In India, the lavish spread on Christmas is as diverse and unique as the country. Even within the same State, the feast is influenced by history, seasoned with flavours of the tradewinds that brought diverse communities to India, and made with local ingredients and spices. Join us as we pull up a chair at dining tables across the country
Where rose cookies bloom
Soft white appam surrounded by lacy, browned crisp edges, and stew are the staples for a typical Christmas breakfast in Kerala, along with rich plum cake and homemade wine.
However, depending on the region and the church one belongs to, breakfast, brunch and lunch vary widely from appam and duck curry or stew in Kuttanad and Kottayam to a seafood fiesta in Kollam.
Renu Philip says that in the old days, a cook used to stay at her husband’s ancestral home in Kottayam to prepare food for the extended family. Chicken roast or duck roast was a must along with a wide range of meats.
Veteran plantation owners in their eighties and nineties remember the game meat that used to be a speciality during the season: when venison, wild boar and more were roasted and curried.
“My late mother, Annie Mathappan, used to make several ethnic dishes for the festival; snacks such as cheepappam, rose cookies, kul kul, cakes and homemade wine ” recalls Jessie Ignatius, a resident of Kollam.
Towards the South, especially among families with roots in Kanyakumari, which was once a part of erstwhile Travancore, breakfast is incomplete without pork and puttu. “After church, we have breakfast at my mother’s place in Nagercoil, and then we go visiting our relatives. The pork, cooked with roasted masala and tamarind, is almost a shade of ebony. We can’t have enough of it,” says interior decorator Jaikumari Rajenesh. Another season special is orappan, which is cooked with rice flour, coconut milk and jaggery. After it is cooked into a halwa, it is baked for a crust on the top, explains Jaikumari.
In Thrissur, no celebration is complete without pork cooked with Chinese potatoes and served with appam, rice and everything else.
In Puthenthope, a fishing village in Thiruvananthapuram, families head straight to the beach after midnight mass. The revelry on the beach includes games and music. Many of them head to the sea at daybreak with packed food to eat on the boat.
Dining with the choir
At the Manipur Evangelical Lutheran Church in the village of Singngat, Manipur, to which Langchinthang Taithul, a member of the Zou tribe, belongs to, Christmas is a period of music, worship and community. “At around 10 am on Christmas Day, all of us go to church. After prayers, we assemble outside the church for tea and sing together. Meanwhile, a select group of men and women would be busy cooking and arranging the dinner for that evening. By 3 pm, everyone is called to the church by ringing the bell, and all of us (about 300 to 350) would have dinner together in the church compound,” he says.
No feast is complete without pork and sticky rice, and usually there are different kinds of beef and fish dishes. “Mepoh is a pork dish that is flavoured with shijou, which is gathered from the jungles; banana stem is curried. We have many herbs, roots and leaves that are used in our cooking. Paaknam is a spicy pancake made of besan, vegetables, and dried, fermented fish wrapped in a banana leaf and steamed,” he explains. By 6 pm, the Christmas choir and worship begins, and around 8 pm, most families go home to continue the celebrations while some might remain, cracking jokes and enjoying the banter.
Meziwang Zeliang, a member of the Zeliang tribe in Nagaland, says community feasts are a common feature of churches in the North-east. “Volunteers are selected from among the men and women to do the cooking and chopping for the feast, which is invariably different kinds of pork dishes such as pork innards, smoked pork with axone (fermented soyabean) and pork in bamboo, rice, chutney made of fermented mustard leaves and endless cups of Phika cha (black tea). “Dessert is usually fresh fruits; cakes and wine are not part of traditional feasts though many are adapting it now into the Christmas day celebrations,” she explains.
At her church, Zeliangrong Baptist Church in Dimapur, the feast is after the morning service. After the feast, most of them stay on as there are music competitions, stand-up comedy and other entertainment. “We go home after the evening service and then go to meet relatives,” she adds.
A Portuguese thali
East Indian Catholics are natives of Mumbai, Palghar and Thane. The community has a Portuguese influence, and so their cuisine overlaps with that of Catholics from Goa and Mangaluru. “But there are a few dishes that are unique to the East Indian community. For instance, only East Indians make thali sweets, a white cake that gets its name because it is baked in a tray. “Made from coconut, semolina, egg whites and ground almonds or cashews, this Christmas treat is also made during traditional East Indian weddings,” says Vellani Sequeria, a baker based in Mumbai’s western suburb, Vasai.
Christmas Day is a hectic time for Valeni as she makes an elaborate lunch that consists of roast chicken stuffed with cooked vegetables, vindaloo and sarapatel — two dishes that they share with the Goan Catholics. Mutton stew is eaten with fugias, a deep-fried bread that is slightly sweet and specific to the community.
“Another must at the Christmas spread is the duck moilee. Traditionally, Moilee is made with duck meat but nowadays people prefer chicken as it is easily available and easier to cook. The most important ingredient for this dish is bottle masala, which is found only in the kitchens of East Indians. It is made with over 30 to 32 ingredients that include red chillies, poppy seeds and a range of whole spices,” Vellani adds. The day ends with a glass of khimad, a spiced liquor whose base is a concoction made with cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, turmeric powder and tea powder, all boiled in water.
Armenian wood-fired cakes
For Christmas eve, there are all kinds of meats and roasts at the home of Brunnel Arathoon and Anthony Khatchaturian in Kolkata. Once the family returns from midnight mass, they get together for a brunch that would also have plenty of leftovers from the previous evening’s dinner. “We make sandwiches with the different roasts. There are cakes, homemade wines and a must is a pie made with minced beef,” says Brunnel, a well-known home chef in Kolkata. While the Armenian Christians, one of the oldest denominations in India, celebrate Christmas on December 25, the official celebrations happen on January 6 at the Church of Holy Nazareth in Armenian Street.
“Then I cook the Armenian dishes that have been passed on to me by my mother and grandmother. Rice pilaf, harrissa and dolmades are made then,” says Brunnel. Anthony remarks that the Armenian cakes that she makes in wood-fired ovens, which are made without any fruits, are much in demand all over India. “They are seasoned with cinnamon and nutmeg,” he adds.
“If you were to drop in at an Anglo-Indian home during Christmas, chances are that you would be served homemade Old Temperance (OT),” says Chennai-based Harry MacLure, editor of the magazine Anglos in the Wind. OT, he explains, is an alcohol-free, ginger-based drink that used to be made in most Anglo-Indian homes with hand-medown recipes.
“However, you are free to have something stronger or wine but OT used to be standard fare in most homes along with plum cake and seed cake, which was flavoured with aniseed. In addition, there would be kul kuls, rose cookies and Dhol-Dhol, a halwa-like sweet made of puttu rice powder, coconut, jaggery, ghee. It used to be made on firewood stoves outside the house,” he says, adding, “It was a Portuguese favourite that has been adapted by Anglo-Indians and is a Christmas favourite.”
The Anglo-Indians usually attend midnight mass and like to have a late brunch on December 25, consisting of eggs, bacon, sausages, ham, salami, breads, cheese and so on. So lunch is usually after 3 pm when families and friends get together for a leisurely feast with several kinds of meat roasts and pies. “We used to have coconut rice, ball curry (made of minced meat), devil’s chutney, pork vindaloo, sweets, cakes and roasted chicken,” he recalls. He remembers that turkey roast and duck roast were common when he was growing up in the Railway Colony in Tiruchi, but nowadays it has been replaced by chicken as turkey is harder to cook and needed a lot of space. “Lunch was a grand affair with friends from all communities and families gathering together. This time, the gatherings might be smaller but the spirit of Christmas will be the same,” he asserts.
(With inputs from Aishwarya Upadhye)