My Vietnamese-born parents were Catholics who celebrated Christmas, but they never taught us to believe in Santa Claus. The closest we ever came was the time another burly fellow bearing gifts showed up on Christmas Eve 2001, and by then we were grown-ups. That was the year Cruz Bonilla Vasquez, a barrel-chested man who worked for my dad’s landscaping business, appeared at the door of my parents’ house in San Clemente, California, carrying a tray of warm tamales that his family had just prepared. They had gone all out: fillings included pork, chicken, beef, and even cinnamon. Feeling like children with gift-wrapped presents, my siblings and I tried to guess the filling inside each, untying the tamales and taking a bite to see whether we were right.
We played that game for five Christmases, until Cruz and his family decided to spend the holidays in Mexico and there were no more tamales for us. It was such a letdown that I eventually took matters into my own hands. Two years ago, while working on a book about Asian dumplings, I realized that sticky rice wrapped in banana leaves, a food found throughout Asia, is like a tamale. So, for my family’s Christmas Eve dinner, I made a batch of _ kao tom padt_, Thai rice packets that are a traditional gift for religious ceremonies. I enriched the rice with coconut cream and hid a piece of banana in the center; then I tied each packet with a banana leaf ribbon. At dinner, the kao tom padt were eaten in a flash, the discarded leaves left piled on the table like used gift wrap. Sure, such snacks are more typically served in many Asian homes during the Lunar New Year, but when you’ve created such perfect packages, it’s hard to resist playing Santa Claus.