50 ways to say Merry Christmas
The best treats from across the country, with a dash of ‘garam masala’ and a dollop of ‘desi ghee’ (and not a plum cake in sight)
What’s Christmas without cake? That’s the question that has occupied us at Mint Lounge over the past few months, as we tried to get a sense of the many culinary ways India celebrates the festival. Our findings were mesmerizing, a true tribute to India’s classic syncretism, most commonly lauded as Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb, but extending far beyond that, from the shores of the Arabian Sea in the west to the hills of the North-East, and from the border villages of Punjab to the tip of the southern coast. It shows up in the generous use of rice, coconut, jaggery and whole spices in Goan and East Indian confections like pinaca or neureos, in the atta dough balls of rural Punjabi treats, in the amaranth flour that makes up khapse in Arunachal Pradesh.
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Nor is it just about the sweet stuff, the kind that makes for sticky fingers and sticky memories, sprinkled with white sugar dust. For there is always the big meal—or three—when the table groans under large bowls of almorth, an Anglo-Indian meat-and-vegetable breakfast stew, or heaped platters of palappam or giant degs packed to the brim with gurwaley chawal. Where else in the world can you gaze upon the pork indad, a Mangalurean version of the Goan vindaloo, and know that it borrows its roots from Portugal, its spices from Goa and its tamarind tang from southern India? Then there’s the Syrian-Christian duck roast—not whole, like its European namesake, but chopped up and pressure-cooked, the east Indian tongue roast braised in toddy vinegar and the smoked pork uniquely Naga, with fiery chillies and bamboo shoot.
The only downside? Not too many dishes on our list are known beyond their birthing communities and fewer still have made it to restaurant menus. So your best bet to sampling polay pancakes or fugiyas or gujji lies in insinuating yourself into a household that celebrates Christmas the uniquely Indian way. Go on, you know you want to.
The Anglo-Indian sweet, which was once made by the mother of the bride on the eve of her daughter’s wedding, is now served on all festive occasions, including Christmas. The base is made of coconut and roasted semolina while condensed milk and ghee add flavour and richness to the crumbly, white sweet.
2. Kallappam or Vellayappam
Closer in appearance to modern-day flapjacks, Kerala kallappam gets its name from the toddy (kallu) used in the rice-flour batter. As the toddy ferments, it leavens the batter, giving the pancakes their distinctive bubble-speckled appearance. These are traditionally eaten with a chicken curry.
3. Kormola or Phoolancho Kalyo
A close relative of the shankarpali and a kalkal by another name, kormolas are deep-fried curls of dough shaped like flower buds. These addictive snacks are somewhat labour-intensive—individual squares of dough have to be shaped manually—but in Goa, when families gather for Christmas, many hands make light work of the task.
Is it cake? Is it halwa? Is it a pancake? Perhaps a bit of all three. First a mix of rice flour, coconut milk and sugar is cooked down to the consistency of halwa, then it’s pressed into a cake tin and baked till the outside is crisp. The result is a crispy, fudgy cake that’s both breakfast and dessert over Christmas in Kerala.
5. Chonya Doce
Chonya doce or doce de grão, like most other Goan Christmas sweets, requires a fair bit of elbow grease. This fudge-like preparation is made by stirring a mix of mashed Bengal gram, coconut, sugar and cardamom over a low flame till it becomes a thick mouldable paste. It is then rolled out into a sheet and cut into diamond shapes while still
6. ‘Thali Sweet
The East Indian Christmas cake takes the form of a dense, rich pudding that’s not for the faint-hearted: One recipe calls for a whole kilo of butter against half a kilo of semolina. This sooji cake is usually baked in a shallow steel plate or thali, from where it gets its name.
7. Date rolls
Popular among both East Indians and Goans, these little rolls are a sweet take on pigs-in-a-blanket. Dates are deseeded, then stuffed with walnuts, almonds or pistachios before being rolled in a strip of shortcrust pastry and baked. The result is a soft, buttery crust around a sweet, nutty centre that’s great as breakfast or a tea-time treat.
Sikhism may be the religion most commonly associated with Punjab but along the international border, there are villages where up to 80% of the population is Christian. Remote as their location is, they continue with their generations-old customs over Christmas. Primary among them is gujji, a very simple form of a gujiya, which uses a gur, or jaggery, sweetened semolina dough casing stuffed with basic dry fruit—including desiccated coconut, green raisins, charmagaz (mixed seeds), a hint of fennel—and deep-fried in desi ghee. This forms part of a platter distributed among neighbours, along with whole peanuts, rewri and fresh fruits such as pomegranate, guava, apple and banana.
This sweet, deep-fried fritter is a much-loved snack in Tibet and Arunachal Pradesh, and is made mostly during the Losar festival in February-March. These days, its preparation is no longer limited to the new year, with families in Arunachal turning to the khapse during weddings and Christmas. “Khapse is made with bundangmo or amaranth, the seeds of which are dried, roasted and ground into flour. This is then mixed with hot water, made into a dough, shaped and deep-fried,” says Priya Srinivasan, a UAE-based Indian food blogger who came across the mention of khapse in several journals while researching North-Eastern vegetarian recipes. “It can be stored for a year in a well-aerated bamboo container,” she adds.
10.Tati Pandu Kudumu
Native to the Godavari river basin in Andhra Pradesh, the tati pandu kudumu is a thick pancake made of coarsely ground rice flour, coconut, jaggery and the pulp of the tadgola, or ice apple. Steamed in a thali or even a dhokla pan, the result is a dense, sweet cake with the texture of polenta.
The Mangalurean version of jaw-breakers, these little marbles of rice flour find more favour with children than the grown-ups. Little spheres of sweetened rice flour are fried until they’re teeth-shatteringly hard and you can hear them crunch halfway across a room.
This teatime snack makes an appearance on Christmas tables studded with dry fruits. A batter of rice flour and coconut, sometimes lightly sweetened with sugar, is yeasted and left to rise for a few hours. Once risen, ground cardamom is added to the mix and left to rise again, before it’s steamed in a shallow pan and garnished with cashews and raisins roasted in ghee.
13. Bellam Thalikalu
Andhra Pradesh shares its sweets across communities and festivals, and you’ll find the bellam thalikalu being made around Vinayaka Chavithi or Ganesh Chaturthi as well as Christmas. A cross between modaks and payasam, this dessert, native to coastal Andhra Pradesh, has thick rice noodles simmered in jaggery syrup. When the rice noodles are cooked in cardamom-infused milk and jaggery, the variant is called palathalikalu.
Another sweet that’s made across both Hindu and Christian festivals in Andhra Pradesh, the bobbatlu is similar to the puran poli. This flatbread is made either with maida (refined flour) or wholewheat flour, stuffed with a mix of chana dal, jaggery and plenty of ghee, and served with another pat of ghee.
15. Kokad or Cocada
Goa’s take on the coconut barfi has cousins in Latin America as well. In Brazil, they’re lumps of shredded coconut and sugar; in Mexico it takes the form of coconut bark, while in Venezuela it becomes a smoothie, just fresh coconut blended with sweetened condensed milk and ice. In Goa, though, the coconut is mixed with toasted semolina and sugar syrup and cooked until just firm, then cooled and cut into little kite shapes.
16. Smoked pork and Kennie nku
December is a month of festivals in Nagaland, with the Hornbill kickstarting the celebrations. The festivities reach a crescendo during Christmas, with various tribes marking the occasion in their own unique ways. The kennie nku—a local bread made from sticky rice over a stone kiln—is typical of Benreu, in the hilly district of Peren. The one thing that unites festivities across the state, however, is pork. “Celebrations are centred around it. One of the most popular dishes is the whole pork head, known in my tribe as awoshi. We also prepare a dish with innards and pork blood,” says chef Aketoli Zhimomi of The Ethnic Table, Dimapur. To home cooks across the state, winters are synonymous with smoked delicacies. It is to showcase these specialities that Nagaland Kitchen in Delhi serves dishes such as smoked pork thali and smoked pork with akhuni/anishi, fiery Naga chillies and bamboo shoots as part of its Christmas celebrations.
17. Duck Moile
Though the East Indian community shares Christmas revelry with Goans and Mangalureans, they lay a very different table. Duck moile, traditionally eaten after Christmas Day, is central to this feast. Marinated for hours in bottle masala—that iconic East Indian blend of over 30 secret spices—the duck is flash-fried and then simmered in a gravy of onions, palm vinegar and chicken stock, till the meat starts to fall away from the bone. This is served with fried fugiyas to dunk it in, or appas, a rice-flour bread.
18. Sorpotel and Sannas
No Christmas lunch is complete without a dish of spicy pork sorpotel. Sorpotel’s journey to Goa has been long and heavily disputed: Legend says a dish of offal from colonies in Brazil travelled so well across the seas to Portugal that the Portuguese brought it to their holdings in India as a way to preserve meat longer in the tropics. Sorpotel is also an ode to offal: Everything from the heart and kidneys to the tongue is slow-cooked with vinegar, spices and a bit of pig blood until it all comes together as a thick stew. This is then mopped up with steamed rice and coconut cakes called sannas, similar to idlis but with a hint of sweetness to temper the spice of the sorpotel.
19. Mutton khuddi curry
Bottle masala is the lynchpin of East Indian cuisine and every family has its own secret blend of spices that go into it. Another curry that makes liberal use of bottle masala is the khuddi curry. Though it’s often made from chicken and pork, on Christmas the meat is usually mutton, cooked down in a simple gravy of onions and coconut. Served over a steaming mound of rice or crusty bread, it’s comfort food that’s also celebratory.
20. Suckling Pig
The morning after midnight mass, after Santa’s come and gone and the presents have been opened, the family sits down to eat at a loaded and groaning lunch table. Elsewhere in the world the turkey might have pride of place at the Christmas table, but in Goa, the centrepiece is always a whole suckling pig, basted with red wine until the skin crackles and stuffed with sausages and potatoes. Also part of the spread are beef assad, a roast beef in gravy, chicken cafreal, arroz refogado or prawn pulao, pork sorpotel and sannas.
21. Pork Indad
When the Goan vindaloo, already no slouch in the spice department, crossed over to Mangaluru, it shed its last inhibitions and embraced its searing heat wholeheartedly. It became indad, a sweet, tangy but ultimately fiery curry that enfolded all its legacies: a splash of rum and a sprig of mint from Portugal, the spice from Goa and tamarind from the south. Indad tastes better as it ages, so it’s traditionally made a day before it is eaten. The indad is done right when a thin film of pork fat glistens atop the gravy; this is no diet dish.
22. Polay Pancakes
Though sanna is a mainstay on the Mangalurean Christmas table, polays or yeasted dosas also make an appearance. This breakfast staple is made from sanna batter and resembles an uttappam in appearance. The fat, fluffy crepes are leavened with yeast, which gives it its characteristic hole-y appearance.
23. Mutton Lonvas
Lonvas brings together two rather unlikely ingredients—meat and white pumpkin or bhopla. This mild curry, made with a base of coconut milk, is lent tang by the addition of tamarind and a savoury hint of garlic. And while pumpkin is traditional, the variations on the recipe are endless: Mutton can be replaced with chicken, beef or prawns, and the vegetable component could be anything from brinjal to cauliflower or even drumstick.
24. Meethi Deg
Meals over the Christmas period in Punjabi villages are community affairs, with affluent families hosting meals by turn. The menu is limited to two-three dishes, cooked in huge degs. Meethi deg is made of gurwaley chawal—the quantum of gur used actually colouring the rice—fennel and very generous quantities of mewa, primarily pre-fried dried coconut (kopra) and cashew nuts, enough to elevate the simple dish into a luxury experience.
25. Bafat Pork
Bafat pork or dukra maas uses the Mangalurean equivalent of bottle masala. Bafat masala is a blend of chillies, coriander, cumin, cinnamon, peppercorns, mustard and turmeric that functions as a pork rub. The pork is cooked down with another Mangalurean staple, a mirepoix of chopped onions, bay leaf, garlic, ginger, green chillies and a splash of vinegar. The result is an eye-wateringly spicy, dry curried pork—delicious all the same—served with fluffy sannas to foil the heat.
26. Namkeen Deg
The savoury counterpart to the meethi deg, this is essentially jeera rice, spiced with tej patta (bay leaves), black cardamom, shahjeera (caraway seeds), cinnamon and cloves. It is cooked with lots of onions browned in desi ghee, and served with a spicy goat meat-and-potato curry.
A hearty stew made of a selection of various meats—mutton, pork and chicken—and vegetables, this is a customary part of breakfast in most Anglo-Indian households on Christmas Day. Warm bread or fresh dinner rolls are a perfect accompaniment to the stew but it can also be eaten with chapatis or rice.
These little fried balls of dough lie somewhere halfway between breads and doughnuts. A leavened mix of flour, water and egg is left to rise overnight, then shaped into spheres and deep-fried. That final appearance is where they get their name from: Fuga means balloon in Marathi. These are then used to mop up spicy sorpotel or vindaloo during Christmas lunches.
29. Palappam and Stew
Though pancakes are eaten through the year, they’re an essential part of Christmas morning breakfast. Palappams are made in a special pan called an appachatti; the batter is poured in, then swirled around to create a pancake that’s crisp at the edges and soft and fluffy in the centre where the batter pools. Families gather around the table to dunk crisp and steaming appams in egg roast or stew, made by cooking meat and vegetables in coconut milk.
30. Roast stuffed chicken
An import from Europe that has been unabashedly Indianized, the whole roast chicken is a near-mandatory part of the Christmas feast in Goa. The recipe varies from home to home: Some marinate the entire chicken in a mix of chilli, turmeric, pepper and ginger-garlic paste, while some simply baste it with butter and lemon. The stuffing too is entirely variable, from bread and potatoes to sausages and dry fruits.
31. Milk Cream
While the basic ingredients for milk cream are sugar, milk and ground cashews, any Goan aunty will tell you there’s one thing you can’t make it without—patience. These little sweets are made by reducing evaporated milk, cashew flour and sugar and stirring continuously, never letting it scorch or burn, until it comes together as a smooth paste. It’s then poured into chocolate moulds and left to set overnight. The result is creamy, melt-in-the-mouth candy.
For those without a sweet tooth, Kerala’s kuzhalappam is a happy savoury break. Somewhat like the murukku, a dough of rice flour, minced onions and cumin is rolled into little discs, then shaped into tubes and deep-fried. There is, however, also a sweet version, where the rice cannoli is dipped in a jaggery syrup just after frying—a golden glaze that gives it just the slightest hint of sweetness.
33. Pinaca or Pinaac
Part of the traditional Goan Christmas platter, the dark brown pinaca is as easy to make as it is to snack on. Rice is toasted in a pan until it turns golden brown, then ground into a fine flour, mixed with melted jaggery and coconut and rolled into balls or shaped into mini oblongs. Variations on this include the addition of cardamom, grated ginger or fennel to flavour the mix.
34. Baath cake
A rich, moist pound cake made with semolina and the ubiquitous coconut, the baath or baatica is said to have made its way to Goa via Morocco and Portugal. Similar to the basbousa made in Egypt and Turkey, these dense cakes are sometimes moistened with rosewater, giving them a wonderfully floral fragrance.
35. Avalose podi
Avalose podi can be a befuddling snack for those encountering it for the first time. A dry powder of roasted rice flour and ground coconut, it’s eaten with a spoonful of sugar or maybe a banana. Syrian Christians living in Kottayam roll up this filling into thin phyllo sheets and deep-fry it to make a sweet samosa. The same powder is also rolled into balls to make a more familiar laddoo, called avalose unda.
36. Allahabadi Christmas cake
A spicy, rum-infused fruit cake with a desi accent, the Allahabadi Christmas cake, especially the one from Bushy’s, a legendary bakery in the city, enjoys cult status. The cake, livened up with dried fruits and nuts, petha (ash-gourd candy) and locally produced marmalade, is made with pure desi ghee (instead of butter or oil) and flavoured with spices like fennel, mace, nutmeg, cinnamon and ginger that make it unmistakably Indian, and festive to the core.
In Shillong,the dohneiiong is a constant during Christmas. Juicy, fatty pork is cooked with mild aromatics like ginger, garlic, turmeric and chillies and infused with the warm, nutty flavour of roasted and powdered black sesame seeds. It’s usually eaten with steamed rice pancakes. Meghalaya’s three tribes—Garo, Khasi and Jaintia—all use black sesame, and smoking and fermenting techniques, says Mumbai-based Gitika Saikia, who conducts pop-ups dedicated to the tribal culinary traditions of the North-East.
38. Coconut ice
The Goan and East Indian take on the coconut barfi, these little squares of shredded coconut and sugar are also known as cordial. Though the recipes vary widely—some use egg white as a binder and others condensed milk, the flavours vary from cardamom to rose—almost all are given a festive touch with a spot of food colour, making them look a little like shaved ice lollies.
39. Teias de aranhas or Gons
A fast-disappearing delicacy, gons (pronounced gaush) is made by candying strips of tender coconut in hot sugar syrup, then arranging them in floral patterns on pieces of crepe paper before they crystallize. Made exclusively in Salcette in Goa, they get their name from their final appearance—teias de aranhas means cobwebs in Portuguese.
Though bolinhas (pronounced bolinyas)—boros, if you’re East Indian—can be made all year round, they have pride of place on the Christmas platter. Made of coconut, flour and semolina, these crisp cookies with a chewy heart have just a hint of cardamom and are best eaten warm out of the oven.
41. Duck roast
Duck occupies an important position in the Syrian-Christian culinary pantheon and, until recently, most families would keep their own ducks and chickens in their backyards. Flocks of ducks and geese are still a common sight in the backwaters of Kottayam and the paddy fields of the Kuttanad region. Tharavu (duck) roast is served at weddings and on Easter but it’s also the centrepiece of the Christmas table. The duck here is leaner and tougher than its European cousins, so instead of roasting the bird whole, it’s broken down, then pressure-cooked and simmered in its own juices until it forms a thick, rich, glutinous gravy. Ideally eaten with appam, it’s also served atop a mound of steaming rice.
42. Meethey parey
A simple dough sweet made with wholewheat flour, desi ghee, gur-sweetened water, meethi saunf (fennel) and small bits of kopra (dried coconut kernel)—or gari, as it is called in Punjab—it is rolled out slightly thick, cut up into squares or diamonds, and deep-fried in ghee, till crisp and golden. Chef-turned-corporate honcho Bakshish Dean remembers large jars of these munchies stacked around his home when he was growing up in north-western Punjab; today, his cousins continue the tradition for their children.
43. Vivikam cake
Also known as the Pondicherry Christmas Cake, the vivikam cake, traditionally served with cognac for dessert on Christmas, is a Creole import. The typical ingredients are roasted semolina, pure ghee and rum-soaked cashew nuts and raisins. A touch of citrus relief comes from a generous sprinkle of orange peel. Some jazz up their vivikam cakes with a rich fruit jam. Like wine, the vivikam only gets better with age. You can store it for up to 15 days, but never in the refrigerator.
Another part of the traditional consuada or Christmas platter, neureos borrow their heritage from the Maharashtrian karanji. These little pastry turnovers, shaped like pasties or empanadas, are filled with desiccated coconut, poppy seeds, raisins and cashews, and deep-fried till the exterior is flaky and the inside steamy and fragrant.
45. Roce cookies or Achchappam
A staple of the season all over the south, these crisp wreaths go by many names: rose or roce cookies in Goa, kokkisan in Mangaluru and achchappam in Kerala. Floral moulds of steel are dipped into a batter of rice flour, eggs and coconut milk, then submerged in a wok of hot oil, until the cookies turn golden brown and detach themselves from the mould. These are served sprinkled with black sesame seeds or dusted with powdered sugar.
This traditional Goan sweet with a halwa-like consistency is an essential part of the Christmas platter. Made by simmering ragi (finger millet) or rice flour with jaggery and coconut milk till it thickens and turns glossy, the decadent sweetmeat is also popular in Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Myanmar, Indonesia and Malaysia.
Possibly the best-known item on the kuswar platter in both Goa and Mangaluru, these little curls of fried dough are testing on the teeth and the waistline. Also known as kidyo, on account of their chubby worm-like shape, sheets of sweetened dough are curled, fried to a crisp and glazed with sugar syrup or dusted with powdered sugar.
48. Tongue roast
An essential side at both Goan and Anglo-Indian Christmas meals, roast ox tongue is a dish that lasts well beyond Christmas. The East Indian tongue roast is a laborious business. The whole tongue is cured for a week in a mix of saltpetre, lime and astringent kattha (catechu), which works as a tenderizer, breaking down the tougher, sinewy parts of the meat. The tongue is then roasted or braised in gravy with toddy vinegar. Leftovers—and there are always leftovers—are slapped between two slices of bread, thickly slathered in butter, to make tongue sandwiches that are enjoyed all the way to the new year.
Syrian Christians trace their antecedents to the first century, to the arrival of St Thomas the Apostle, and the cuisine, developed over nearly a millennium, draws influences from Kerala’s shared Hindu, Muslim and Portuguese history. Mappas is a versatile curry that unusually uses both coconut milk and tomatoes. Flavoured heavily with coriander powder, the curry accommodates all manner of meat and vegetables—potatoes are a favourite, as is fish or even eggs, but chicken mappas is made especially for Christmas and Easter.
50. Beef cutlets
These crisp croquettes bookend the snacky portion of the Kerala Christmas meal. Though this can be made with shop-bought beef mince, most families will buy choice cuts of meat to turn into cutlets. The chunks of meat are braised in a pressure cooker with spices, onion and potatoes, and minced and tossed with still more onions and curry leaves. It is then rolled in breadcrumbs, or, for extra crunch, in crumbled rusk and deep-fried into golden-brown deliciousness.
Photo Courtesy Shireen Sequeira/www.ruchikrandhap.com
With Avantika Bhuyan, Priyadarshini Chatterjee and Preeti Zachariah.
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