An Indian Christmas feast

Gitanjali Sharma recalls the Indian dishes she sampled around the Christmas dinner table this year

Gulab jamun

Spending the holidays in India, especially at this time of year, is a real treat: the warm sunshine, the comforting faces of familiar friends and relatives and of course (most importantly) the mouth-watering, and indescribably delicious food being served at the table.

This Christmas, our dinner was a fusion of cuisines from across the country, reflecting both our family’s own traditions and the influences from wider Indian culture. We enjoyed some traditional southern Indian dishes, such as chicken biryani and, one of my favourites, baingan bharta (mashed aubergine curry). There were also nods to North Indian influences in the Punjabi chole masala (chickpeas) and gajar ka halwa, a carrot pudding served with ice cream.

Our Christmas meal captured in microcosm the huge diversity and range of Indian cooking, inevitable in such a vast, ever-growing nation, with 29 completely different states that all have their own culinary particularities. There is a still a very strong affiliation to Christmas in the country and over the years Christians from every state have added their own unique flavours to the festivities.

These are only a small selection of dishes that feature in Indian homes during the festive season. In Goa, there is a throwback to rich Portuguese roots and beef, the most loved meat, is the star of their stir fries, cutlets, and croquettes, which accompany quintessentially Portuguese-inspired dishes like chicken xacuti (with white poppy seeds, grated coconut and dried red chillies), pork vindaloo or pork sorpotel curry.

In the south of Andhra Pradesh hot spices and hearty meals dominate, with some families preparing a handi (a large bowl) of mutton biryani the traditional Deccani way. While in Kerala, Malayi Christians begin Christmas feasting in the morning with piping hot palappams (soft pancakes made with rice flour and coconut milk) and meen moilee (a mildly flavoured coconut fish curry).

In the North East there are many tribes, each with their own cooking style, but most swear by the duck curry and steamed rice combination, where the exclusive use of roasted chilli powder and lack of masala differentiates it from other Indian curries.

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There are also many Christmas sweets and goodies, mainly originating from Goa, traditionally called ‘kuswar’. These range from delicious dense fruitcakes and rose cookies to kulkuls, (semolina based dough balls made with cardamom and dusted with icing sugar). Traditional deserts like gulab jamun (a milk sweet drenched in syrup) and kheer (rice pudding with saffron and raisins), alongside jaggery (concentrated date sugar)-based sweets are also a must.

When comparing this with British Christmas traditions, on one hand, Anglo-Indian Christmas meals aren’t too dissimilar from back home and are teasingly English at heart—a roast turkey or duck is marinated overnight, and then roasted with a myriad of herbs and spices like thyme, rosemary, and bay leaves. Its stuffing consists of boiled veg and mashed potatoes and side dishes include cranberry sauce, pork chops, and good old Brussels sprouts.

However, many Indian Christmas meals also differ from their British counterpart: meat is less of a centrepiece, and there is a larger focus on other elements of the meal with perhaps more to excite vegetarians. Although Christmas dinners can differ somewhat in the UK, with the eternal debate on the inclusion of Yorkshire puddings, in India there is a greater celebration of this variety.

But the main aspect of it all is of course the same—a plethora of delicious food for family and friends to enjoy.