Christmas with Midnight Mass, coats, mufflers and gloves, as we sing carols with group at our local parish. Christmas at schools full of delicious pastries, cakes, the thinnest potato chips, chocolates, chhole-bhature, bread rolls, patties, samosa and everything yummy that my classmates got to our Delhi school for our class party. Christmas of the indulgent vegetarian meal, our getaway from the ghastly mess food at design school, Ahmedabad. Christmas with meditation and songs around a bonfire, in Auroville.
Christmas of the endless decorations, glistening stars, shimmering tinsel and rustic crib at home with my sisters, in Kerala. Christmas with a party of joyful chatter, eclectic food, wine and merriment with my Punjabi-Hindu husband and family of friends, in Mumbai. Christmas that is as Indian as I am. Not white, but a gorgeous, Indian brown Christmas as old as time.
As a kid I would envy my sister Chris her name, for the rather straightforward, easy-to-place identity it gave her. I struggled to explain to many that it is possible to be Christian and Malayali at the same time. I would explain that in South India some of us have been Christians since the 1st century. That’s about 2000 years ago. Which means there were Christians in India way before any of the Empires in Europe had even heard of Christianity. Before the Gupta Empire was established, before the Mughals, Portuguese or British ever came to India. So no, we were not converted by the British. No, we do not wear frothy white gowns, or dance gayly to Western music at our weddings. And no, turkey does not figure in our Christmas meals. That’s the Brits you are thinking of. Or Americans at Thanksgiving.
The flavours of Christmas for me are firmly rooted in the Syrian Catholic parts of Kerala my parents comes from, fragrant with the notes of pepper, cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, roast coconut, shallots and curry leaves. It would start each year with my parent’s yearly ritual of soaking fruits and nuts post Diwali. My father would go all the way to Khadi Baoli, in Delhi, to get the fruits and would hand mix all the peels and fruits with copious amounts of rum. By the time the fruit was ripe for baking into my mom’s popular X’mas cake a couple of weeks before Christmas, we would be bursting with anticipation.
For three days the house would be immersed in preparations – my father cracking dozens and dozens of eggs into a milk can, my mom caramelising sugar, and my sister and I sniffing around huge bharanis of dry fruits soaked in rum. On the D-day, my parents would take all the prepped ingredients to the bakery, mix the batter as per their own recipe and then bake dozens and dozens of cakes in the large bakery ovens. They would come back with large fragrant buckets filled with freshly baked, spicy, warm-from-the-oven Christmas cakes, which would be gifted to friends and family.
By the time Christmas Eve came around, we would be sick of the cake and would be looking forward to breaking the 24-day abstinence with an overload of meat and fish. On D-Day, the house would be abuzz with excitement as my mom and aunt cooked deftly, churning out fish curry in coconut milk, freshwater fish fried to a crisp, appams with its crunchy, lacy edges and beautiful fluffy middles, beef (buffalo in Delhi) steaks marinated in mustard and pepper, mutton curried in roast coconut, pork curry stir-fried with sliced coconut, chicken curry and our absolute favourite – the meat cutlet.
The making of the beef cutlet was a family ritual in itself. My mom tells me that it’s a tradition she picked up from her sister-in-law, but it’s been a fixture at every Christmas and Easter at our home. The meat would be bought a day before, cleaned and refrigerated. On Christmas morning or even the evening before, my dad or uncle would cut the meat into large chunks for it to be boiled with the masalas till it was tender and aromatic. The next day, potatoes would be boiled, the meat minced and the masala made by the women. One of the men would lend muscle power by mixing the masala all together to the right consistency and the kids would help with patting the beef cutlets into shape. We’d shape them as we chatted away, or sang carols and handed them over to our mom for her to crumb and fry up the cutlets.
The crust would be crisp, just a tad sweet from the rusk instead of fresh bread crumbs. The inside was perfectly spiced and soft. The abundance of onions and potatoes would make it both creamy and sweet. With a side of the beautifully simple challas, or onion salad, this was, and still is, bliss. The perfectly browned cutlet for a beautiful brown Christmas.
Reshmy Kurian blogs at bombaychowparty.com. Get the recipe for the beef cutlets here.