According to the annals of the Mambally Royal Biscuit Factory bakery in Thalassery, Kerala, its founder Mambally Bapu baked the first Christmas cake in India. It’s said that Bapu, who trained as a baker in Burma, set up the bakery in1880. In 1883, at the instance of an East India Company spice planter (who supplied Bapu with a sample of an imported Christmas cake, along with some ingredients), he set about trying to create a Christmas cake.
Mambally Bapu’s cake is supposed to have contained (among other ingredients) cocoa and dried fruit. Given that baking powder hadn’t been invented yet, Bapu used a local brew, fermented from cashew apples and banana, to help the cake rise.
I wonder what that first Christmas cake tasted like; how close to the many thousands of cakes still baked and consumed at Christmas in Kerala? Or for that matter, the many more made across India? Similar to these, I suppose, but possibly with its own distinctive flavour — which, happily enough, might be said for just about any Christmas cake in India. The general impression of a cake, rich in raisins and gaudy tutti-frutti, dark with caramel, and with a distinct booziness to it is all very well, but there are more variations across India than one can count. The Allahabadi version, for instance, uses petha (candied ashgourd) as a part of the fruit component, ghee instead of butter, and adds a generous dollop of orange marmalade to the mix. Maharashtrians add chironji (Cuddapah almond) to their cake; most recipes from Kerala and Tamil Nadu include cashewnuts. The Goan ‘black cake’ derives its colour from a caramel taken really far.
Marmalade in cake
Our Christmas cakes are a reflection of how India celebrates Christmas: with its own regional flair, its own flavour. Some elements are the same almost everywhere; others differ widely. What binds them together is that they are all, in their way, a celebration of the most exuberant festival in the Christian calendar.
Christmas celebrations, of course, run the gamut from the deeply religious to the relatively secular. On the one hand, there is all that marks the solemnity of the occasion: the birth of Christ. Church services, choral music, and some amount of fasting (the latter only in some communities) fall into this bracket. On the other hand, there’s all the merrymaking, the food and drink, the song and dance, even though the song often spans everything from the stirring ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ to vibrant songs of praise sung in every language from Punjabi to Tamil, Hindi to Munda, Khariya, and Mizo tawng.
Given the many denominations Indian Christians fall into, it’s hardly a surprise that Catholics, Syrian Christians, Baptists, Anglicans, Methodists, Lutherans and others all have their own slightly differing ceremonies. Midnight masses and Christmas morning services are common pretty much everywhere, though, and groups of carol singers touring the parish, singing carols at the homes of parishioners, for several days or even weeks before Christmas, is an integral part of festivities. The singers may carry guitars or dholaks, they may sing a cappella; but all of them can be assured that they will be welcomed into homes, heard, applauded, and fed.
Among the more secular aspects of the Christmas celebrations are the decorations, and this is where things get even more eclectic. While malls, hotels and shops in metros and other large cities go all out with fancy artificial trees, miles of fairy lights and expensive tree ornaments, churches tend to be (appropriately) more sedate: banks of massed poinsettias, potted chrysanthemums, a quietly decorated tree, and a crib — depicting Christ in the manger, with Joseph, Mary, the Three Wise Men, shepherds and sundry cattle — are the usual accoutrements.
A mango Christmas tree
It’s somewhere in between these two ends of exuberance and expense that other decorated spaces, such as homes and neighbourhoods, come in. Some may be all fancy, with LED lights and imported ornaments; but many more will use paper streamers, a small thuja or araucaria tree, and cotton wool for snow: it all depends. Paper stars, or the lanterns known in Maharashtra as akash kandil, are hung by many outside front doors or on balconies; and, in a lovely indigenous touch, there are families that also add a rangoli, crafted from rice flour or flower petals, on floors.
These, it must be noted, are the more urban forms of decoration: rural India has its own norms, its own traditions. Wreaths and decorated conifers are unknown, for instance, in the villages of the Chhota Nagpur region; instead, mango leaves, marigolds, and paper streamers may be used, and the tree to be decorated may well be a sal or a mango tree.
This indigenisation of Christmas is something that’s most vividly seen in the feasting that accompanies Christmas celebrations all across the country. In Kerala, for instance, duck curry with appams is likely to be the pièce de resistance. In Nagaland, pork curries rich in chillies and bamboo shoots are popular, and a whole roast suckling pig (with spicy chutneys to accompany it) may hold centre stage. A sausage pulao, sorpotel and xacuti would be part of the spread in Goa, and all across a wide swathe of north India, biryanis, curries, and shami kababs are de rigueur at Christmas.
Indian Christmas: An Anthology
Excerpted with permission from Indian Christmas: An Anthology, published by Speaking Tiger Books.