Savouring Christmas

Bon apptit!

Savouring Christmas

Christmas — the very word conjures up images of a beautifully decorated tree, gifts wrapped in red and gold, twinkling fairy lights, and a table full of finger-licking goodies.

So, what would you like to have for your Christmas feast this year? The same old roast chicken, baked veggies, gingerbread cookies and plum cake? Take a break from this customary fare and go for an exotic, yet easy-to-prepare meal, which has dishes picked up from across the country.

As is usually the case in most Indian homes, it’s the women of the household who spend weeks planning and preparing for the extra special festival meal. While the fare is pretty much standard — there’s lots of fried savouries, rich and luscious meat curries, sides of seasonal vegetables and an array of sweets to round everything off — what is clearly evident is the influence of the local ingredients and regional favourites.
For instance, if coconut is the star of all dishes in the Goan cuisine, then aromatic spices abundantly available in the northeast Indian states form the basis of their preparations. Then again, in Andhra Pradesh, traditional southern favourites like the pulihora (lemon rice) and garelu (lentil donuts) are served with the evergreen favourite Hyderabadi mutton biryani.

In Manipur, the countdown for Christmas has already begun and Hiam Riamei, 23, a resident of Tameng Long and a native of the Zeliangrong tribe, can’t wait to tuck into gak jan (pork curry) with dollops of king chilly chutney and sticky rice. “We use generous amounts of local spices like king chilly, sangchagu, tamik and dahngengthainui in pork and beef curries to give them a typical flavour and aroma,” she says.  

Even as the fiery chilly rules the palate in Manipur, it’s the coconut and semolina that combine to create a variety of dishes in the land of the sun and sea, Goa, which, incidentally, is also the most sought after destination during the season. 

“Around here, Christmas festivities begin from December 19 onwards, which also marks Goa Liberation Day,” shares Cleophas Caiado, 26, a resident of Ribandar, a picturesque town located between state capital Panjim and Old Goa. Of course, the prep for the quintessential rum-and-raisin cake happens at least five months in advance with the soaking of the dry fruits in liquor. The traditional Goan feast is quite elaborate with distinct Portuguese flavours. Sweets are the pièce de résistance of the spread. Caiado says, “There is a whole range of sweets to choose from — dodol, doce, bolinhos, neuros… all of which are homemade.”

Not just in Goa, the celebratory dinner down south, too, is a homemade affair. “Things around here are quite different from the western world,” remarks Sheena Sannihitha from Kurnool in Andhra Pradesh. “Whether it’s the food or the clothing, we stick to the Indian stuff,” she adds. Age-old Andhra culinary traditions are reflected in the Christmas platter that constitutes savoury snacks like garelu, curries like kodi kura (chicken curry) and gongura mutton, rice staples pulihora and biryani, and sweets, payasam and kharjikayalu.

From Kurnool, where local flavours dominate, let’s go to Mumbai, where Debbie D’ Cruz’s family follows the English traditions to the T. Talking about the grand Christmas lunch organised in her home every year, Debbie quips, “It is like a reunion for the whole family and that’s why the table is groaning with items made with every possible meat we can lay our hands on. There’s beef roast, fish, chicken, pork… We include a few signature dishes like mashed potatoes, rum-and-raisin cake, milk cream toffees, date rolls and rose cookies. The recipes have been passed through nearly seven generations.”

Although cultural influences differ, lending their own unique twist to the festive treats, the spirit of sharing joy and camaraderie on Christmas remains the same everywhere.

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