Roast turkey, plum pudding, mince pies and Christmas carols may be a part of Christmas in England. And closer home, hotels that advertise their Christmas dinners stick to the traditional roast. But who do they target? In a nutshell, those who don’t celebrate the 25th of December as a religious belief, but want to participate in this most colourful of festivals in the manner that is usually presented as traditional. Which is to say, with Christmas trees, holly and mistletoe, plum pudding, Christmas cake, brandy butter and roast turkey. But for many Christian communities all over the country, Christmas wouldn’t be complete without beef curry, pulao, masala duck and stewed pork with raja mirchi chutney. Oh, and Christmas carols sung in Manipuri or Punjabi.
Call it the famous Indian penchant for assimilating influences from all over the world, and regurgitating them as distinctively Indian, but Christmas celebrations in several parts of the country would be unfamiliar to a family from, say, Yorkshire, were they to land in Kottayam in Kerala, Churachandpur in Manipur or Batala in Punjab. In the west, the big meal of the day is Christmas lunch, and it is no different in Christian pockets all over the country. The difference is in the scale: in the west, the meal is a family one; in India, they are frequently community affairs, in which one entire church parish participates.
According to Hoihnu Hauzel, from the Paite tribe of Manipur, there are roughly 33 tribes all over Manipur, most of which are Christian. Her tribe is spread over the Churachandpur district. “Tribe and community are synonymous,” she explains, “so that you would celebrate Christmas with members of your own tribe, thus strengthening the bonds”. Pork is the favoured meat for Christmas. Not only is the animal slaughtered by the community, it is also reared by them. “If you live in capital Imphal, where space is at a premium, you start looking out for a reliable pig breeder from early December.” On the day itself, four or five dishes comprise the lunch, with the pork, stewed in its own fat taking centre-stage. It could be stewed with chillies, ginger and garlic or with mustard leaves, or with a few grains of rice as well as a leaf called sih zou, not found outside the state. Sih zou imparts its distinctive flavour to the dish. Often served with a chutney called malta meh, made of the incendiary raja mirchi chillies, roasted tomatoes and fermented fish, the Paite Christmas lunch is at the other end of the continuum from roast turkey and plum pudding. Endless cups of tea and singing hymns in the dialect complete the picture.
Bakshish Dean is constantly taken to be Muslim, and in undivided Punjab, perhaps one of his ancestors was, but he is part of the Christian community in Punjab of the Methodist church. His early memories of Christmas are of parish celebrations at his ancestral village Sunnaiyya near Batala. Dominated by Christians who were wealthy cattle traders, a cow was slaughtered and a beef curry with potatoes was the star of the show. “I still remember the rich, meaty flavour of those potatoes. In fact, as children we used to jockey for an extra potato.” To go with the curry was a pulao and dessert was a halwa studded with dried dates, raisins, sultanas and melon seeds. Of course there was no mistletoe. Instead, there was paper bunting and, if you were lucky enough to have a relative travelling back from a city, you would have asked them to get you a giant paper star, inside which you could fix a light bulb. Even today, nothing screams “Christian” louder than a lone star outside a balcony in any corner of the country during the month of December. Dean, who now is a corporate chef in a large organization, still looks back with nostalgia for those times when hymns were sung in Punjabi and when celebrations were rooted in the culture.
Prima Kurien from the Syrian Christian community of Kerala, is Delhi based and actually caters the food of her community to homesick Malayalis and to an ever-growing band of loyalists whose gateway to Kerala is via Kurien’s egg roast and meen moilee. “Duck roast is usually the central dish at Christmas lunch” she tells us, referring to her family in Kottayam, Central Kerala. Duck – or chicken – is roasted for Christmas with lashings of fried onions, ginger and garlic, spices being confined to black pepper and cinnamon. The association of black pepper with the community is, needless to say, a long and vital one. It is they who grow black pepper – and green cardamoms, along with other aromatic spices – all over the Malabar region and have prospered immensely by it.
But it’s not only duck roast that is part of the Christmas lunch. It is also chicken or lamb stew and appams that complete the Christmas meal, as well as biryani. In what is probably unique in the annals of the Christmas story, the biryani that graces the tables of countless Syrian Christians in Central Kerala, is a self-conscious model of the Muslim biryani of North Kerala, if Prima Kurien is to be believed. The other two elements of the meal is the Christmas cake, oozing rum and home-made wine, made variously from beetroot, pineapple or even jamuns.
Cake and wine. What could be more Christmassy than that!