From roasts to pies, cakes to stews, hot breads to ginger wine, here’s how one of the finest Indian creolised cuisines redefined the ‘spirit’ and ‘cheer’ of the Christmas feast.
If the mention of a Christmas feast conjures up for you the sight of a beautifully laid-out table complete with the juiciest roasts, delicious pies, hearty stews, breads, puddings, goblets filled with wine, and marzipan sweets and cakes, then it isn’t just the Grimm Brothers and their popular fairy tales that one has to thank for, but also the Anglo-Indians who have made it a reality. As one of the oldest communities in India to have championed the creolisation of cuisine, they have not only managed to create the table but outshone it with the sheer number of culinary gems that today make the core of the feast during Christmas (and the holidays) globally. In fact, for many culinary revivalists like Chef Sumanta Chakrabarti, Corporate Chef, Raajkutir and Chef Sabyasachi Gorai, Culinary Director, Going Bad, their table remains the most extraordinary edible chapter of our modern history. Says Chef Gorai, whose work with Armenian cuisine took him exploring (and experiencing) some of the old-style Anglo-Indian meals in Kolkata, “The brilliance of the Anglo-Indian community’s food comes from their mixed lineage. Most Anglo-Indians here or around the world have their DNA both in Europe and in different parts of Asia (and India), which reflects in their meals in the most fascinating way. Take the Ball Curry, for instance. A common feature on both the Anglo-Indian and East Indian feast table and one that often appears like a meatball curry to the naked eye, is in the deed, a blend of technique and philosophy. While the meatballs are prepared in British style (or Portuguese), the curry is indigenous and reflects the palate and the popular spice mix of a certain era.”
Concurs Chef Chakrabarti, who had his first taste of the different chicken curries created by the community while putting together the menu for the colonial-inspired East India Room. “If today chicken is an important part of a festive meal, it is thanks to the community that took the humble meat and turned it gourmet with an interesting array of dishes like the Dak Bangla Chicken Curry, the Railway Mutton Curry and the devastatingly satiating Captain Chicken Curry — all remarkable testimony of the Anglo-Indian cook’s ingenuity of turning humble, limited resources into a treat.”
Fascinatingly, it was this very ingenuity of the Anglo-Indian community that not only built their food heritage, but made them the subject of interest for Colonel Arthur Robert Kenney-Herbert, who spent most of his tenure in India jotting down the cuisine, writing reams about its brilliance under the pen name, ‘Wyvern’. In fact, his collection Culinary Jottings of Madras went on to popularise the Anglo-Indian curries by calling them the finest way of having Indian food. His incessant love-notes (read: writing) for the iconic brown curry that made the base of many a delicacy catapulted Anglo Indians into a community that was known, respected, and revered globally for their food.
In fact, says culinary doyenne Bridget White Kumar, “through history, we were mostly known for two things: our ability to speak and our food — which was neither British, nor Indian but a fusion that was outstandingly delicious and immensely addictive.” White, who has been the finest spokesperson of the Anglo-Indian culinary (and cultural) legacy, hails from this august group of people who were significant in curating not only the colonial food culture but also the Christmas feast as we know it today.
Continues Bridget, “Thanks to our DNA, our forefathers did have the advantage of being employed as cooks who understood the European palate and were adept at reformatting some of their popular dishes like the bread pudding, cakes, sausages, kedgeree, and even roasts along with other delicacies for their table here. And in doing so, we too adopted some of their food habits, albeit with a few native tweaks. Our food, in fact, is a melange of these very dishes created from frugal means and clever techniques along with a few that came from our native roots.”
Like in the case of Karen Martin, whose great-great-grandfather was a soldier in the British Royal Army and great-great-grandmother from Burma, it is a Khau Suey from her maternal side which is very different tasting and robust (because of the blend of garam masala and other spices) compared to the contemporary version. Or for musician David Baker, the roast — which unlike the traditional roast uses local Assamese spices and herbs to give it that festive taste and juiciness. For Anglo-Indians in Nagaland, the few that are there, says Naga cuisine researcher Prescilla Zinyu, “it is the Naga Christmas Give Feast made with chicken and pork, along with the small portion of raw pork that is sent across to neighbours to cook with on the Christmas Day. The tradition began to ensure that everyone has ample, good food to put on the table during the festive week.”
It was the tradition of Christmas Give that helped the Anglo-Indians gain goodwill as well as build their festive tables for Christmas. You see, recalls Bridget, “even though we were part British or European, when it came to the fortune, most of our families were on par with the rest of the region. We had to work hard, the pay — for the most part — was bad, but we enjoyed the fine life and at least for Christmas did all we could to have the best time. And food played a big part. We made the most of what we had.” The food that evolved from the 16th to the 19th century became a reflection of the resources of a standard Anglo-Indian home, which, says the celebrated author, “meant a lot of chicken dishes, pork delicacies, baked goodies, pickled and cured stuff. In fact, we were experts in prolonging the use of a certain ingredient and mastered the art of using pickles, brines and fermented tastemakers in our food, including vinegar — a Portuguese gift. Fascinatingly, it was the latter that became the benchmark of our food — and the big differentiator to others.”
Suggested read: How did the traditional Christmas pudding find its way to India?
An example of this is the Railway Mutton Curry. While the one served in the pantry is a take on the Bengali Kosha Mangsho, the Anglo-Indian one, says Chef Chakrabarti, “has a hint of vinegar in it.” Likewise, is the Pork Pepper Fry or the Pork Vindaloo, a standard Christmas table special, says Karen, “In ours the taste is of the vinegar and not the coconut.” “Another specimen of our culinary ingenuity are the fritters,” continues the founder of House Of Anglo, “which are a significant part of post-Mass gatherings on Christmas Eve. Essentially crumbed and fried vegetables, especially gourds and brinjals, that are stuffed with minced meat, these Passovers are akin to a palate fest in the mouth, and the finest showcase of the use of spices.”
Unlike popular belief, says Bridget, “not all dishes that are part of our feast table (and regular too) are made of the Bottle Masala. The brilliance of our Christmas Feast is that no two dishes would have cumin or the similar use of ingredients to cook it. The famous brown curry too is used sparingly and only for a few dishes that were influenced by the Britishers —the rest have an equally dominant element of our native land.” Like the Baffad, for instance. The Anglo-Indian Christmas breakfast staple (a favourite at White’s place) unlike the Mangalorean or Goan variety is this velvety stew made with meat and vegetables. Similarly, with Motherina’s Bole, a cake made with semolina, and Doldol. While both are a Christmas must-have at many Anglo-Indian homes along with kalkals and rose cookies (a Dutch inspiration), Doldol has a special place as it is a halwa made with black rice, sugar and milk. Interestingly, the black rice powder that is preferred for making this labour-intensive sweet dish comes from Burma, which is another culture says Bridget that has greatly influenced their food, and feast. Concurs Baker, who finds the Christmas feast table across different homes a curious mix of “their legacy, native influences and the connect that the family built over the years.” Thanks to that blend, continues Baker, “you would find some dishes that are common to every Anglo-Indian table irrespective of where they hail from like the roast, the salted beef [a highlight of the Anglo-Indian Christmas celebration in Odisha too], cured pork, yellow rice and ball curry, meatballs, the pork sausages (once made with a little blood in them), the cakes, especially the bole cake, the Christmas pudding that is traditionally flambeed with brandy, ginger ale, mulled wine…We make our own wine too of different fruits including apricot and plum, and, of course, the all-day favourite cured ham slices and corned beef sandwich, and the stew with dumplings too. However, there is also a side that talks about personal preferences.” Like, says Zinyu, “In Nagaland, a local favourite during Christmas (and found across all community tables) is the donut, a very English-style sweetened donut and the traditional Butter Cake that everyone gets.”
For Karen’s family, it is a selection of dishes that are “made with organ meat (offal) like the liver loaf, the selection of canapés that feature cheese, sausages and fruits, and barbeques, which are made with a variety of meat, vegetable and cheese on a skewer.” “However, the two things that we look forward to during Christmas,” she adds, “which is as much an eat-fest as it is a meet-fest are the sweets. From kalkal to rose cookies, plum cakes and trifle pudding, all are the high points of each meal.”
In fact, Karen’s Christmas, which begins much like Bridget’s around the first week of December when they plan, prep and cure food for the big week, the merry is in putting the trifle pudding together. A heirloom recipe that has been passed on from generation to generation, it is a treat which, says the fifth generation scion, “has been made the same way for the past few generations using sponge, canned fruit (pineapple is the favourite), custard, jelly and brandy cherries, and it is the bowl which decides the size.”
What does Christmas look like on an Anglo-Indian table? Nothing less than a fiesta, says Bridget whose Christmas begins on Stir-Up Sunday, when traditionally the sweetmeat for the fruit cake was prepared. Post that, she continues, “every day is dedicated to the making and prepping of some dish or the other including the Christmas pudding and the bread pudding — both steamed — that get better when matured. But the eating begins on the Eve post the Mass when we get together for wine and munchies like sandwiches, meatballs, panteras (Anglo-Indian version of the spring roll) or the winter special, Fricassee ‘Frisky’ Chicken made with chicken cubes marinated in ginger-garlic and grilled in dry white wine sauce. Back then even whisky was used to crank up the taste.” For Karen, the evening of the Eve is dedicated to drinking, which includes Shandy as well, along with eating loads of meatballs, ham, and beef slices — which are made in a huge quantity of 5 kilos — and ends with plum pudding, which involves a small ceremony of flambeeing before it is served with the house special mulled wine. The morning of Christmas, according to the Anglo custodians, is dedicated to a lavish English breakfast — which has everything imaginable from ham to breads, rolls, stews, cold cuts, sausages, the works — and is often had along with wine or spiced brandy.
Lunch again is a potluck of dishes like the customary yellow rice pilaf and ball curry, ox tail curry, mutton, fritters, kousid (a curry made of local leafy greens and prawns), roast made of either duck or pork but definitely country chicken, salted tongue and pickled curry made of pork and a pudding. While for Karen, the sweet ending is usually trifle or the English custard and jelly, Bridget prepares a traditional ginger pudding to help digest the feast “and prepare for the next” served along with a bowl of apricot custard and the marzipan sweets that she still prepares at home using almond flour, condensed milk and corn syrup. Fascinatingly, it is the roast that, says Baker, “is unique to every table as it uses a different format of spice mix and making style local to the region.” The one at Karen’s place, for instance, is a recipe that dates to the second generation and was made in a large degchi where the whole country chicken is slow cooked with spices, onions and other ingredients and turned often to get that crisp skin. Karen, however, does it in the oven these days. For the czarina of Anglo-Indian cookbooks, however, the roast is done in a traditional way and uses the popular brown sauce depending on the meat. Dinner is another meat-heavy affair, which also has a selection of cakes and sweets to peck from as one sips on Khimad, which is a traditional Christmas Punch and digested with Ginger Wine, according to Bridget, who loves the warm fragrance wafting through the house, completing the cheer of Christmas.
The most fascinating aspect of the Anglo-Indian Christmas feast, however, says Chef Gorai, “is that in spite of the meat and sweet-heavy fest, nothing goes to waste. In fact, each of the prepped meats is used in a manner that it becomes the new addition to the table. Like White’s famous salted tongue which is served with mustard aside the stew it is made with. And that is what makes the Anglo-Indian Christmas a must attend.”