Christmas feasts are a dream—tables heaving with platters of meats, breads, dessert and overflowing glasses of wine. The ever-present cake. Rich stews and pies. A Christmas tree with a mountain of gifts, and the warmth of family, of communities coming together to make sweets. Traditions that change across the country, but at their heart lies food, and in a country as diverse as India, the food too is rich and wide-ranging. The pandemic may dull the gatherings, but the food (and wine) are always there.
Christmas feasts in the North East are meaty extravaganzas. Naga spreads include smoked pork with axone, pork cooked with fermented bamboo shoots, pork innards with pig’s blood, pig trotters and pig’s head, served with sticky rice. In Meghalaya, the Khasi preparations of doh jem and doh nei iong, pork and chicken cooked with black sesame are served, while in Manipur fish preparations like nga atoiba thongba, a fish and potato stew and eromba, fermented, smoked fish and vegetables mashed together are spotted in festive spreads. The break from meat is in Mizoram, where kaukswe, a chicken curry served with rice noodles inspired from Myanmar is served.
A glimpse of a Goan Christmas feast is enough to make one pack their bags and make it there to celebrate the festival. A platter full of traditional sweets called consoada (Portuguese) and over time known as kuswar is filled with twelve-layered bebinca, deep-fried kulkuls, crescent moon-shaped neuris, coconut cookies or bolinhas, crispy kormolas, chana dal and coconut fudge called doce de grao, black jaggery and coconut based dodol, and each household has its own tweak. Most of these sweets are made with coconut, jaggery, rice and semolina, and it used to be common to send kuswar to friends and family, and bereavement homes. Also present is the Portuguese bolo sans rival cake or quite literally, a cake without a rival. Instead of almonds, the luscious cake is made with cashews and buttercream in Goa. Watch out for tangy and spicy sorpotel, vindaloo, xacuti and smoked cod and meats at the sumptuous feast.
Towards Maharashtra, East Indian community traditions call for duck moilee made with bottle masala—an East Indian kitchen staple—along with roast beef or pork, heady mutton curry with airy fugias, and thali sweets, a flat, white cake made with semolina and coconut. And if you’re looking for Christmas pudding, marzipan, rose cookies, guava cheese, mince pies, meat loaves, stews, casseroles and roasts, look no further than an Anglo-Indian Christmas meal.
In Kerala, Christmas day is characterised by a breakfast of fluffy and crispy appams and ishtew, followed by platters of roast duck, beef ularthiyathu, stuffed chicken, beef cutlets, thorans made with various vegetables, and a lot of seafood for lunch. The table of course is incomplete with goodies like achappams or rose cookies, diamond cuts, addictive coconut-jaggery balls of avalose undas, neyyappams and the jackfruit dumplings or kumbalappam.
In Mangalore, the tradition of kuswar is similar to Goa, with many of the meat dishes too similar to those in the sunshine state. The pork or duck indad, derived from the vindaloo is a must-have. Rose cookies and kulkuls are known by different names in different states, but find a place at all tables.
This is the one Christmas dish that transcends borders. Rich, fruity, boozy—the plum cake is synonymous with Christmas. In Kolkata, Jewish bakery Nahoum and Sons follows a century-old legacy of making fruit cake at Christmas. In Goa and Kerala, all bakeries worth their salt carry their versions of decadent cake, and in homes, recipes for Christmas cake are passed down by grandmothers. Preparations can start month in advance of soaking fruits and nuts in spiced rum, and the cake is baked only days before Christmas. Sounds mouth-watering, yes?
Merry Christmas, and happy feasting!
Lubna Amir is Assistant Digital Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She travels in the search for happy places (which invariably involve a beach) and good food. When she’s not planning her next escape, you can find her curled up with a book or researching recipes.