Arguably the star of the holidays and occupying the prime spot across Filipino holiday tables is Christmas ham—a tradition rooted in Germanic tradition, likely spreading to the Philippines along with other Western influences in the process of globalization.

To this day, you’ll find supermarkets lined with numerous ham brands around this time of year, offering different variations of cured pork meat in different styles and price ranges. As with Western versions, it is often understood to refer to wet-cured ham with a sweet-and-salty profile (observation tells us the Filipino style leans far heavier toward sweet) which at times may be smoked, given a sugary (and/or pineapple-y) glaze, and/or served with a separate sweet sauce. More unique to the Philippines is the equal popularity of so-called “Chinese-style” hams, which differs from the dry-cured version actually found in China but can be distinguished from the Western-influenced Filipino style with its saltier taste and firmer texture. But with so many brands, which ham should you go for?
Note: We narrowed down our selection to the flagship Christmas ham variants, of the boneless variety, from mainstream ham brands that can be found at supermarkets. Hams were tasted at different serving temperatures (cold, at room temperature, and heated), both plain and with any accompanying sauce where applicable.

Purefoods Fiesta Ham

Purefoods Fiesta suffers from a borderline-spongy texture, but carries great, sweet-and-smoky flavors.

On Purefoods, you get a ham with a smooth outer surface surrounded by a sweet sauce with a slightly chunky consistency. As you slice into it, you get meat with a more-or-less uniform texture across the diameter, mostly of lean meat with minimal streaks of fat. Though on the lean side, it’s very juicy, with tons of brine coming through its loose meat fibers. It delivers a sugar-heavy profile but with hints of saltiness and smokiness that work its way in as you chew, thus evoking the classic Filipino-style Christmas ham profile.

Along with the ham, you get a separate sachet of pineapple ham sauce said to be made with Del Monte pineapple juice. Though more sweet than sour, it works well to bring out Purefoods’ delectable smokiness.

Swift Festival Ham

Swift Festival Ham is for those who really like their ham sweet and juicy.

Swift’s stands out with its much darker-looking ham (which is enticing, but looks nothing like the image they promote) surrounded by a smooth but goopy, sweet and salty syrup inside the package. It’s also on the lean-but-juicy end like Purefoods’, with meat that feels like was cooked more rare (giving it a bouncy feel in some parts), and carrying more streaks of fat across the diameter. It packs an even sweeter profile than Purefoods (a taster goes as far as to describe it as a “dessert ham”), with less saltiness or smokiness for balance.

The sauce that comes with it also seems to be of the pineapple sort, but it carries a goopier consistency that feels halfway between being a jelly and syrup. Carrying a good tanginess, it makes for a wonderful (and arguably, essential) pair with the sweet meat.

CDO Holiday Ham

CDO Holiday Ham’s shiny, brown top, netmarks, and layer of fat entice from the appearance alone.

CDO’s flagship Christmas ham bears a netted appearance on the outside, and comes packaged with a lot of chunky sauce of a slightly-sweet, mostly-salty character (and which seems to have a hint of soy sauce in the mix). Said to be made with whole pork leg muscle, you get a mix of lean, fatty, and tough parts with a fair amount of juiciness, but all sections come together into a ham with a relatively realistic feel. While there’s still enough sweetness to keep it in the Christmas ham category, it takes on a saltier, smokier profile compared to the previous two and carries the best balance of the said flavors of all hams in the lineup.

CDO’s does not come with sauce, but it’s flavorful enough that it doesn’t really need it.

King Sue Piña Ham

King Sue’s takes on a saltier profile and bears more packed meat fibers, reminding us more of Chinese-style ham.

King Sue’s is also made with whole pork leg and carries a netted appearance on the outside (which is how it gets its “Piña” name—note, though, that there’s no actual pineapple here). As you unwrap the ball you’ll notice the lack of a surrounding syrup, but you do get some ham juices that spill out. It offers a mix of light and dark meat with tighter, more heavily-pressed fibers than all previous brands, as well as a distinct layer of fat on top. The meat within is not as juicy compared to the others, but it feels far more like real pork and makes for a satisfying bite. Taste-wise it’s on the much saltier end with the sweetness only playing second fiddle, before ending with an undertone of burly smokiness to give a good depth to the balance of flavors.

Like CDO’s, this brand chooses to go sauce-less, and those on the team who had lamented the (relative) lack of sweetness say it would have tasted more balanced had it come with a sweet syrup. This, however, was greatly opposed by the other team members, who instead consider the low amount of sweetness to be a good thing.

Virginia Pineapple Ball Ham

Virginia’s paler-looking ham takes on a relatively neutral flavor and dryer consistency, giving it a more “realistic” feel.

Virginia’s is the lightest-colored of the bunch, and is similar to CDO and King Sue in having net marks on the outer surface. It strikes our team as the most “realistic” of all brands, with meat of a relatively dry, fibrous texture that still resembles sliced ham from the deli or unsmoked American city ham. Its flavor differs distinctly from the others—it’s barely sweet or even salty for that matter, but you do get a savory taste where we can distinguish notes of onion. While some members of the team were quick to call it the most underwhelming of the bunch, others commended its relative neutrality for use in sandwiches and other recipes, even after the holidays.

You get a generous amount of sauce for serving, and though runnier compared to that of Purefoods and Swift, it carries the most tongue-tingling tartness that really brings vibrance to the ham and accentuates its mild flavors.

The Verdict: CDO Holiday Ham

CDO’s is the one to beat for delivering the best version that still stays within the Christmas ham category; it manages to strike a good balance of sweet and salty (and smoky), with meat that is juicy but still feels like real pork. Should you prefer your ham sweeter and juicier, try Purefoods or Swift (the latter, especially, if you really like it sweet). On the other hand, those in for a saltier, meatier blend closer to Chinese-style ham will be well to try King Sue’s. Finally, a more deli ham-esque, natural-tasting ham (which, truth be told, more members of the team prefer as a standalone ham—and which carries the best sauce) can be had with Virginia’s. Slice open a ball of ham (or two) and slip some within pan de sal to feel the Christmas cheer.

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