With most families, Christmas dinner is usually all about tradition. Unlike staples at Thanksgiving (i.e. turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, etc.), there seems to be less uniformity at Christmas. Even the centerpiece seems to be flexible from house to house – Goose? Roast beef? Ham? Perhaps there’s no formula because we bring traditions from all over the world. Christmas Eve at our Japanese-American household includes almost everything you see at Thanksgiving, in addition to a hodgepodge of sushi, popovers, and sesame green beans. Out of laziness, Christmas Day consists of some repeats from the day before and fried chicken from KFC. Little did we know that KFC Christmas dinner is actually a thing in secular Japan due to ingenious marketing tactics.
I was curious about what other families prepared for Christmas, and my friend listed off a number of traditional dishes that her Armenian family serves. What stood out to me was ghapama – a roasted pumpkin stuffed with boiled rice, dried fruit, cinnamon, sugar, and honey.
In the 4th century, Roman Catholic Church officials established December 25th as Christmas (possibly to overshadow existing pagan winter solstice festivals). Armenians were already celebrating Christmas on January 6th (January 19th according to the Gregorian calendar – today’s internationally accepted civil calendar), and they were like, “Nah, Roman Catholic Church. We’re gonna stick with January 6th.” The tradition continues to this day.
I also found it interesting that many Armenians fast during the week leading up to Christmas, avoiding meat, eggs and dairy. Some refrain from food altogether leading up to Christmas Even in order to receive the Eucharist (a.k.a. Communion) on a “pure” stomach. For this reason, many Armenian Christmas Eve dishes consist of easily digestible items like rice and fish.
Because pumpkin is rich in soluble fiber, ghapama makes a great side dish that is gentle on the digestive tract. Orange pumpkins can be difficult to find in stores after Thanksgiving, so one can substitute other hard winter squashes. I used acorn squash because of its sweet flesh and manageable serving size. It may not have as much beta carotene as other winter squash, but it’s still a good source of fiber and potassium. Kabocha is also a good substitute because it can stand upright, and has a sweet, fluffy, yet substantial texture. Whatever squash you use, just make sure to cook your rice on the stovetop until it’s still slightly al dente. If it’s not cooked enough, it will still be hard after you bake it in the squash. If it’s cooked all the way through and you may end up with a pile of mush. A properly cooked ghapama will be a warm, subtly sweet, light but filling side that everyone can enjoy at Christmas.
Ghapama (Yield: 2 servings)
1 acorn squash, about 2 lbs. (with hard, blemish-free skin)
½ cup rice
2T butter, melted
1/3 cup mixed dried plums, dates, apricots, cherries, and walnuts, chopped (other options include raisins, almonds, pecans, etc.)
½ tsp ground cinnamon
1/8 tsp salt
2 tsp honey (or sugar)
1/8 cup hot water
- Preheat oven to 350°F. Cut off the top of the acorn squash at an angle. If you cut a flat circle, the lid can fall in.
- Scrape out the seeds and fibers. (You can save the seeds to roast later as a snack.)
- Prepare rice according to directions, or bring 1 cup of water to a boil. Add rice, reduce heat, and simmer for 15 minutes or at least until rice is still slightly al dente but not completely cooked through. Drain off excess liquid.
- In a bowl, mix the rice, melted butter, dried fruits, nuts, salt, cinnamon, and honey (or sugar).
- Stuff filling into acorn squash – do not pack. Pour 1/8 cup of hot water into the squash. Place the top of the squash back on.
- Place the squash on a baking sheet and bake at 350°F for about 1 to 1-1/2 hours, or until it reaches desired tenderness. Remove and cool. Serve warm and cut into wedges.