A very Indian Christmas feast10 min read . Updated: 21 Dec 2019, 09:00 AM IST
- Who wants turkey and mash when you can have Tharavu roast and ‘appams’?
- From Maharashtra’s bottle masala curries to Nagaland’s ‘axone’, Lounge goes on a tasting tour of regional Christmas spreads across India
Maria Goretti’s East Indian feast
Secret sauce: East Indian bottle masala and East Indian vinegar
Tamarind, bottle masala and a dash of vinegar. It’s tangy, spicy and the acid adds so much to a dish," says Maria Goretti. The former model and MTV veejay is now a food show host on NDTV and runs her own YouTube channel, The Maria Goretti Corner. During a weekend in early December, we found ourselves in her kitchen to sample a Christmas meal. She began by highlighting the three key flavours and ingredients from her community, the East Indians of Mumbai. They were the first to adopt Christianity when the Portuguese conquered the coastal city in the 16th century. Their food is, inevitably, a fusion of spicy Maharashtrian fare and Portuguese influences. There’s the bread called fugiya, duck moilee and potato chops for snacks, all washed down with home-made wine.
The brownish East Indian vinegar is key to the cuisine. “Its base is sugar cane. In my home, my father makes it from scratch." Its robust kick of acid overrides the sweetness and adds a mild zing to curries. “If you want to recreate an East Indian recipe that mentions vinegar, it implies this sugar-cane version," says Goretti. Anything else will alter the dish completely.
More than 30 spices are hand-pounded and blended for the bottle masala, a signature ingredient made of roasted spices—some familiar, like cumin, turmeric and red chillies, while others, like the stone fruit and caraway seeds, demand a deeper understanding of complex flavours. The red spice powder is the hue of the setting sun, fiery yet restrained.
On Goretti’s kitchen stove, about 1kg prawns were simmering in fresh coconut milk that had turned scarlet owing to the bottle masala and tamarind-infused water. When it came to a full boil, she added thick coconut milk and a tablespoon of vinegar. She turned off the stove when the thin curry boiled persistently and put on a lid to trap the heat. “The prawns will continue to cook and it will be pitch perfect," she explains. Meanwhile, potato stacks flavoured with bottle masala and chicken with green chutney were put in the oven.
The bottle masala and vinegar recipes are closely guarded and vary from family to family. Chef Gresham Fernandes, Impresario Group’s culinary director, says the vinegar acts as a preservative for vindaloo and sorpotel. These taste different from the Goan dishes of the same name because they have bottle masala and julienned garlic and ginger; some cooks also add dried pig’s blood, says Fernandes.
“The process to make those is time-consuming. They are reserved for festivities like weddings and Christmas." Whole-roasted meats, like duck, chicken and suckling pig, are other star dishes. Typically, these are served with fugiyas made with flour and coconut toddy—a distinct Portuguese influence.
In the 1980s, when Fernandes was growing up in Mumbai, gift-wrapped sweet packets filled with date rolls, marzipan and milk barfis, dodol (chewy palm sugar confectionery), naan khatai, kulkuls and thaali sweets (baked dense cake) would be distributed in the neighbourhood.
Goretti’s contemporary East Indian Christmas menu ends with homemade meringue and fresh strawberries.
Priscilla D’Rozario’s Anglo-Indian feast
Secret sauce: Allspice powder or Anglo-Indian garam masala
Roast meats like duck, pork and chicken are central to the Christmas table in an Anglo-Indian household. They pair well with home-made wines like ginger, cherry, jamun, Priscilla D’Rozario tells me over the phone. D’Rozario, who is from the Anglo-Indian community in Kolkata, works as an assistant manager in a shipping company. During Christmas, she runs a part-time catering business, Krispy Crumbs, taking orders for rose cookies, kulkuls (sugar- coated, deep-fried and bite-sized snacks), meat roasts and beef tongue seasoned with salt.
At her home in Kolkata’s Behala Chowrasta, D’Rozario serves mixed boiled vegetables like potatoes, carrots and beans brushed with butter to complement the meat. Roast duck is preferred over pricey turkey. There is always a rice item, like peas pulao or yellow rice. There are Christmas cakes infused with rum and sweets, like the ones she lists on her menu at Krispy Crumbs.
Soy sauce is added to the roasts for a rich dark brown colour. Some Anglo-Indian households in Kolkata also add chopsuey to the mix. Is it an influence of the Chinese immigrants who settled in Kolkata during British rule? “Possibly. There has been a cultural mix due to Chinese and Anglo-Indians marrying each other. We also live in close quarters in Bow Barracks—a neighbourhood in Kolkata populated by Anglo-Indians and the Chinese," says Romeo Hansel Bergeon, manager of the Peter Cat, Kolkata, which is known for its Anglo-Indian food.
“This Christmas, we have a special menu," says Bergeon over the phone. He lists fried fish, beef roast, pork roast and yellow rice with ball curry. The last item is a signature dish of Anglo-Indian cuisine. The rice is flavoured with cumin seeds and a little turmeric is added for colour. The ball curry is essentially a thick gravy of beef meat balls spiced with fresh ginger-garlic and the Anglo-Indian version of garam masala, also known as allspice, comprising peppercorn, cloves, cardamoms, cinnamon, bay leaves, fennel and star anise.
The day following Christmas, known as Boxing Day, is equally important for the food-loving community. Families pack picnic hampers with leftover food and head out. “We make vindaloo the previous day. Its flavours take about 24 hours to fully develop," D’Rozario says. It is a mildly spiced version of vindaloo where the meat is marinated with a mixture of round chillies soaked in vinegar, green chillies, ginger and garlic paste.
Apart from the traditional Christmas cake (a special addition here is sweet pumpkin, known locally as murabba), sweet, ornate and deep- fried rose cookies are a must-have. Bergeon says they stay away from creamy gravies in the main course as buttery and creamy cakes and cookies flood their Christmas table.
Ashok Eapen’s Syrian Christian feast
Secret sauce: Roasted coconut
In my family, home-made wine is available in plenty during Christmas," says Ashok Eapen, executive chef, Courtyard by Marriott. Eapen belongs to Kerala’s Syrian Christian community, whose cuisine is a smorgasbord of fresh catch from the sea. There’s the rustic meen mulagittathu, a spicy-sour fish curry with whole red chilli, kokum and tamarind, served mostly in toddy shops. Then there’s karimeen pollichathu, the popular pearl spot fish marinated in a blend of onion, tomato and masalas, wrapped in banana leaf and cooked. Dry preparations and curries with trevally, mackerel, seer fish, crabs and clams make an appearance too. “While we regularly have fish like the pearl spot, Christmas calls for other offerings of the sea, like crabs. We go all out," says Eapen.
Places like Kochi, Alappuzha, Kottayam, Thrissur and Tharavu have large concentrations of the Syrian Christian community. Kuttanad, in the Tharavu area, is a rice-growing region where paddy fields are used to rear ducks post-harvest. They have a medium-spiced duck delicacy, Tharavu roast, during Christmas. It is cooked with fresh chillies, black pepper, fennel, cardamom and, of course, coconut.
Breakfast on Christmas Day is an assorted spread of appams and stews with roast eggs. “The appams range from idiyappam, paalappam and the signature vattyappam, which are thick, spongy and soft, like the steamed Goan sannas," says Eapen. Lunch is the time for heavier meats like the spicy mutton or beef ularthiyathu, which has succulent chunks of meat cooked with sliced coconut and a blend of regional masalas. Red rice is a staple. Every meal has accompaniments like chutneys, pickles and chammanthis (thick condiments). Apart from mango and amla pickles, there are tuna and beef pickles too. Chillies and tamarind are primary flavour components in chutneys, while chammanthis will almost always have dry coconut, and, sometimes, meat.
If there are two flavours that define a Syrian Christian meal during Christmas, they are pepper and roasted coconut, Eapen says.
Meat is the primary focus but Christmas cake and payasam do make an appearance. Sweets are served as teatime snacks, which include sesame jaggery balls, or laddoos, called aelos unda, and rice, jaggery and coconut snacks steamed in banana leaves known as ila ada. Steamed kozhukatta, known as modak in Maharashtra, is also made. The traditional tender coconut pudding from Kottayam is served in a few households.
Inali Ayemi’s Sümi Naga feast
Secret sauce: Zanthoxylum seeds
For us, the Christmas feast is a community affair," says Inali Ayemi, a baker and food entrepreneur from Dimapur, Nagaland. She belongs to the Sümi Naga community, one of the 16 government-recognized communities in the state. Her passion for food has spilled over to social media—she runs an Instagram page (@nl_nilibe) to put the spotlight on indigenous Naga dishes. The Sümis’ star dish is axone (fermented soya bean, pronounced akhonei).
During Christmas, pork dishes are central to the cuisine. Pork in Sümi is awoshi, and they utilize every part of the locally reared pigs. There are four main dishes—awoshi piti is pork meat with bones, awoshi tha is pork fat with the skin attached, samuthu is pork innards like intestines, liver and spleen, and the signature Sümi favourite, axone ngo awoshi kipki, is fermented soya bean cooked with smoked pork.
The base of each dish remains the same. They are spiced with locally grown dry chilli, ginger and garlic and roasted seeds of an indigenous plant named zanthoxylum. “It’s zingy," she says, adding that it’s mostly used in powdered form—“the fresh leaves will make the tongue go numb for a few minutes".
These dishes are paired with steamed rice and an appetizing hand-pounded fresh ginger chutney. The pungent condiment is seasoned with dry local red chilli or roasted green chilli.
A curry-like vegetable dish is mandatory: It’s generally mashed colocasia roots boiled with leafy vegetables such as lai pattaa (local mustard), known as ayekikhe or ayikibe.
Local fish cooked with fermented bamboo shoot is another staple. A traditional Sümi snack of powdered sticky rice is also served. It’s mildly sweet and steamed in banana leaf. The local name is kunupsho kibe.
The church plays a pivotal role when it comes to food. On Christmas Day, either church committees organize local festivities and luncheons or a family offers to play host. The luncheons can be expensive, with budgets exceeding ₹2 lakh.
“Some host families distribute small portions of raw mithun (Indian bison) or pork meat in every household," says Ayemi. Every family that attends the feast takes home some meat, pork or beef pieces strung together and dipped in salt water. They may eat it, smoke it or preserve it until next Christmas. If you visit Nagaland during Christmas and attend these community lunches of the Sümi community, there is a good chance that you too will take home some meat.
Traditionally, wine is not served during the community’s Christmas feasts. Tea marks the end of the meal.
During winter, Nagaland is flush with oranges. Every Christmas table will have a bowl of fresh oranges. Serving cake is a contemporary trend, says Ayemi. “Distributing or serving cake varies from family to family." A Sümi Christmas meal usually ends with a hot cup of tea—black, lemon, sumac or even roselle brews.
RAISING A TOAST
Sommelier Nikhil Agarwal, All Things Nice, shares wine pairing suggestions for three kinds of Christmas feasts
What to pair with the tangy east Indian prawn curry
I prefer white wines or a chilled glass of rosé with prawn curry rice. In whites, a zippy Riesling will pair well with the tamarind- and vinegar-based prawn curry. Even a fresh and floral Viognier will be a great choice. Gewurztraminer from Alsace could work too.
What to pair with a hearty Anglo-Indian roast
A robust red wine, which can hold up to a meat as mighty as beef, is recommended. Opt for Cabernet Sauvignon, preferably one that has been aged in oak. For duck roast, I like Pinot Noir with a touch of oak or a red from Tuscany. A big, bold and fruity Australian Shiraz is perfect for pork roast. A good-quality Merlot is great with chicken roast.
What to pair with a Syrian Christian beef fry
Beef fry is loaded with spices and coconut. A big, fruity Chardonnay works well here, with enough weight to match up to the meat and fruit and vanilla notes to balance the spiciness.