Ovens warm up, pans begin to sizzle in India's Christmas capital

Ovens warm up, pans begin to sizzle in India's Christmas capital

Ovens warm up, pans begin to sizzle in India's Christmas capital

For the housewives in the Christian homes of Goa, however, even before the sombre Christmas lights and decorations begin to burn on the eve of Dec 25, it's time to roll up their sleeves, burn the midnight lamps in their kitchen, making the traditional Christmas sweets like bebinca, dodol and neureos.

"Making Christmas sweets was always an elaborate process, running late into the night. When we were girls, all of us used to gather in the kitchen with each one digging her hands into the dough to knead it and make doce (sweetmeat)," says Susan D'Souza, 60, a housewife from Revora, speaking about a time more than 40 years ago when the seasonal yield of coconuts defined the quantity of homemade Christmas sweets.
"A lean coconut season meant few sweets. But coconuts were always in abundance. The more the coconuts, the more the sweets. We specially used to organise plucking to have fresh coconuts for Christmas and pray that the trees bore abundant fruit," she said, sarcastically pointing out that even as the women of the house laboured to make the sweets, boys, even in those days, continued to be boys.

"So while we broke our backs making the sweets, all the boys of the house did was to eat them as we made them!" she said.

Goa is arguably the Christmas capital of the country - Christians account for almost 25 percent of the state's population - with the religious festivities coinciding with the peak of the state's tourism season in December, adding to the fervour.

Valencia Gomes, another housewife, said while making Christmas sweets was once a family affair, people today preferred to buy it off the shelves.

"Earlier bebinca used to be made with firewood for baking; today there are electric ovens. It is the most sought after Christmas sweet," she said.

Pronounced as 'bebink', this traditional dessert is made of flour, sugar, ghee and coconut milk. The layered dessert is baked in a specially-made clay oven, with a layer of hot coals over it. Each layer has to be baked before another is put over it.

Christmas in Goa, despite being a European festival, has soaked in almost half a millennium of Indian culture enough to be sufficiently Indian.

"In the early days when the Portuguese brought Christianity to Goan shores, they allowed the basic Goan customs to remain the same. So while the dates of the celebration, their names and of course raison d'être change, the external manifestations remain the same,"  Fr Delio Mendonça, director of XCHR, told IANS.

So while Christmas retains a lot of Indian sweets, it also has a fair sum of the imported variety; others are a hybrid.

Neoreos, the most famous of the Christmas sweets, are also distributed by the Hindus on the occasion of Ganesh Chathurthi celebrated with fervor in Konkan and Goa.
Made all over India as a festival sweet, Nuereos differ only slightly from region to region. In Goa, it consists of shredded coconut, nuts and jaggery. This version uses the coconut filling.

Recipe I - Bebinca

600 ml coconut milk
400g sugar
9 egg yolks
150 g flour (sieved)
1/4 tsp. nutmeg powder
100g butter or pure ghee
A pinch of salt

Preparation: Extract only thick juice from the coconut, using 600ml hot water. Pass through a fine muslin cloth.Add sugar and stir till sugar has dissolved. Add yolks, one at a time and mix thoroughly. Mix in flour and salt till no flour lumps are left. Sprinkle nutmeg powder.

Burn 1 tablespoon sugar on slow fire, stir continuously, add 2 tablespoon warm water and stir briskly. Cool.

Take half a cup of coconut milk mixture, mix cooled caramelised sugar and pour into the coconut milk mixture.Once again pass the whole mixture through the muslin cloth. Heat the oven at gas mark 4.

Take a baking pan, preferably a round one. Put 2 or 3 heaped tablespoons butter or ghee into itAdd half a cup of batter and bake it for 12 or 15 minutes. Spread a little butter on the baked layer, switch off the oven and grill the second layer for 3 or 4 minutes.
Continue, greasing, layering and grilling till all the batter has been used up. Cool thoroughly and turn on a wide plate.

Recipe II - Dodol

750 gm raw coarse rice
10 large coconuts
2 1/2 kg coconut jaggery
2 tbsp sugar
Salt to taste
200 gm cashew nuts, chopped
Preparation: Grate coconuts and extract coconut milk. To do this, grind the coconut with warm water. Strain this, squeezing the coconut as much as possible to extract the maximum amount of liquid. Discard the coconut leaving only the coconut milk.
Chop the cashew nuts and jaggery.

Sieve the rice flour. Add to the coconut milk. Stir well to avoid lumps.Place on a slow fire and stir continuously in a deep pan.

After the mixture thickens slightly, add the chopped jaggery and stir. After about 5 minutes, add the chopped nuts.

Keep on stirring till the whole mixture is well thickened and begins to leave the sides of the vessel.Pour into a greased dish. Leave to cool. Cut and serve.