My most distinct memory of Christmas is going to church in the dead of night. The midnight mass, where everyone we know is dressed in their festive best, and we sashay to church to pray and sing our hearts out. For kids, the excitement is doubled with the fact that Santa Claus will visit later in the night, and the gifts under the tree will be unwrapped. For the elders, the midnight mass is followed by friendly banter, a quick visit to a relative’s home where a few swigs of spiced wine are served up along with rich Christmas cake. The main feasting begins the very next morning.
Every festival has its iconic dish. Christmas, however, is not just about one dish, say a cake or a pudding. It is a process of careful preparation that begins weeks before December 25. On Christmas morning, a plate of homemade goodies is exchanged with neighbours and relatives. This is called the
kusvad in Konkani or consoada in Portuguese. The platter includes deep fried sweets like the nevreo (a stuffed sweet) and kulkuls (mini flour scones), the baked items like bebinca, cakes, bolinhos and batica (coconut-semolina cake), almond paste and sugar is moulded into yummy marzipans. The other must-haves in the kusvad are jelly-like sweets — perad (guava cheese) and dodol (made of rice flour and jaggery). At my grandmother’s house, the preparation of kusvad began in the first week of December.
As kids, we were least interested in the recipes, for us the machinations of sweet making were of prime importance. Rolling tiny bits of flour on the tines of a fork to make mini scones, which would later be deep fried and soaked in sugar syrup. We enjoyed stirring the guava pulp with sugar until it started bubbling and we were told to hand over the jobs to an adult. Watching my grandmother make her favourite dish, the bebinca was a lesson in patience. Each layer of the mix made of coconut milk, egg, flour and a touch of nutmeg, is ladled in a deep baking dish. This is cooked over hot coals or a very hot oven, as each layer cooks, an additional layer is ladled on top. A good bebinca will be over 12 layers thick. The other kusvad staple, the nevreo, deep fried semi-circular flour pockets filled with grated coconut, cashew nuts, raisins and roasted semolina, are the taste of a sweet Goan Christmas.
The Christmas lunch menu is in the works for a week. The signature dish is sorpatel, a meaty gravy dish of chopped pork liver, offal and fat, fried and cooked in a fiery red masala and cooked for hours. This spicy dish tastes better after a couple of days, as the palm vinegar in the dish adds its tangy, sweet twist.
The sorpatel is mopped up on the plate with sannas or round steamed rice bread made with a dash of toddy. The rice staple is the
arroz de camarao (rice cooked with prawns) which is a great accompaniment to the chicken xacuti (a rich curry made with roasted spices and coconut). The beef assado (roast), pork vindaloo and of course, to balance things out green salad finds its place on the Christmas table.
Music plays all day long, spirits are lifted with a clink of glasses holding feni, whiskey or mulled wine. There is a smile on everyone’s face as we toast to the family’s good health and fortune. This is Christmas, twinkling eyes, sparkly smiles and a bellyful of good food. Cheers!
Sharon Fernandes is a journalist based in Delhi.