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My grandparents were born in Gujarat on the West Coast of India, my parents grew up Uganda in Africa, and I was born in Lincolnshire in England, so Christmas has always been a mixed affair. Luckily, Christmas and spice have always gone hand in hand, so while we embrace the Christmas traditions and meal—tree, turkey, trimmings, and all—we also always turn up the volume on the spices.
On occasion, we’ve roasted a whole tandoori turkey, which has been marinated for a day or two in yogurt, ginger, garlic, and warming spices like cloves, cinnamon, and cardamom. Earthy cumin and black pepper are sprinkled on our roast potatoes before cooking and we’ll occasionally curry the Brussels sprouts. For dessert on Christmas day, we have Christmas cake, but instead of mincemeat, we pack the cake with ginger, dates, and cinnamon and finish it off with a little nip of my father’s favorite Ugandan whisky. And there may be some coconut milk fudge (from my book) on the side.
But you won’t find this meal in every house, as Christmas in India varies from state to state. In areas where there are more Sikhs, Muslims or Hindu, Christmas is more of a cultural and commercial affair: Mumbai’s biggest train station, CST station, is lit up with thousands of tiny lights, and huge trees appear at central points and in shopping malls in Delhi.
In Kerala and Goa, where there are large Syrian Christian and Catholic communities, every aspect of Christmas is fully celebrated (the meal included). Prayers and preparations start a few weeks in advance of Christmas day: Colored lights adorn houses and beautiful old Portuguese churches and Father Christmases are painted on palm tree trunks. The smell of sweets blow through the streets.
For dinner, you might start with Kerala beef fry with chile and coconut and a little side salad. To follow, a rich coconut chicken curry with fermented rice crepes called appams. The main course is an extravagant fish biryani with vegetable side curries, like mixed vegetable avail with accompanying pickles, raitas, and possibly a dal. Finally, if you could possibly find any room, dessert might be a rich fruitcake (a nod back to colonial India) or classic gulab jamun, milk fried doughnuts soaked in sweet rose syrup.
As always, no matter where Christmas dinner is cooked, it’s tradition to have a little nap afterwards.
- 1 1/2 cups condensed milk
- 2 1/2 cups unsweetened desiccated coconut, divided
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom (or finely ground seeds from 6 pods)