Your guide to the food and culture of the tropics


Skip the Stuffing: 5 Alternative Side Dishes to Try This Holiday

Skip the stuffing, sweet potatoes and green bean casserole this holiday season and spice up your menu with these 5 Alternative Side Dishes from around the world. These unique and flavorful side dishes are a custom in many homes and will surely please the taste buds and spark conversation when your guests arrive.

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(Photo: Flickr Ernesto Andrade)

Atkilt Wot – Ethiopia

Swap out the scalloped potatoes for this unique Ethiopian dish. Not only is it delicious, but it’s also healthy! Primarily made with cabbage, carrots, onions and potatoes the seasoning combination and ease of preparation will keep you making this side dish all year.

Atkilt Wot
Cuisine: Ethiopian
  • ½ cup olive oil
  • 4 carrots, thinly sliced
  • 1 onion, thinly sliced
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt
  • ½ teaspoon ground black pepper
  • ½ teaspoon ground cumin
  • ¼ teaspoon ground turmeric
  • ½ head cabbage, shredded
  • 5 potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes
  1. Heat the olive oil in a skillet over medium heat.
  2. Cook the carrots and onion in the hot oil about 5 minutes.
  3. Stir in the salt, pepper, cumin, turmeric, and cabbage.
  4. Cook another 15 to 20 minutes.
  5. Add the potatoes; cover.
  6. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook until potatoes are soft. Approximately 20 to 30 minutes.

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(Photo: Flickr RBerteig)

Asopao – Puerto Rico

If you are looking for a comfort food or have some leftover chicken you need to get rid of after the crowd has left, try Asopao. This Puerto Rican chicken and rice dish is a great chicken noodle soup alternative and is just as delectable. Both satisfying and filling, this flavorful item is suer spice up your side dishes menu. 

Asopao Con Pollo
Cuisine: Puerto Rican
  • 2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs
  • ½ teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1 serving light adobo seasoning
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 green bell pepper, diced
  • 1 red bell pepper, diced
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 1½ cups medium-grain rice
  • 2 (14.5 ounce) cans diced tomatoes
  • 6 cups low-sodium chicken broth
  • 1 bay leaf
  • ¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes, or to taste
  • 1 cup frozen petite peas, thawed
  • 1 cup sliced pimento-stuffed green olives
  • ¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro
  1. Season chicken thighs with black pepper and adobo seasoning.
  2. Heat olive oil in a large pot over medium-high heat.
  3. Cook and soften green pepper, red pepper, onion, garlic, and tomato paste in the hot olive oil for approximately 3 to 4 minutes.
  4. Remove vegetables from the pot and set aside.
  5. Pan fry chicken in the olive oil until browned, approximately 4 to 5 minutes on each side.
  6. Return cooked vegetables to the pot.
  7. Add rice, diced tomatoes, chicken broth, bay leaf, and red pepper flakes.
  8. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium-low and simmer until rice is tender and chicken is no longer pink inside. Approximately 20 minutes.
  9. Stir in peas and olives and cook for another 5 minutes.
  10. Remove from heat and discard bay leaf.
  11. Stir in cilantro and serve.

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(Photo: Flickr Maya83)

Congri – Cuba

This red or black bean and rice recipe is so simple and easy, if you are in a rush you will not be disappointed by this Cuban side. Many of the ingredients you likely already have in the cabinet and it can easily be prepared ahead of time. Also, it’s a great way to sneak in a few more vegetables and fiber to an indulgent meal. 

Cuisine: Cuban
  • 2 tsp olive oil
  • ½ cup chopped green bell pepper, chopped
  • ½ cup chopped red bell pepper, chopped
  • small onion, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 cup uncooked long grain rice
  • 15 oz can black beans (don't drain)
  • 1½ cups water
  • ½ tsp cumin
  • 1 bay leaf
  • Oregano
  • Salt and Pepper (to taste)
  1. Heat oil on medium heat in a heavy, medium sized pot (if possible. Any medium sized pot will do)
  2. Add onions, peppers and garlic and saute until soft, about 4-5 minutes
  3. Add rice, beans, water, cumin, bay leaf, oregano and salt and pepper
  4. Simmer on medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until the rice absorbs most of the water
  5. Cover, reduce heat to low, and simmer 20 minutes
  6. Removed from heat and allow to sit, covered, for another 5 minutes


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(Photo: Flickr pmquan)

Banh Chung – Vietnam

This Vietnamese dish has been enjoyed for centuries as part of the celebration of the Lunar New Year. Made with rice, beans, and pork, it is served at room temperature. Make a day or two in advance to save time the day of the event.  Enjoy as an appetizer or snack. 

Banh Chung
Cuisine: Vietnamese
  • 1¾ cups sticky (glutinous) rice, preferably long-grain
  • 1 drop of green food coloring (optional)
  • ¼ cup dried split mung beans
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons chopped shallots
  • 1½ tablespoons fish sauce
  • 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 5 ounces pork shoulder or butt, cut into ¼-inch-thick chunks
  • 1½ tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 2 (14" x 16") sheets plastic wrap plus extra
  • 1 (14" x 16") sheet aluminum foil
  • 2 (14" x 14") pieces banana leaf
  1. Place the sticky rice in a large bowl and cover it with 3 inches of water. Stir in the food coloring, if using, and let the rice soak overnight. Add the salt to the rice and stir to blend.
  2. In a separate bowl, soak the mung beans for at least 4 hours.
  3. Drain both just before using and set aside in separate bowls.
  4. Combine the shallots, fish sauce, black pepper and pork pieces and let marinate for 30 minutes.
  5. Heat the oil in a frying pan over moderate heat. Add the pork pieces and all the marinade and stir just until the meat is brown around the edges, about 3 to 4 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and set aside.
  6. Using a steamer basket, steam the mung beans until they are soft, about 10 minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside.
  7. To make the packet, neatly lay down the wrappers in this order: 1 sheet of plastic wrap (leave the other for use later), the aluminum foil, 2 sheets banana leaves (one perpendicular to the other). Place one cup of the rice in the center of the banana leaf, spreading it to cover a 5-inch square. Place half of the mung beans on top, then add the pork pieces. Cover with the remaining mung beans and place 1 cup of rice on top. Bring the narrow sides of the wrappers together. Fold the gathered edges over twice, then flatten against the packet. (You now have two open ends.) Fold one end over and hold the packet upright. Add half of the remaining rice, tapping it and pushing it down so the packet will be an even square. Fold the end over and repeat on the other side.
  8. Place the packet with the folded sides down in the center of the remaining plastic sheet. Wrap tightly so that water will not seep into the packet during cooking.
  9. Tightly tie the packet with two parallel strings in both directions (as in a tic-tac-toe pattern).
  10. Fill a large stockpot with water. Add the packet and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer. Place a colander or something heavy on top of the packet to keep it submerged in the water. Cook uncovered until done, about 6 hours, adding more water if necessary. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool for 1 hour.
  11. To serve, cut the packet (without unwrapping) into ½-inch slices. Remove the wrapping and arrange the slices on a serving plate. Serve warm or at room temperature.


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(Photo: Flickr Tavallai)

Tamales – Guatemala

Tamales of Guatemala date all the way back to ancient Mayan culture. Preparation can be made into a group activity by gathering the family together to build a tamale assembly line. Tamales are usually made of corn meal, chilies, and beans hand-wrapped in a banana leaf or corn husk and steamed to perfection. Try different variations and sauces to make the side dishes unique to you.

Cuisine: Guatemalan
Mole Sauce
  • 2 tablespoons pumpkin seeds, toasted
  • 2 tablespoons sesame seeds, toasted
  • 1 pasa or pasilla chili pepper, toasted and seeded
  • 1 guaque chili pepper, toasted and seeded (or other chili pepper)
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • ¼ cup bread crumbs, toasted
  • 2 ripe tomatoes, sliced
  • 2 oz. bittersweet chocolate, melted
  • ½ cup water
  • 1-1/2 lb boneless chicken
  • 1-3/4 lb masa harina
  • 6 cups water
  • 4 tablespoons sugar
  • ½ lb butter or shortening
  • 16 banana leaves or aluminum foil (about 12×12 in)
  • Raffia (or butcher’s string) to close the tamales
  • 16 small pitted prunes
  • 32 raisins
  • 32 pitted green olives
Mole Sauce
  1. Put all the sauce ingredients (except chicken) in a blender and blend for a few minutes until obtaining a smooth sauce.
  2. Cook the chicken with the sauce in a covered pan over medium heat for 20 minutes.
  3. Remove chicken and cut into thin slices or cubes.
  4. Set aside the chicken and sauce.
  1. Mix the dough ingredients together and simmer in a saucepan over low heat for 30 minutes, stirring often, until the dough is thick and smooth. Add water if necessary.
Tamales Assembly
  1. Hover banana leaves over a flame for a few seconds on each side. Rinse each one.
  2. In the center of each leaf, place a handful of masa and spread over a rectangle of 4×5 inches and 1 inch thick.
  3. Place prunes, raisins and olives in the tamale.
  4. Pour 2 tablespoons of sauce and a few pieces of chicken in each tamale.
  5. Fold the leaf toward the center, seal, then fold the other end.
  6. Tie the package with raffia (or string) as pictured.


Written by

Courtney is a Midwest girl who was entranced by a West Coast boy. Together they enjoy a minimalist life in the Midwest, but make sure to balance it with adventure and travel as much as possible. Nothing is more engaging than waking up by the ocean with new adventures to explore.