What do Christmas traditions across India look like?

From Mangalorean to Syrian Christian communities, some of the best chefs of India share their experiences of diverse Christmas traditions
While most people may associate christmas with stockings and fireplaces, the festival is celebrated radically differently in india
While most people may associate Christmas with stockings and fireplaces, the festival is celebrated radically differently in India. Image: Shutterstock

For most, Christmas is often synonymous with a grand old roast turkey, stockings by the fireplace, and setting out milk and cookies to name a few. Not all of these traditions find relevance among Indians, however. These largely Western customs have managed to trickle into all corners of the world thanks to the era of social media and globalisation.

But the question still remains, how much do we really know about Indian Christmas traditions?

For starters, there isn’t a homogenous answer. In a nation as vast and diverse as India, with a different dialect at every corner, there’s plenty of communities with a wealth of diverse Christmas traditions. Almost all of them are heavy on the culinary front, of course, because there’s no better way to celebrate the Yuletide spirit than with a home cooked meal that brings the family together. 

From Mangalorean Chicken/Pork Indad (a sweet, sour, and slightly spicy dish) with sannas or neer dosas to a traditional Roast Duck Mappas from the Syrian Christian community, there’s a delicious signature offering from every community.

While christmas culinary traditions may differ across communities, you will always find an assortment of christmas cookies
While Christmas culinary traditions may differ across communities, you will always find an assortment of Christmas cookies. Image: Pixabay

Lesser known in the mainstream Christmas culinary scene, but equally sumptuous dishes include East Indian styled Bottle Masala Prawn Chilly Fry, and the Khimad, a lightly spiced sweetened liquor spiked with cardamon, cloves and black jaggery syrup, a heady mix of dark rum and gin, topped with hot water. There’s also the Anglo Indian inspired baked fish or pork/mutton vindaloos, with its warm and comforting spices. 

What makes these dishes truly remarkable are the stories associated with them. These are recipes inherited over generations, occupying a special place in our hearts. In Christian households, there’s a lot of fond memories involving making kalkals with your grandmother, baking cakes with your mother, or waking up to the enticing aroma of Christmas meals.

This rings true for some of the best chefs of India, who remember a time before Christmas meant creating elaborate feasts for happy diners. What better way to learn about the myriad of Indian Christmas traditions than through the lens of the experts? 

Chef Paul Kinny, Culinary Director, The St Regis Mumbai

A traditional east indian chrismas dessert, milk cream is one of the more technically demanding delicious creations according to chef paul kinny
A traditional East Indian Chrismas dessert, Milk Cream is one of the more technically demanding delicious creations according to Chef Paul Kinny

Highlighting traditions from the East Indian community, Chef Paul has a lot of insight on those whose forefathers worked for the East India Company. It was the recipes which flew in with the colonists that were passed down over generations, adapted and improvised on by different local regions over time. 

One of the signature Christmas desserts popular among East Indians is Milk Cream. He explains, “Milk cream is a cashew base cooked with milk and sugar. It is reduced to a very thick consistency and set in moulds. These can be cube or flower shaped, and require an advanced level of skill. They say the whiter the better, so you need to be technically sound to cook it otherwise the sugar and milk can get caramelized. You’re pretty much considered an expert if your milk cream is white.”

Other highlights include the Guava Cheese, or Goibada as it is natively known in Portuguese. The soft textured sweet is cooked and pureed, cooked again with sugar, and then set in trays to be cut in diamonds later. There’s a similar alternative in Goa, called the Perad, and the subtly flavoured sweets are a highlight of the Christmas season. 

What’s Christmas without some delicious marzipan? Available both cooked as well as raw, they’re essentially cashews and almonds cooked with milk and sugar. They’re as much fun to prepare as they are to eat, and allow room for experimentation with colours and shapes of your liking. 

Making these sweets were an important part of the festive season, and also held Santa-mental (forgive the pun!) value for Chef Paul. He says, “Families get involved in this, in villages the whole family would come together to make it. Back then, we used to get menial jobs of putting them in moulds. Nowadays, it’s mostly purchased from outside.”

As far as Manglorean and Goan Catholic communities go, an important Christmas tradition includes the making and gifting of Kuswar. Boasting as many as 22 different items with traditional recipes, they’re a labour of love and hold both sweet and savoury offerings. Some of the items include nevris, which is basically dough mixed with rava stuffing and an assortment of nuts before being deep fried.

No catholic christmas is complete without making and devouring delicious kuswar, as well as gifting this labour of love to family and friends
No Catholic Christmas is complete without making and devouring delicious Kuswar, as well as gifting this labour of love to family and friends. Image: Shutterstock

There are kalkals or kidiyo, another fried item made with ghee and flour and sugar. The iconic shell shape comes from being rolled on a typical scrape mould. Some people also toss them in sugar syrup and some are eaten plain as it is. The slightly less sweet options include nankhatai and bolinhas, which are typically coconut cookies. 

According to Chef Paul, while these recipes have been slightly tinkered with in different communities, they largely remain the same. For now, you can kick start your exploration of traditional Christmas sweets with his personal recipe for Milk Cream! 

Milk Cream

Ingredients

  • 1 ltr milk 
  • 200 gm broken cashew nuts 
  • 200 gm icing sugar 
  • 1 tsp vanilla essence 
  • 20 gm butter

Method

  • Boil the milk and allow it to reduce on a slow flame for about 1 hour. Keep stirring constantly. 
  • Powder the broken cashew nuts in a mixer and ensure there are no lumps.
  • Add sugar, powdered cashew nuts, vanilla essence and butter to the simmering milk.
  • Keep stirring till the mixture leaves the sides of the pan.
  • Remove the mixture in a tray and cool. 
  • Put the mixture in rubber moulds to give desired shapes. 
  • Remove from the mould, cool and dry the milk cream.

Chef Regi Mathew, Culinary Director & Co-Owner, Kappa Chakka Kandhari

Shining a light on Syrian Christian traditions, Chef Regi Mathew has a detailed and vivid recollection of how Christmas played out. 

To start off, he explains, “We have 24 days of Advent, so we don’t take non-veg during that time. As a result, there’s a lot of vegetarian dishes around before Christmas. Christmas Eve isn’t a big celebration so to speak. We break our Advent early on the 25th morning after coming back from church. Since we start with breakfast most of the time, there’s appam or kalappam with stew or chicken/beef curry depending on preferences. But appam is a must, everyone makes that.” 

The savoury breakfast is just the beginning of what is to be a day full of elaborate meals however. Syrian Christian communities pride themselves on Christmas lunches akin to royal feasts, featuring a delicious myriad of items. 

Tharavu or duck mappas is a rather new and extremely declious addition to syrian christian christmas meals, usually eaten with vatayappam
Tharavu or Duck Mappas is a rather new and extremely declious addition to Syrian Christian Christmas meals, usually eaten with vatayappam

Extrapolating on the same, Chef Regi says, “The Christmas cake is traditionally baked on the previous day. It’s something similar to cake making (or Stir up Sunday). We use dates, raisins, chopped cashews, tutti frutti, sometimes some berries, basically whatever dry fruits are available. Most importantly, there’s candied orange peel, which is soaked in Indian liquor for the flavours to get imparted. In earlier times it used to be baked in traditional ovens. For those who don’t have those, they use a pressure cooker etc. Even as most times home baked cakes are preferred, plum cakes were a norm at bakeries at the time.”

The lunch itself starts with some homemade wine and cake. The first course is typically some beef/chicken cutlets, then some sweet bread (not packaged but from bakeries). Next comes the appam with mutton stew (optional), followed by the rest of the meal. There’s also rice and tempered buttermilk. On the beverage front, there’s usually some jeera water or passion fruit juice.

Like with most traditions, there have been some evolutions and inclusion of new dishes. Chef Regi adds, “Newer traditions involve biryani for dinner. There aren’t too many specific items, but people do duck roast. Not dry roast, but the fried kind which is then tossed with masala and potatoes.” 

In terms of decadent desserts, there are some interesting offerings from Syrian Christian communities. There’s paani, which is arguably the community’s best kept secret. It is a syrup made from toddy, more prevalent in earlier times and usually had with bananas. Chef Regi also speaks of homemade puddings, usually the bread variety. 

Stepping away from the culinary aspect of things, the chef also recalls other Christmas day traditions. 

“One thing is that wherever they are, people will come together and celebrate and be there on that day [Christmas]. We go for mass, come back and prepare breakfast, sit together and spend time together. People used to burst crackers earlier, not so much anymore. It’s all about food and the community being together,” he says.

In keeping with the traditions, the restaurant has created a pheennura box, which the chef says is a traditional celebration meal for Syrian Christians. The meal consists of a plum cake, bread brought in from Kerala with duck roast or chicken roast (an ode to the chef’s fond memories). There’s also vattayappam and chicken curry, cutlets, rice, fish curry, Syrian mutton coconut fry, finished with a caramel custard for dessert. The box is good for 5 people, sold as a family pack. 

If you’d like to add a unique Syrian Christian dish to your Christmas spread, you should definitely attempt a recreation of the chef’s Duck Mappas and Chattimeen Curry!

Chef Ravish Mishra, Executive Chef, The Westin Goa

When asked about the importance of Christmas, Chef Ravish is quick to compare it to significant Hindu festivals like Holi and Diwali, thanks to his background in a convent school. 

Of those days, he recalls, “It was fun, it was full of happiness at a Christian boarding school. The school had a Christmas tree and lots of cakes being baked. But the biggest exciting part of it all was the Christmas tree. We loved decorating the tree with all kinds of stuff.” 

In a country chalk full of diverse communities and religions, decorating a christmas tree is one activity that brings everyone together
In a country chalk full of diverse communities and religions, decorating a Christmas tree is one activity that brings everyone together. Image: Unsplash

Having interacted with the largely Catholic population of Goa, the chef recognizes the importance of home baked Christmas cakes. But that’s just the tip of a large festive iceberg.

He says, “The celebrations start weeks before Christmas. There’s carol singing in every household. The baking also starts much in advance. Of course, there’s the midnight mass, following which people go dancing and cut cakes. What is compulsory is the Christmas lunch in every household. Families get together, and pork is a Christmas staple. There are traditional Christmas cakes and cookies, and every house has its own recipe for the sweets. There’s a lot of sharing of emotions through food like pork roasts, sorpotel, etc.” 

Every christmas table in goa will most definitely feature a roast turkey, chicken, or pork according to chef ravish. Image: pixabay
Every Christmas table in Goa will most definitely feature a roast turkey, chicken, or pork according to Chef Ravish. Image: Pixabay

Like with most traditional Christmas dishes, things like roast turkey and roast pork, Christmas pudding and mince pie require a lot of pre-preparation. The turkey is smoked and dipped in saltwater for at least 5-6 weeks. The cake mixing starts a month earlier, while the nuts are pre-soaked in alcohol much in advance as well. All in all, there’s nothing like celebrating Christmas in Goa. 

Deviating from traditions however, Chef Ravish shares a recipe for a Mocha and salted caramel tart. An appetizing and indulgent challenge for home chefs this Christmas, this contemporary dessert is sure to be a winner! 

Mocha and salted caramel tart

The mocha and salted caramel tart by chef ravish can be the start of new christmas traditions
The Mocha and salted caramel tart by Chef Ravish can be the start of new Christmas traditions

Ingredients

  • 300 gm unsalted butter
  • 64 gm almond powder
  • 400 gm refined flour
  • 100 gm cocoa powder
  • 50 gm coffee powder
  • 200 gm icing sugar
  • 80 gm eggs
  • 100 gm dark chocolate
  • 100 gm fresh cream
  • 100 ml espresso
  • 100 gm fresh cream
  • 130 gm dark chocolate
  • 935 gm castor sugar
  • 525 gm water
  • 280 gm cocoa powder
  • 300 gm cooking cream
  • 52 gm gelatine leaves
  • 200 gm grain sugar
  • 300 gm butter
  • 450 gm flour

Method

For Tart

  • Cream butter & icing sugar together.
  • Add eggs little by little.
  • Add the rest of the dry ingredients. Mix well. Rest the dough in the refrigerator. Line the tart shell and bake at 180 degree celsius for 15 mins.

For Coffee Ganache

  • Boil fresh cream. Pour that cream into dark chocolate. Add espresso
  • Blend it properly.

For Glaze

  • Cook cream, castor sugar & water together. Add cocoa powder, cook thoroughly.
  • Add chocolate, add gelatine leaves. Rest overnight.

Finishing

  • In the tart shell first put coffee ganache and level evenly. Cool it in the refrigerator. Once chilled, glaze with chocolate glaze.
  • Serve with vanilla ice cream.

Chef Vikramjit Roy, Co-founder, Context.eat

While most festivals in Calcutta are celebrated with equal aplomb, one might not immediately associate Christmas with the city. Chef Vikramjit busts that myth with stories of fun Christmas traditions, as well as providing insight into the food. 

He says, “Every migrant community/invasion that Calcutta has gone through has had a deep impact on its food and what comes out is a beautiful melange of its root flavours developed into something unique. Incidentally the capital at the time, there’s a resultant huge British influence on the city and its cuisine. Calcuttans anyway love the spirit of festivals – big or small. And the festive cheer & celebrations is unmistakable. Right from midnight mass at St. Paul’s Cathedral, to people queuing up at Nahoum’s or Flury’s to buy the Christmas specials, to Santa arriving in a rickshaw at Bow Barracks, carnivals at Park Street, monumental church walks, and much more.” 

A staple for chef vikramjit and everyone, there's just no christmas without some good plum cake and great wine! Image: unsplash
A staple for Chef Vikramjit and everyone, there’s just no Christmas without some good plum cake and great wine! Image: Unsplash

Having studied in a Catholic school, the chef has several fond memories of celebrating Christmas with friends. Right from being a part of Carnivals at Park Street, to attending midnight mass with friends, to eating plum cakes & mince pies at Nahoum’s & Flury’s, Christmas has always been just as big as Durga Pujo. 

“The inclusivity of Calcutta has left an indelible stain upon my mellowed imagination – which is reflected in every aspect of The Tangra Project. Food is perhaps the most important component in festivities in Calcutta including Christmas. Aso whether it is eating Koriashutir Kochuri with aloo (green peas stuffed puffed bread) in local sweet shops, to eating Phulkopir Singhara with street side vendors, to eating mince pies & plum cakes, or enjoying the several delicacies made with Nolen Gur – right from Sandesh to Payesh to Pithe Sapta, these are food memories which is permanently etched in my memories,” he adds.

Read more. 

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