15 Popular Indian Christmas Foods
Christians make up only 2.3% of India’s 1.4 billion population but have had a continued presence in the subcontinent from 52 A.D. when St. Thomas the Apostle came to the Malabar coast.
The Malabar coast was a melting point of cultures and faiths, long been hailed as one of the most cosmopolitan regions of India. Trade and commerce led to the region becoming a hub for travelers seeking entrance to the enchanting land of India.
With this confluence of cultures arose a unique and vibrant cuisine that combined various cooking techniques with local ingredients, found along the south eastern and western coasts of India.
With the establishment of a sea route to India by the Portuguese, Christianity gained popularity in the country in the early 15th century. This can be best witnessed in India’s coastal state of Goa.
By the late 18th Century Protestants, Anglicans, and German missionaries had made their way here, bringing a vibrant mix of food and culture to the northern and eastern parts of the country.
Christian cuisine in India is distinctive because it consists of a blend of native and colonial traditions and spices. Meat plays a central part, forming the playground for traditional non-vegetarian Indian cuisine.
This is clear from the use of a wide variety of seafood extending from shellfish to fresh fish, lobsters, shrimp, and prawns. Pork and beef are usually the highlight of any true blue Christian family meal, with each region having its own blend of spices to compliment the hearty meat dishes.
Let’s round up some of the most popular Christmas foods in India.
Rice hoppers are crispy, thin and golden around the edges and soft and fluffy in the center. Made with rice flour, it has a nuanced flavor of nutty coconut milk and sweet toddy. Since toddy is hard to come by these days, it’s replaced with baking soda, but this lacks the authentic flavor found in the original recipe.
Palappam is a bread that goes well with all kinds of curries, the slight sweetness complementing the pungent gravies. It is normally made in a cast iron pan called an appam chatti.
Mainly prepared as a breakfast dish, it is best paired with a mildly spicy gravy enriched with coconut. It may also be paired with spicy fish curry.
Since it’s made from rice and has coconut milk blended into it, if not refrigerated it can ferment and turn sour. Sometimes an egg may be cracked over the top of the appam, sprinkled with freshly cracked pepper and salt, fondly enjoyed by children and called the motteappam.
The simplest, and my favorite, combination is just freshly made coconut milk and a spoon of palm sugar or honey.
Though beef isn’t consumed a lot in the North of the country for religious reasons, the South has a long tradition of consuming this meat. This dish is an ode to the delicious melange of spices, roasted and ground together and sautéed with coconut oil, finished off with chunks of tender beef, shallots, and a bit of dry coconut.
Best served with a hot parota, this dish can be found all across the state of Kerala in small street side eateries called thattukada, literally meaning small plates. This tradition is similar to the Spanish tapas culture and is a wonderful way to experience the culinary delights.
A spicy dish with a wonderfully aromatic aftertaste, this is a preferred side when sharing a drink with friends at a local bar. The beef is boiled and slowly roasted in a heavy bottomed pan till the meat is rendered soft and simply melts in your mouth.
A traditional Goan take on Indian cuisine, this curry can be found all across the world in Indian restaurants. A spicy and flavorsome gravy made with a base of tomatoes and whole spices, with a tangy aftertaste from the judicious use of vinegar.
The traditional recipe calls for coconut vinegar, which is made by fermenting the sap from a coconut palm. Before the palm sap ferments that much, it is commonly consumed as a kind of wine, colloquially called toddy.
This unique ingredient gives this dish an earthy yet umami-packed flavor. Tender chunks of pork with fat is par boiled and added to the curry. The rendering of the fat and the caramelization of the tomatoes gives this dish a truly unique taste.
Pair it with hot rice or appams and find yourself cleaning your plate out.
When made in a large batch and reheated over a period of 2 to 3 days, the curry gets a rich and meaty texture.
This dish is a mix of Portuguese and Indian culture with a history stemming from the straits of Malacca.
The liberal use of pepper by Indian cooks was a bit much for the European palette, which was used to mildly flavored food. As the commercial cultivation of coconut spread through the peninsular, this enticing ingredient found its way into Indian Christian Cuisine.
The traditional Kerala fish curry was a blend of sour cambodge and spicy back pepper and copious amounts of red chilis. For a milder version that the colonial palettes could enjoy, a mix of thick coconut milk extract was added.
This beckoned the arrival of one of the most famous fish curries from the subcontinent.
Legend has it that it was influenced by the Malay style of blending coconut milk into most of their curries that gave rise to the iconic, lip-smacking dish.
Best served with rice hopper, appams, string hoppers, or idiyappam.
Tharavu is the Malayalam word for duck. This dish is a Syrian Christian dish prepared for Easter or Christmas. It originates from one of the most scenic regions of the country, surrounded by meandering backwaters, coconut palm laden fields, green lush unending rows of paddy, and a bounty of seafood.
Rearing ducks is a household tradition and ensures the freshest duck meat available through the year. It is a delicacy of the backwaters of Kerala and is prepared in a myriad of ways.
This dish is a Syrian Christian dish prepared for Easter or Christmas.
This curry is mildly spiced curry tempered with thick coconut milk and blended with a sweet mix of tomatoes that add a slight tartness to the overall dish. Potatoes are also added to give an added silky, smooth texture.
Black pepper, cinnamon. cloves, star anise, coriander, turmeric, and chili powder are a few of the spices in this delicious coastal recipe.
Duck roast is another dish reserved for special occasions and can be found on the menu at traditional Christian wedding feasts. The meat is cut into medium-sized chucks and cooked in a wide, shallow vessel called a urali.
Shallots, black pepper, cinnamon, coriander powder, curry leaves, and coconut oil are a few of the ingredients used.
The meat is slowly tossed and cooked over low heat till it is completely coated with the aromatic and spicy mix of roasted and ground masalas.
This is one of my favorite appetizers. The duck is soft and has an earthy flavor, unlike that of chicken. The judicious use of coconut oil adds a whole new dimension to the duck, elevating the overall flavor of the dish.
Fondly called kheema croquettes, these cutlets are a wonderful treat around tea time and can be found in most tea shops across Kerala. A variety of meat is used to prepare the breaded, deep fried cutlets.
Minced mutton or lamb is combined with garam masala, onions, chilis, ginger, garlic, and potatoes and formed into patties that are then coated in egg wash, breaded, and shallow fried.
They have a crisp and crunchy surface with a smooth, soft, and comforting inside. These days they are usually served with a side of tomato ketchup. Chicken and fish may be substituted and make for similarly delicious bite-sized snacks.
Fondly called ishtew, this is usually made with lamb or mutton and served as a light aromatic and flavorsome breakfast dish with a side of rice hopper.
This mildly flavored, rich delicacy made with a combination of carrots, green peas, beans, whole spices, for example, cardamom, cinnamon, and cloves, is prepared by the Christian community. Topped with freshly ground and squeezed coconut milk, it is the go to dish for a Sunday morning breakfast, post mass.
The mild flavors of this soup complement the light-textured lamb, but tend to require a bit more time on the stove when using gamey mutton. Chicken can be substituted for the lamb, preferably with the skin on as this tends to add more moisture and an overall rounder flavor to the light stew.
Ginger and coconut milk are the predominant flavors, complemented by the subtle hints of the sweet whole spices.
A Portuguese import from the early 16th century, the cashew nut tree has become ubiquitous with the landscape in Goa. Once an exotic fruit from the New World, today Goa and Kerala account for the largest cashew nut harvests in India.
This aromatic and strong alcoholic beverage was first influenced by the Portuguese colonialists who taught the locals the art of distillation. The cashew fruit is sweet and pulpy in texture, with a strong and overpowering odor when fermented. This fermented mash is then distilled in small batches to make kaju or cashew feni.
This sweet smelling liquor is famous for its smooth body and creamy texture. Locally it is combined with a fizzy lemon flavored soft drink called limca, making it kind of the rum and coke of the region. It is best sipped ice cold on a hot sunny day by the beach with a slice of lemon and a sprig of mint.
Learn more about locally grown fruits in India.
10. Coconut Toddy
Toddy is the fermented sweet nectar of the coconut palm, found abundantly across the Southern Indian peninsula.
The tip of the palm is slit to extract the sap, which is usually harvested early in the morning rendering it sweet and appetizing. Through the day, the sap ferments naturally and forms an alcoholic beverage that is widely consumed.
The fermented beverage has a very short shelf life and must be consumed before it over ferments as it turns acidic by the end of the day. The over fermented sap is bottled and sold as coconut toddy vinegar. The fermentation of the toddy allows for its use as a natural leavening agent in the preparation of rice hoppers or appams, giving a sweet yet slightly tart flavor.
11. Pork Sorpotel
This is a spicy, tangy, rich curry traditionally found in Goa and Konkan in Mangalore. This is a dish reserved for special occasions as it takes a long time to prepare, for example, wedding feasts and Christmas dinners.
It is often prepared a couple of days before serving, ensuring the rich and tangy sauce has enough time to penetrate the meat.
The recipe calls for offal and other gamey parts of the animal, with the intestines playing a crucial role in the overall texture of the dish, being slightly chewy and gamey.
Pork blood is also a traditional ingredient in this stew, although nowadays most houses refrain from using innards and choose to go with prime cuts of meat.
Ginger, garlic, black pepper, cloves, cinnamon, cumin, vinegar, and coconut oil are the base for this flavorsome curry, and fresh green chilis, the amount depending on preference.
12. Fish Roe Fry
Traditionally called meen mutta ularthiyathu, this is a simple yet stellar stir fry of fresh fish roe. Green chilis, garlic, pepper, curry leaves, and fennel form the base of flavors, which can later be altered with shallots depending on your preferred texture.
A simpler version is to marinate the roe with the sac in turmeric, chili powder, coconut oil, and vinegar and simply pan fry. The eggs have a creamy texture with an intense fishy flavor. It is usually served as an appetizer with alcoholic beverages.
The aroma of curry leaves tempered in coconut oil with fennel and black pepper is a symphony unlike any other.
13. Oxtail Soup
This Anglo-Indian delicacy is still fondly made in most households during the monsoon or winter months.
It is a hearty soup flavored with black pepper, fresh green coriander, slivers of ginger, crushed garlic, and mint. Carrots and potatoes may be added for extra body.
The tail provides for a collagen laden soup that is silky and rich in texture and is the perfect soothing drink when recovering from a bout of the flu.
The tender meat of the tail is allowed to slow cook for a couple of hours, ensuring a smooth and almost melt in the mouth texture, which adds a whole new dimension to this humble and tasty soup.
14. Chicken Xacuti
Another Goan delicacy, this dish is an Indo-Portuguese-influenced recipe that has become a staple in Goan households. Poppy seeds toasted and blended with grated coconut and dry red chilis form the base for this unique curry. Lamb or beef may also be used but the most common version is made with chicken.
It may be served with traditional Goan bread, called poe, or steamed white rice.
A creamy and rich curry owing to the large amounts of fresh grated coconut used, this curry is a beloved dish for locals and tourists.
15. Beef Cafreal
Strips of beef tenderloin are marinated in a green herby and spicy mix of fresh coriander, mint, green chili, and vinegar. Potatoes are the preferred vegetable to accompany this dish, though modern versions have swapped these out for carrots, yam, and fried eggplant.
Coriander seeds, cumin seeds, turmeric powder, tamarind pulp, ground cinnamon, peppercorns, ginger, and garlic build the rest of the flavors in this deep, earthy, and utterly satisfying dish. The meat is slow cooked until tender in a thick reduction of fresh herbs and roasted ground spices.
Traditionally served with steamed white rice, the consistency may be adjusted to produce a runnier sauce, although the thicker one is perfect with fresh rotis or chapatis.
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