By: Sharon Fernandes
There’s a rustle of silk dresses, the heady rush of perfumed air as the chimes of the church bell call out to the devout for the midnight Mass. The ladies pick up the clickety-clack of their high heels, the men and the boys in sharp three-piece suits follow. Under a twinkling canopy of stars, the mist rises from the fields around the church as the echo of hymns being practised before the midnight Mass lingers over the landscape. Christmas Eve holds the promise, the nervous energy of a good time ahead. In Raia, a sleepy village in south Goa’s Salcette district, where life revolves around feast days and novenas, Christmas is, undoubtedly, the biggest event. A quiet and picturesque village close to the city of Margao, Raia has the distinction of being the first village in Salcette to have been Christianised when its populace was converted en masse to Christianity in 1560.
Our Lady of Snows Church, known locally as the Raia Church, is the first church built by the Portuguese in the area in 1565. After Mass, people pour out of the 16th century church, wishing each other a “Bom fest de Natal”. Families visit each other, share a piece of cake and a glass of wine before calling it a night. The younger folk whizz away to spend time at a ball (no electronic music but the good old-fashioned ball room dance, with a live band). The dance and the clothes are just the trimmings to the main hedonistic attraction of Christmas, the food.
On Christmas morning, the kusvad in Konkani or consoada in Portuguese, a plate of homemade goodies is exchanged with neighbours and relatives. There are deep fried sweets like the nevreo (a stuffed sweet) and kulkuls (mini flour scones), the baked items like bebinca, cakes, bolinhos and batica (coconut-semolina cake), almond paste and sugar is moulded into yummy marzipans. The other must-haves are sweet jelly-like sweets — perad (guava cheese) and dodol (made of rice flour and jaggery). At my grandmother’s or Mãe’s house, the preparation of kusvad began in the first week of December. In the mellow light of incandescent bulbs, a merry gathering of neighbourhood women would be found emptying coconuts of their tender flesh, piling them into soft snow-white mountains. Some would stand over huge iron vats stirring the glutinous mass of guava pulp mixed with sugar or bunch up their skirts to help carry the coals for the oven fire. The ladies sang, as they rolled kulkuls on the back of a fork to later fry them and cool them in a sugar syrup. The nevreos were stuffed with grated coconut, cashew nuts, raisins and semolina, and placed in semi-circular flour moulds to be fried.
As Mãe supervised the kitchen, the complex preparation of bebinca (the layered cake made of coconut milk, egg, flour and a touch of nutmeg) always had her undivided attention. Clay pots brushed with ghee were laid out. Mãe’s instructions would ring out loud and clear: “Don’t ever use the gas, the best bibik is made over coals, and covered with coals.” A layer of the ladled coconut mixture is cooked before it is topped with another layer. Under Mãe’s watchful eye, it had to be “at least 12 layers” before it was deemed good enough to be set down on the table at Christmas. As children, the dish that had us in thrall was ghonz (or nest), where slivers of tender coconut, dipped in sugar, was laid out on tiny squares of white paper. The white coconut ribbons would curl up on the paper, looking like a nest, and they were irresistibly sweet and crunchy. No wonder, they would have to be stored in a jar and kept on the highest shelf if they had to make it till Christmas morning. The other staple of the kusvad, is the doce de grao (a boiled Bengal gram, cardamom, coconut dish) along with the bolinhos (small round cakes made of semolina, coconut, egg yolks, sugar and vanilla essence).
Sweets apart, the Christmas lunch too needed ample preparation. Back in the day, Mãe would single out a leitao or little pig for the roasted suckling dish, leitao assado. It would be stuffed with a mix of butter, onion, breadcrumbs, ginger-garlic and roasted over coal fire for two hours. Only Mãe had the energy for this mean business. Today, we stick to the easier staples of the merry lunch, and a must-have is the sorpotel (made of pork liver, heart and fat), which tastes best after a couple of days as it matures into a red meaty gravy. The best accompaniment to the sorpotel is a plate of sannas or round steamed rice bread made with a dash of toddy. Mãe is not around anymore, but the Christmas table, with its white lace tablecloth, is always set the way she would like it, with chicken xacuti (a rich curry made with roasted spices and coconut), a beef assado (roast) along with a salad, pork vindaloo and, of course, the sorpotel, sannas and arroz de camarao (rice cooked with prawns).
The drinks that accompany this decadent meal are a deep red port wine, or the crystal clear swig of feni (the alcoholic distilled cashew drink), or a cloudy yet heady urrak (a milder version of feni). The music plays on, the carols on a loop. The children run around the house, high on sugar with a few marzipan sweets in their hands, “for later”. The young boys huddle near a benevolent uncle hoping to get some of the “stiff” drink. The young girls help their mothers set the plates and napkins. The family gets together at the table, just as Mãe would have all of us sit down and relish the food that never stops celebrating.
Sharon Fernandes is a freelance writer in Goa.