Nilaga & Biko: A Christmas story

If there is one that I love in being a Filipino, it is our unique obsession of the holidays. Christmas is not just a one-day event composed of dinner and gifts, it is months-long celebration full of beautiful traditions – from putting up Christmas decorations as early as September; to believing that completing the misa de gallo grants a wish; to the fun of monito-monita; to having our family and friends around the table during noche buena.

The list of traditions is long, but let’s talk about noche buena. Most families have ham and queso de bola as the star of their feast. It is equivalent to the turkey and stuffing of Americans’ Thanksgiving. I always thought that the roast glistening at the centre of the table is the highlight of the feast – the most-prized item in the cornucopia of salads, barbecue, and desserts.

However, our family’s spread is quite different. The traditional ham and cheese are pretty much non-existent. Taking their place are a big bowl of nilaga and a bilao of biko (Filipino ricecake). Every year, we are slurping the hearty soup and munching the ricecake for dessert.

My mom and her brother

I remember asking my mom why we don’t serve ham and queso de bola on Christmas. You see, my mom grew up extremely poor in a family of 10. Food is stretched in this huge family. Their meals are usually what they can forage from their backyard. She told me that even a sunnyside egg is a luxury because she has seven siblings.

However, every Christmas, her father (our Tatang) would boil a huge vat of nilaga and her mother and sisters would prepare bilaos of biko. There’s plenty to share with everyone. She can even ask for seconds (which is ultimately heartbreaking).  A day of abundance!

Christmas is something that she looks forward to the whole year when she was a kid. A day when she can eat until she is full. For my mom, nilaga and biko take her back to her childhood full of joy amid their scarcity.

Over the years, this tradition lives on. In our family, nilaga and biko are present in momentous celebrations like birthdays, New Year, graduations, christenings, and even when we receive a bonus or cash gift. A subtle reminder to be humble and be grateful for our blessings.

Guess what we’re having for Christmas this year?

Nilaga recipe

1 kilo of beef (don’t forget to ask the butcher for extra fat)

A head of cabbage

4 medium-sized potatoes

2 ears of corn

1 beef bouillon cube

Whole peppercorns




  1. Boil the beef until tender with salt and pepper. Add the bouillon cube.
  2. Add the potatoes and corn cut in quarters.
  3. Boil until the potatoes are done.
  4. Parboil the cabbage.
  5. Add a pinch of sugar to balance the taste.
  6. When serving, add the cabbage in a bowl before adding the soup.

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