How a Thematic Christmas Celebration Can Connect Distant Family

Malik Francis and his family in matching Christmas pajamas, of course. (Malik Francis)

The holiday season affords my partner the opportunity to combine two of her greatest loves: Reveling in Christmas camp and brainstorming party themes. (She is one of those people who purchases matching pajamas and blasts Christmas carols in November.) The themed Christmas parties are a family tradition. Their most over-the-top theme to date was a Lord of the Rings Christmas complete with dishes, cocktails, decorations and costumes inspired by the books.

Before I met my partner, Christmas felt more like a routine than a happy tradition. While I love some of my family traditions like watching Lakers games with my brothers, eating mom’s banana pudding and telling funny stories, cooking a rib roast and some sort of potato side year after year became a chore.

But last year, during my first themed Christmas party, my partner’s family welcomed me into the fold. Together we were preparing emotionally for two (known to us at the time) life-changing events in 2020: the birth of our first child in July, and her sister’s move to Osaka, Japan in February.

"This Christmas our son has just started eating solid foods," writes Francis. (Malik Francis)

This year, our first holiday season as parents to a beautiful baby boy is special. I have been reliving my happiest Christmas memories as a child with the hope that we can create memories he will cherish. I am excited to get him in the kitchen so I can teach him how to stir the pudding and “clean” the pot like my mother did with me. I’m excited to watch him enthusiastically open one gift on Christmas Eve and try negotiating with us for the chance to open another.

This Christmas is also the first my partner and her sister have spent apart. As the only children of immigrant parents (a mother from Japan and a father from Puerto Rico), the two learned how to rely on each other’s strengths to persevere through adversity. They are each other’s emotional support and very best friends. So the joy of the arrival of our baby is somewhat tempered by a deep sense longing for a sister, daughter and aunt on the other side of the planet.

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Upon her arrival in Osaka, we were inundated with beautiful pictures and stories of the rich food culture of the city. Each text message and social media post induced a drool reflex, so it made sense that this year’s Christmas party theme would recreate some of my partner’s sister’s favorite dishes, to connect us to a loved one, and to share her excitement of discovering the treasures of a new home.

Chawanmushi, an umami-forward savory egg custard. (Malik Francis)

Japanese cooking philosophy and techniques have played an important role in my development as a chef. Although my first introduction to Japanese cuisine was as a college student eating at restaurants along Sawtelle Avenue (Little Osaka) in Los Angeles, it was during a trip to Kyoto, before starting graduate school, that I really fell in love with Japanese food culture. Since that trip, I have incorporated years of learning and experimenting with Japanese flavors and techniques into my cooking style. So I am a little excited about cooking these dishes.

Our first dish is chawanmushi, an umami-forward savory egg custard. The chawanmushi my partner’s sister ate in Kyoto had a smooth, creamy texture that obsessed her for weeks. In an ideal world, the sisters would be cooking side-by-side in a kitchen, trying to figure out how to replicate this dish. Instead my partner has me, a science nerd, at her side.

A successful chawanmushi depends on understanding the essential variables of egg quality, seasoning, temperature control and limiting the amount of air bubbles in the custard base.

The secret ingredient: putting egg custard base in a chamber vacuum sealer. (Malik Francis)

Although my partner used high quality farm eggs, homemade dashi and seasonings, her first attempt resulted in super tasty scrambled eggs rather than a smooth custard. The heat was too high, and despite skimming and straining, there was still residual air in the custard.

Slowly increasing the temperature allows the dashi (water), the sugar (mirin) and salt (Japanese sea salt and soy sauce) to create a protective environment for the egg proteins to gradually lose their native structure and form a new network of intramolecular bonds. At 160 F that network will have a custard consistency and around 180 F it begins to resemble scrambled eggs.

A high amount of air (think, frothy appearance) whisked into the custard will give the final dish a “spongy” texture. To remove as much air as possible, my partner puts the egg custard base in the chamber vacuum sealer. Then the custard was cooked with a gentler heat. Together these tweaks give my partner’s chawanmushi a “creaminess” we imagine her sister experienced. (Just because it’s Christmas doesn’t mean I stop experimenting.)

Delicious kintsuba. (Malik Francis)

For dessert we are making kintsuba, which my partner’s sister describes as “sweet adzuki beans in squares, coated in flour and baked/lightly fried.” Kintsuba is yōkan, a thick jelly made from tsubuan (whole adzuki beans boiled with sugar), and agar. To unlock the full gelling potential of the agar, it must first be boiled in water. After that the agar is fully melted, the tsubuan is added and the mixture is then cooled inside a mold. Once cooled, the yōkan is cut into block form, coated in pancake batter and quickly cooked so as to not melt the agar. In her descriptions, it sounds delicious: “The lovely texture of a slightly chewy/crisp thin outer layer gives way to a soft bean paste studded with still-whole beans.”

Her description of kintsuba triggered a food memory of eating warm taiyaki on a cold February night during my brief stay in Kyoto. I have always loved the taste of sweet adzuki beans—I grew up eating bean pies from Muslim bakeries—and thus it was a great delight, while I was in Kyoto, to eat taiyaki fresh from the griddle. (Taiyaki is a tai-snapper-shaped waffle stuffed with adzuki bean paste.) It was a cold February night, and the heat of the taiyaki kept me warm and happy. Her more recent description of kintsuba instantly transported me back to that fond memory and forward to the day when we’ll see each other again.

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This Christmas our son has just started eating solid foods; so far he seems to like bananas, avocados, pears and rice. In future Christmases, there will be opportunities to embrace the culinary traditions of his Black, Japanese and Puerto Rican heritage. What I love about the tradition my partner helped to create is that it makes Christmas less about the anxiety of buying gifts and more about coming together as a family to gain insight into unfamiliar cultures. This year, that means seeing a familiar culture through the eyes of a much-missed family member. What my partner has made me realize, and what she’ll teach our son, is that a constantly changing thematic Christmas is its own tradition with rich rewards.