Christmas kal kal, anyone?

Sumana Narayanan | Updated on: Dec 20, 2019
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A Tamil Christmas feast entails a table groaning under platters of Trichy sausages, black pie, mundhiri kothu, chukku coffee and banana wine. Tuck in

Where’s the plum cake, wine and mulled cider, I wonder. I have just asked my friend Benedicta, a Nadar Christian from Tirunelveli in Tamil Nadu, about Christmas food, and she has been reminiscing about her childhood — of the mutton biryani her mother would make for lunch, of munching on murukku and adhirasam and gulping down payasam . When her mother was a young girl, it was mutton kolumbu for lunch and payasam to appease the sweet tooth. After they moved to Chennai, Mysore pak, laddus and other sweets started making an appearance.

And the plum cake? Benedicta laughs. “No, no. Our Christmas is much like your Deepavali. We do Indian sweets and dishes, burst some crackers left over from Deepavali, perhaps, and visit our neighbours with sweets,” she says. “Our Hindu neighbours would share food with us for Deepavali and we would return the favour at Christmas.”


Curly tales: Murukku is as integral to Christmas as Deepavali


Sweet tooth: Adhirasam and Murukku make their way into all Christmas feasts

The carol singers from around the diocese, who still show up in groups at the doorstep of residents, from 7pm till 3am, are showered with snacks and chukku coffee. The latter, of course, is a misnomer, for it is a dry ginger decoction with unrefined sugar such as palm jaggery added to it, but no coffee. If the singers are lucky, they even get to have a full meal.

“There was also mundhiri kothu — a very, very Tirunelveli sweet — and porungkilangai , a mixture of grams and nuts (powder) that was really difficult to bite into. That was a Christmas tradition — breaking your teeth,” she says.

I Google mundhiri kothu . Like chukku coffee, the name is misleading. It has nothing to do with mundhiri (cashew nuts) and is instead a deep-fried sweet made of roasted and powdered moong dal and roasted coconut powder mixed in jaggery syrup.

My Anglo-Indian friends, I discover, follow the European tradition when it comes to Christmas food. Madonna, whose mother grew up in Tiruchi, lists a cornucopia of exotic dishes that leaves me salivating. Her mother always has at least four types of cake ready for the big day. The plum cake — the dry fruits and nuts soaked in alcohol way ahead in October — is a must. She arranges for a walnut cake, a marbled cake and a few more varieties. There is also homemade wine — made from grapes or ginger or jamun or even bananas! And then there is always marzipan and kal kal .

Kal kal ? “It’s a biscuitty thing made of maida , butter and sugar that is deep-fried and sometimes dipped in sugar syrup. When the syrup dries up, the sugar crystals dust the surface,” Madonna explains. I salivate some more.

For Madonna’s family, Christmas breakfast is a full-on English-style meal with bacon, ham, eggs, toast and marmalade. Sometimes, in a toast to her father’s Malayali origins, they switch to appam and stew.

Christmas lunch is an elaborate affair, too. I can imagine their table groaning under dishes such as mutton biryani, pork vindaloo, prawn and crab curries, pork roast and Trichy black sausages. The sausages are famous among the Anglo-Indian community and even get exported. It is quite like the Goan sausage but very peppery.

Madonna’s mother and other family members each bring their signature dish to the table. “There will be at least four or five meat dishes,” she says. Her aunt’s speciality, for instance, is the black pie, prepared with beef, soy sauce and green chillies.

Madonna is not exactly a MasterChef, so all she can say about the pork roast is that it is seasoned with pepper, cinnamon, red chillies and a dash of sugar, pressure cooked and then roasted on a stove.

Indian sweets make an appearance, too. Madonna’s mother makes coconut barfi and rava laddus for the neighbours, since not everyone cares for alcohol-laden cakes.

Many of my friends stress that chicken doesn’t quite occupy the high table on Christmas, when the focus is on red meat. “We usually have mutton and stew. Since it is the monsoon and Christmas season, hardly anyone goes fishing in November-December,” says Spartaghus Jones, who belongs to the fishing community in Thoothukudi.

Some traditions have changed with time. Benedicta says her mother no longer prepares all the sweets at home, but buys them. Chennai’s famous Ajantha Bakery in Perambur makes the best plum cakes, which are particularly a favourite among the Anglo-Indian community living there. Thanks to the crowds thronging outside it each Christmas, Ajantha has several outlets across the city now. The bakery is also known for its hot muffins with cholocate-vanilla cream dip.

But with the mushrooming of popular bakers, traditional baking methods have slowly disappeared. Benedicta’s grandmother used to make cakes in an earthen pot, which cooked in the warmth of baked soil. That has since gone out of their lives, she says. Chennai resident F Sebastian Saghayamsays, “My grandmother would bake a cake with no oven. In a sigri stove she would place a metal box which was greased and lined with leaves. A batter mix of maida , sugar, egg, cardamom, cinnamon and cashew nuts would be poured in. It would rise. That was our cake.”

Some things, however, are eternal. Festivals are about people, about socialising. And when people get together, then food is a must. So, no matter what you celebrate — be it Deepavali, or Christmas, or a birthday — good food makes everything better. We spread the food, and we spread the joy.

Sumana Narayanan is a freelance writer based in Chennai

Published on December 20, 2019

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