuts and grains, with barley. It’s delicious and has medicinal properties, to cleanse the body and replenish nutrients.

You will also get dishes served with big chunky Chinese mushrooms that we get from Hong Kong. They are dried and you soak them in water. I love them so much! It is very traditional cooking, so none of the English-Chinese classics.’


‘For the last 19 years I’ve worked as a receptionist on the maternity unit at Kings College Hospital – on Christmas Day this year I’ll be doing the night shift 8pm – 8am. Lots of people who work there come from different countries so everyone will bring some food to share together from their own traditions.

This is a steamed salmon with salad and a dressing I’ve prepared for a little Christmas party at my college to celebrate the last day of term. I’ve made it with red peppers and green cucumbers to reflect the Christmas colours. Everyone is going to bring their own traditional dish.

As we’re in Europe, we like to make European food like this. You only really get full African food at weddings and funerals!

I was born in Sierra Leone but moved to Gambia when I was very small. When I was 19, I came to the UK – 28 years ago to join my dad and step-mum. I’ve worked for the NHS since 1999. I’m studying Health and Social Care, Level 3 diploma and will finish next year.’

Isiltan and Dalia

‘We have our Christmas tree and decorations; we also exchange gifts and enjoy the festivities. For us rather than a religious meaning, the occasion has a cultural and social value. We enjoy it with our friends by arranging gatherings and even a secret Santa.

The great thing now is that have a feast combining traditional Turkish, Syrian and British dishes; so we eat Borek – Turkish pastry filled with spinach and cheese, Karbniyarik, Turkish stuffed eggplants, Kibbeh, bulgar wheat, minced onions and finely ground lean beef, lamb, goat or camel meat with Middle Eastern spices, Makkloubeh, a Syrian dish with meat, rice and fried rice placed in a pot, which is then flipped upside down when served, Moloukhieh another Syrian dish with Jew’s mallow, chicken and rice; and also a British Christmas cake!

Isiltan:In Turkey there was no official Christmas celebration but we still had a tree and even a Santa! We shared gifts at family gatherings, however these were oriented towards the new year rather than the Christmas day. The celebration has most of the features of a Christmas in the UK, but is really about celebrating the new year.

Dalia:The main event in Syria for the majority of people is also the new year but of course Christians celebrate Christmas. From early December, you see Christmas decorations everywhere; in shops, restaurants and some work places. Of course many people also decorate their houses. We always had a Christmas tree at home and used to have a small family gathering on Christmas Eve. My dad loved celebrating after living abroad for a long time – so we always did something special on the night.’

Mimi Mafalo and friends

‘I come from the Democratic Republic of Congo but Britain is now my home. Coming from a tropical country I appreciate the occasional snow we get here!

Every Christmas, we meet at one of my friends who are mostly all from Congo. Each one cooks a meal from home and brings it to the gathering. The adults listen to music, chat and dance while the children play together before the meal. We all stay together until very late at night. The meal we eat is made up of Congolese delicacies such as Ntaba (slowly smoked goat meat), Kwanga (pounded cassava), Makayabu (salted dry fish), Makemba (fried plantain) and Pondou (cassava leaves).’

Rachel and Stephen

Making cookies for me are an American tradition – in the US they don’t have the traditional British Christmas pudding but they do have an amazing variety of Christmas cookies. This year was the first time my mum and dad have visited near Christmas so here I am baking cookies with my mum.

In the States Christmas dinner includes a big roast ham with accompaniments and for pudding, apple pie and a variety of Christmas cookies. In the UK we have turkey, sprouts, roast parsnips with all the usual trimmings; then Christmas pudding, Christmas cake and a cheese board which for us up north includes Wensleydale cheese!

I came to the UK to study for my masters and met Steve on the course. At the time a post-work study visa made it possible to work in the UK for two years following completion of studies. I had planned to go onto work in Latin America or Africa but ended up staying. We got engaged and married in those two years.’


‘I’ve been here for 15 years. Last year I spent Christmas with other refugees and an English family eating a traditional meal. We ate turkey, stuffing and roast potatoes. I made a coconut flan which isn’t traditional but is a dessert from my country. There were about 25 people there including immediate family and friends  who I was introduced to. They made me feel very welcome. I have become family to them and often go to family gatherings, weddings and birthday parties.  I’ll be spending Christmas the same way this year.’

Ghislaine Magaya and Uche Ezihe

For us Christmas is about spending quality time with friends and family centred around lots of food and drink!

We meet up with our university and church friends and family, and cook lots of food from different African countries. We eat Jollof rice, fried stew, Egusi soup, Ntaba, Kwanga and Makemba.

We came to the UK from Congo and Nigeria along with our families when we were still children. Now we have British citizenship and have made the UK our home.’

Nev and Sara

We celebrate a double Christmas – we have a big Christmas dinner in London which we help to cook with our friends and then celebrate again back in Spain with our families. In London, we have a traditional British Christmas dinner of turkey with all the trimmings. Everyone is tasked with cooking and bringing a different component – we’re usually on pigs in blanket duty.

In Spain, the main Christmas celebration is on 24 December. We get together with our families and eat lots of cheeses, Serrano ham, chorizo, lamb, and canapés – followed by a main course, usually of seafood. On Christmas Day itself, we work through the leftovers, of which there are usually lots!

I (Nev) came to the UK to study design in 2015 and was then joined by my girlfriend Sara who came to work as a nurse in the NHS. We live together in Brixton, South London.’

With many thanks to all the wonderful people who shared their stories and festive food snaps with us for this blog post. Happy International Migrants Day!  

Author Katherine Maxwell-Rose

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