Christmas with Midnight Mass, coats, mufflers and gloves, as we sing carols with the youth group at our local parish. Christmas at highschool full of delicious pastries, cakes, the thinnest potato chips, chocolates, chole-bhature, bread rolls, patties, samosa and everything yummy that my classmates got to school for our class party in Delhi. Christmas of the indulgent vegetarian meal, our getaway from the ghastly mess food at design school, Ahmedabad. Christmas with meditation and songs around a bonfire, in Auroville. Christmas of the endless decorations, glistening stars, shimmering tinsel and rustic crib at home with my sisters, in Kerala. Christmas with a party of joyful chatter, eclectic food, wine and merriment with my Punjabi-Hindu husband and family of friends, in Mumbai. Christmas that is as Indian as I am. Not white. A gorgeous, Indian brown Christmas, as old as time.
As a kid I would envy my sister Chris her name, for the rather straightforward, easy-to-place identity it gave her. I struggled to explain to many that it is possible to be Christian and Malayali at the same time. I would explain that in South India some of us have been Christians since the 1st century. That’s about 2000 years ago. Which means there were Christians in India way before any of the Empires in Europe had even heard of Christianity. Before the Gupta Empire was established, before the Mughals, Portuguese or British ever came to India. So no, we were not converted by the British. No, we do not wear frothy white gowns, or dance gayly to Western music at our weddings. And no, turkey does not figure at our Christmas meals. That’s the Brits you are thinking of. Or Americans at Thanksgiving.
The flavours of Christmas for me are firmly rooted in the Syrian Catholic parts of Kerala my parents comes from, fragrant with the notes of pepper, cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, roast coconut, shallots and curry leaves. It would start each year with my parent’s yearly ritual of soaking fruits and nuts post Diwali. My father would go all the way to Khadi Baoli (Delhi) to get the candied peels and would hand mix the peels and fruits with copious amounts of rum. By the time the fruit was ripe for baking into my mom’s popular X’mas cake a couple of weeks before Christmas, we would be bursting with anticipation. For three days the house would be immersed in preparations – my father cracking dozens and dozens of eggs into a milk can, my mom caramelising sugar, and my sister and I sniffing around huge bharanis of dry fruits soaked in rum. On the D-day, my parents would take all the prepped ingredients to the bakery, mix the batter as per their own recipe and then bake dozens and dozens of cakes in the large bakery ovens. They would come back with large fragrant buckets filled with freshly baked, spicy, warm-from-the-oven Christmas cakes, which would be gifted to friends and family. By the time Christmas Eve came around, we would be sick of the cake and would be looking forward to breaking the 24-day abstinence with an overload of meat and fish. On Christmas Day, the house would be abuzz with excitement as my mom and aunt cooked deftly, churning out fish curry in coconut milk, freshwater fish fried to a crisp, appams with their crunchy, lacy edges and beautiful fluffy middles, beef (buffalo in Delhi) steaks marinated in mustard and pepper, mutton curried in roast coconut, pork stir-fried with sliced coconut, chicken curry and our absolute favourite – the beef cutlet.
The making of the beef cutlet was a family ritual in itself. My mom tells me that it’s a tradition she picked up from her sister-in-law, but it’s been a fixture at every Christmas and Easter at our home. The meat would be bought a day before, cleaned and refrigerated. On Christmas morning or even the evening before, my dad or uncle would cut the meat into large chunks for it to be boiled with the masalas till tender and aromatic. The next day, potatoes would be boiled, the meat minced and the masala made by the women. One of the men would lend their muscle to the mixing of the masalas till they were the right consistency and the kids would help with patting the beef cutlets into shape. We’d shape them as we chatted away or sang carols and hand them over to our mom for her to crumb and fry up the cutlets. The crust would be crisp, just a tad sweet from the rusk instead of the usual fresh bread crumbs. The inside was perfectly spiced and soft. The abundance of onions and potatoes would make it both creamy and sweet. With a side of the fantastically simple challas (onion salad), this was, and still is, bliss. The perfectly browned cutlet for a beautiful brown Christmas.
Beef cutlets, a childhood favourite. Crisp outside, soft, tender yet spicy inside.
- 1 kg beef (you can also use buff/mutton)
- 1 kg potatoes
- 1 tsp peppercorns
- 1 inch cinnamon
- 5-6 cloves
- 4 cardamom
- 4 tsp meat masala powder
- 1 tsp chilli powder
- .25 turmeric powder
- 10 - 12 green chillies
- 3+ 5sprigs curry leaves
- 1 kg onions, sliced
- 10 cloves garlic
- 4 tablespoons of minced ginger
- ½ cup oil
- salt to taste
- oil to deep fry
- 4-5 cups of breadcrumbs (made from rusk grinding up some rusk in the mixie)
- 5-7 egg whites, whisked till well liquidated.
- Boil the potatoes
- Clean, wash and cut the meat into large chunks (about 3 inches). Mix well with 1 tsp salt, the chilli and turmeric powders, 2 tablespoon of the minced ginger, 3 sprigs curry leaves, garlic, peppercorns, cinnamon, cardamom and cloves and pressure cook without any added water. My mom cooked this years batch on high heat for 2 whistles and then reduced the heat and cooked for another 10 minutes till tender. But she says that you may need to cook a little longer if the meat you've got is tougher.
- Once the meat is cooked, open the cooker and check to see if there is any gravy. If there is, cook the meat without a lid to let all the juices evaporate. Let cool.
- When cooled, shred the cooked meat in a food processor or mixie. Do not grind to a paste. Just enough to ensure there are no meat chunks left and you can see fibres of the meat distinctly.
- Heat oil, stir fry the onions, minced ginger, curry leaves and green chilli till the onions are softened, glassy and just starting to brown around the edges. Add in the minced meat and meat masala and stir through. Taste for seasoning and correct as required. Switch off the gas and let cool.
- Now crush the potatoes in your hands and mix into the minced meat - onion mixture. Check and correct seasoning once more.
- Knead the mixture. Grabbing a handful at a time, squeeze the mixture with your hands to pack it all in and shape into a firm, oblong, baseball shape. Press gently but firmly to flatten, while ensuring that the sides are all smooth and without cracks. This step is critical to making sure that your cutlets do not disintegrate while frying.
- Dip lightly in the breadcrumbs and keep aside till all cutlets are shaped. Your cutlets are now ready to be fried. You can also keep these in the freezer and use over the course of the next few days.
- Just before frying, dip in beaten egg whites and then roll in the bread crumbs till the entire surface is evenly coated.
- Deep fry till the cutlets are golden. I've also successfully coated these in oil and air fried them with great success.
4 onion, thinly sliced
2-3 tsp coconut oil
salt to taste
1-2 thinly sliced green chillies
2 tablespoons minced coriander leaves
Mix the onions with salt and coconut oil and massage well with your hand. Let marinate for 5 minutes.
Add in the coriander leaves, green chillies and lime juice and mix thoroughly.
Let marinate for about 10 minutes before serving.