Every year, Balboa Park hosts a terrific holiday event. December Nights is the first Friday and Saturday of December, from 5-9pm. All of the Balboa Park museums are open and free. There’s music at the Spreckels Organ Pavilion and elsewhere throughout the park. There are vendors of all types. The Spanish Village has all kinds of art for sale. It’s really cool.

My favorite part has always been the International Houses, though. The International Houses each set up a food booth, featuring specialty foods from the nations that are represented. There’s cannoli and tiramisu at House of Italy, pastries and haggis at House of Scotland, crepes at House of France, and so forth. Uncle Pasto and I try to go and find new foods we haven’t tried before. It’s great fun. (:

What we had this year:

House of Argentina: choripan and alfajores. I am rather amused that choripan sounds Japanese, and kind of functions the same way as many Japanese portmanteaus, in that it’s a grilled chorizo sausage (chori-) on crusty bread (pan). It’s topped off with chimichurri sauce … yum!Alfajores are sandwich cookies. The cookies are made with flour, honey, and nuts, and they’re filled with dulce du leche, and the edges are rolled in coconut. I’d like a little lemon or something in the cookie to cut the sweet just slighty, but they are still really tasty.

House of Ukraine: Uncle Pasto and I like sausages. At House of Ukraine, we got the kovbasa sandwich with kapusta. Kovbasa is similar to a kielbasa, and kapusta starts with sauerkraut, but adds other vegetables. In this case, we noticed carrots and onions. It was tasty. We also got the varenyka, which is kind of like potato-stuffed ravioli. The dough is thick and chewy, and the potato filling is soft. It’s sauced with butter and sauteed onions, and topped with sour cream. Fantastic. Probably a good thing we limited ourselves to one, or we’d never have made it to …

House of Finland: where we got lihapullat and kastike, the Finnish take on meatballs and gravy. The meatballs were pretty normal, but the kastike was terrific — a savory pepper gravy, which neither of us had thought to pair with meatballs before. We also got rosolli, a chopped salad of beets, apples, carrots, onions, and sour cream. I am pleased to note that we now have a new favorite beet dish. Rosolli is delicious! We also picked up a “Finnish doughnut” — they didn’t have listed what the actual Finnish word was for it.  It was a spongy fried bread dough, dusted with cinnamon sugar.

On to House of Panama: Oh, how we love House of Panama, and we were rather sad that we got to them late, because the arroz con coconut y pollo smelled amazing. But we were both pretty full, so we settled for a bacalaito and a small batch of yuca frita. Bacalaito is a deep-fried codfish fritter which totally screams Christmas at me — it’s also similar to Italian fried dough, which we make on Christmas Eve. My family puts anchovies in them instead of baccala (salt cod). Yuca frita is just as it sounds — deep-fried cassava root. Yes, that’s the same stuff they use to make tapioca. Yuca frita is pretty bland, but kick it up with Panamanian hot sauce, and look out. Panamanian hot sauce is a mix of habanero, mustard, onion, garlic, and sometimes turmeric. It’s utterly incendiary and absolutely delicious.

We finished off our noshing at the Houses of Czech and Slovak. We did this on purpose because we know they usually have kolaches, and they did not disappoint. Kolaches are a sweet roll made with a yeast dough, and topped with jam or poppyseeds, or occasionally stuffed with sausage. We got three utterly scrumptious apricot kolaches and ate them all up. I had my first real kolaches ever at the Czech Stop in Texas, and have loved them ever since. They’re not a common food here in San Diego, so it’s a real treat getting them at December Nights.

It was a wonderful experience, and I wholeheartedly encourage you, if you are local, to pay a visit to the International Houses the next time you go to December Nights (next year, right? (; ). It is totally worth it. Bring cash and an open mind and empty stomach!