Christians in India are just about a minuscule minority, at just a little over 2 per cent of the population. So what is it makes an increasingly larger number of us get all excited about cakes and pies and gingerbread snaps. Well of course the new year is next week, and as India gets tied into the global corporate empires, it follows those timelines. These are now mingling with the older traditions the imperial rulers – not just the English but also the Portuguese and French left in their pockets of influence. Over time, distinct patterns of cuisine have emerged regionally, and deserve recognition in their own right!
Well, it’s the best time of the year again, when holidays and gifts – and well, some added expenses under the culinary head are around the corner. Food remains the central celebration still, and this is a time of the year they want to tuck in.
The Christmas – New Year indulgence time for most urban Indians – of the non Christian variety – consists more of eating out than perhaps during any other festival. As with festive eating out – there is always that nagging feeling that you are not getting the best – the exquisite home cooked stuff prepared in places far and wide – in Kerala and Goa, but also in the northeast, in Kolkata’s Park Street and elsewhere.
Well, even if you are unable to wrangle an invite to the home with traditional Christmas dinner on yuletide, there’s hope. This is also high season for the picturesque state of Goa, and the numerous hotels and restaurants specialise in serving up traditional meals. Christmas turkey is of course the main attraction, but also look out for roasted duck or chicken with red wine sauce, pork sorpotel, vodde or flat round deep fried cookies made of rice and lentils (could that a variant of vadas?), barbequed red snapper in banana leaf, sweet and sour prawns and baked ham.
Then there are the traditional sweets, and it has been argued elsewhere that these could well be the treats that folks who have grown up on them wait for the year round. There’s Goan caramel pudding, and then there’s bebinca. It may be unfortunate that not many of us need to but this could be the most delicious, and fastest way to put on some weight! Nuereos are gujias, Goa style. You were not going to miss out on the kulkuls, also called kalkals or kidyo, sweet dough moulded into small curls to look like butter curls or shells, surely! Fiesta in Baga, Fidalgo in Panaji, Tamari at Vivanta by Taj, Spice Studia in Arossim, Thalassa at Vagator, Souza Lobo at Calungute and O’ Coqueiro in Porvorim are traditional hotspots, though this by no means exhausts the list of where you could tuck in. A cautionary note, the meals by more traditionally Portuguese homes can be quite different. Try both varieties, though not on the same day!
Moving far south, Kerala starts preparing for Christmas more than month earlier as cake mixes and home made grape wines are put in place to be ready by Christmas hols. The mix of religions here ensures a diversity of food, with many common touch points, even as Onam is just around the corner. Try the karimeen mappas or fish marinated with spices and cooked in thick coconut milk in traditional Kerala style. Or the Kerala style beef fry or duck or the Kerala chicken stir fry (kozhi varattiyathu) with ghee rice or neychoru or the various fish biriyanis from the state. If you haven’t try the toddy appams! To step away from puddings and cakes, opt for kanji and payar thoran – rice gruel and green gram stir fry – deliciously warm. Or the parippu payasam, lentils in coconut milk. Ya, ya, the caramel custard and pecan tortes are options too. Try Malabar House in Kochi’s Fort or cakes at St. Michels in T’puram.
Burra Din in Kolkata, for that’s how it is still referred to in this city of nostalgia for heydays long gone, is still a time to head to Flury’s as Park Street transforms into a magical lane with twinkling fairy lights. Pick up mince pies, Dundee cakes, and of course plum puddings. If you prefer Jewish flavour of Nahoum’s, indulge by all means there too. Not that the red carpet is not out at Moulin Rouge or Peter Cat or Mocambo or Magnolia or … of even the pricey hotels, though they have little of the street joie de vivre.
Travelling further east takes us another Christmas cuisine hotspot – actually a number of sub specialities. Nagaland offers Kaukswe, chicken sautéed in an onion, garlic and ginger base and left to simmer in coconut milk, a Burmese inspired dish. Then there are the red chilli pork ribs, bamboo shoot chicken, beef sizzlers and fermented fish, all prepared in a celebratory style. To round off, try Naga chilli biscuits. A consideration, you have to get invited here for Christmas dinner or try your luck at churches such as the Kohima Lotha Baptist Church or the Baptist Church at Dimapur.
Pork is the favourite in Shillong on Bam khana krismas, and from momos to curries, there’s a lot of it on offer, including with rice, called Jadoh. Khasi homes have dohneiiong, pork-based dish with the taste of black sesame paste. Chicken and mutton dishes are also prepared to celebrate, though fish is usually more popular. Nothing is complete without khwai, or betel nut, even at Christmas time, so expect its flavour. For snacks, there’s jiggery sweetened pukhiein and steamed pusla and brandy laced cakes. Try Chef’s or Sesame. Or Guidetti’s pastries.
Mizoram, where instead of stockings, children hang plates for Santa’s gifts, the traditional Christmas meal or fatu is rice, plantain leaves, and pork. Yes, cakes make an appearance too.
For big cities like Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru, though there are significant Christian pockets of population, and little dearth of restaurants across price categories claiming traditional Christmas suppers, you better off bribing a friend’s friend for an authentic traditional meal – at a home possibly some distance away, but most likely to be worth the effort. Amen!