Ask any Filipino about what he loves most about Christmas, and I guarantee that the Noche Buena will make his top three list. In the late Doreen Fernandez’s book, Tikim: Essays on Philippine Food and Culture, published in 1994, she gives this homegrown description of our Christmas feast:
“The Noche Buena, night of goodness, is to the Filipino not really just Christmas eve, to which the term refers, but also and specifically the meal shared by the family after the midnight mass. It is also called media noche—another transposition of the name for a time into the name for a meal—because, says my mother Dr. Alicia Lucero Gamboa, no one was allowed to eat after midnight mass; one fasted, especially from meat, for the feast on Christmas morning. It is not usually shared with guests, only with family, and usually only with the nuclear family, the very closest and dearest. It is for many Filipino families, therefore, the most meaningful meal of the year.”
Every Pinoy’s story of his or her Noche Buena is tailor-made with memories of Christmases dating back to childhood, peppered with anecdotes and family history, and even dramatic scenes that mirror soap operas or telenovelas.
But let’s not stray away from the very essence of the Noche Buena—the food. For my sister Karen, the star of our Christmas feast is the ham, which she slices and coats in white sugar before deep-frying in oil, and then eats with heaps of white rice or pan de sal (bread of salt). For my carnivorous relatives, the lechon or suckling pig is the main attraction. For my mother Nani, her good old sweet Filipino spaghetti is the bestseller, while my late grandmother Lola Belen’s chiffon cake used to be placed in the center of the buffet table.
But for me, nothing signals the Christmas season more than that big ball of salty mature cheese covered in red paraffin, waiting to be sliced and devoured after simbang gabi (night mass) on the 24th of December. The queso de bola has become one of the most symbolic food items in the Noche Buena for Filipinos worldwide.
In an article about Marca Piña, the most popular brand of queso de bola in the Philippines, the name was reportedly coined by Dr. Frederick Zuellig, a Swiss immigrant to the Philippines, who founded the Zuellig Pharmaceuticals in the early 1900s. Using salt as a preservative, the queso de bola was shipped in crates and imported from the Netherlands to the Philippines in the late ’30s. The rest, as they say, is history.
The use of the queso de bola has evolved through the decades. My friend Harie Bunda, head chef and owner of Malen’s Bakeshop and Restaurant in Cavite City, tops his holiday salad with slices of queso de bola. Some bakeshops in Manila sell queso de bola cheesecake. As for me, I still enjoy it the old fashioned way—sliced and served creatively on a platter, then eaten on its own or with hot pan de sal.
While I snoop around our kitchen for queso de bola leftovers, tell me about your personal Noche Buena stories. What dish or delicacy is the star of your feast?