Whatever your stance on the politics of the somewhat turbulent era, there’s no denying the Raj instilled a love, both unshakeable and enduring, for the flavours, aromas and spices of India. Christmas remains a major festival in the subcontinent, particularly in Goa where the majority of citizens are Christian and the irony of singing ‘Jingle Bells’ is lost on the kids who have never experienced snow.
Here in the UK, Christmas dinner is traditionally rather anodyne for my liking. A dried up old bird takes centre stage, stripped of dignity and denied a good roasting in a tandoor, flanked by an army of over-cooked, under-flavoured veg. The best description I could muster is a Sunday roast writ large but delivering little in terms of sensory pleasure- the best part of which is always the curried leftovers. But chuck a bit of masala in the mix and suddenly you’re looking at a festive fusion feast that’s right up my alley. Deck the halls with smears of haldi, indeed…
Raj-era Christmas was a taxing time for the household cooks- bobajees- whose Memsahibs often demanded a different and equally impressive menu for each of the twelve days of celebration. Although ostensibly traditional, dishes would often benefit from the bobajee’s deft hand with spices and aromats- from a souped-up Mulligatawny to Christmas cakes rich with semolina, carrots and dried fruit, laced with a liberal dose of Indian rum. I’ll be taking a few leaves out of their household cookbooks this year, the subcontinental style lending a very welcome hint of spice to proceedings.
If you’re planning to inject a little Indian imagination, it’s wise to brush up your skills before the big day to minimise the wrath of a table full of hard-done-by relatives. And signing up for an afternoon spent anointing, innovating and quite possibly imbibing is surely the most pleasurable preventative measure you can take.
Gordon Ramsay’s favourite, Prashad, are offering ‘Christmas with Kaushy’ at the Dean Clough Cooking School, featuring the sumptuous Gujerati rice dish Batsai Kitchdi and a fruit-studded semolina pud. In London, meanwhile, Sumayya Jamil-aka the Pukka Paki- will be showing students a Royal Pakistani Christmas Dinner of aromatic Kashmiri lamb leg, biriyani and a rather fancy bread pudding quite literally fit for a king.
Another of Twitter’s ‘Masala Babes’, Cook In A Curry, will be holding a Christmas class on ‘Easy Indian Curries’ in Newcastle. Raised in Mumbai, Maunika Gowardhan will demonstrate a raft of techniques handy to have under your belt to whip up something spicy for seasonal gatherings. Featuring Indian breads and canapés, students at this one will be able to give the Iceland platter a wide berth.
- ‘Secrets of Prashad- Christmas with Kaushy’ is held at The Cooking School at Dean Clough on Sunday 11th November and costs £155. Book at http://www.thecookingschool.co.uk/christmas_2012
- Sumayya Jamil’s ‘Royal Pakistani Christmas Dinner’ is at Central Street Cookery School, London on Saturday 17th November and costs £65. Book at http://www.pukkapaki.com/cooking-classes
- Maunika Gowardhan’s ‘Christmas Special: Easy Indian Curries’ is at the Blackfriars Workshop at the Blackfriars Restaurant, Newcastle on Saturday 17th November and costs £35. Book at http://maunikagowardhan.co.uk/events/christmas-special-indian-cookery-class
Snacks, treats and gifts
Don’t restrict the influence to the dining table. A host of small upstart companies are busy knocking up the kind of Indian-style luxury edibles that puts the selection box to shame. Fortnum and Mason are firmly on board, nuancing their staunchly British shop floor with deliciously exotic treats that are crying out to be shared. Or perhaps kept to oneself and scoffed in front of the fire when getting into a tussle with some wrapping paper and the errant end of the Sellotape roll.
Green Saffron supply Fortnum & Mason with their own spice blend for use in the legendary Christmas puds. Their own family recipe is also pretty legendary, whilst the Mulling Spices will have you drunk off the aromas before you’ve even added the booze. Apple-based mincemeat is a convincing argument against making your own, heady with spices and thankfully lacking that common cloy. If you must go for that bloomin’ bird, Green Saffron’s Turkey Delight will gussy the leftovers up just enough to justify its original tabletop presence.
For many, Christmas is license to stuff yourself silly with chocolate till you yourself resemble the turkey. Devnaa’s confections are refined enough to command a moment of quiet reverence from truffle hunters, with beautiful tiffin boxes revealing layers of chocolates infused with traditional mithai flavours. Saffron, chai, cardamom, coconut and rose render the chocs distinctively Indian, and the caramel and barfi-style ganaches are second to none. Stunning. A cup of Devnaa’s chai masala hot chocolate is a welcome post-seasonal-stomp warmer, too.
Dos Santos Foods
A Goan Christmas wouldn’t be complete without bebinca- a gorgeous, rib-sticking pud made up of multiple layers of rich coconut-and-egg batter. It’s a laborious and technical process, but Dos Santos have done all the work for you- stash one in the freezer then simply thaw when you fancy something sinful. The sweet hamper, meanwhile, is packed with Goan goodies, largely based on the revered and prolific coconut, making a welcome break from the heavy dairy-based confections that dominate December.
Duke of Delhi
Grab-‘em-by-the-fistful snacks are non-negotiable over the holiday period, and Duke of Delhi’s are the finest money can buy. Bombay Mix writ large and luxurious, the Duke’s ‘Delhi mixes’ are subtly spiced and packed with chocolate chunks or nuggets of honeycomb. Another Fortnum’s favourite, a tin of the candied orange peel variety makes for a nice twist on the classic satsuma in the toe of the Christmas stocking theme. Your seasonal goodwill’s extended even further by the fact Duke of Delhi donate 7% of profits to elephant charities in India.
It’s safe to say Rekha Mehr is pretty much taking over the bakery at Fortnum’s these days- rolling out her inspired range of Indian-infused French-style patisserie with panache. Chocolate naans would be a winner with a glass of bubbly at brunch, whereas Bollywood blondies and shortbreads are just the ticket for mid-afternoon seasonal fatigue. Serve a selection of Pistachio Rose’s white chocolate and fennel, salted milk chocolate nutmeg and chilli, and dark chocolate chai tartlets for pud and prepare for fisticuffs over the last morsels.
East India Company
On Lambs Conduit Street lies a beautiful emporium packed with the riches of the spice trade, evoking the era of the Empire and coaxing wallet from pocket with alarming regularity. The East India Company’s products are of unsurpassed quality, from a galaxy of teas, to spice-imbued chocolates and a battalion of savoury comestibles. A good coffee is non-negotiable when festive spirits dip (or, inevitably, in the alcoholic sense, overwhelm)- and the rich, chocolate notes of the gourmet ‘Tiger of Mysore’ mocha blend revives and indulges the drinker in equal measure.
Suffice to say there are only so many ‘prawn cocktail/turkey and all the trimmings/Christmas pud/ mince pies and brandy butter’ menus one can comfortably suffer and emerge with both humour and will to live intact. So next time someone suggests a festive meal out, drag them to one of these restaurants, all offering spreads guaranteed to wake tastebuds from the torpor induced by weeks of bland revelry that’s left them actually rather reviled. The only cracker you normally encounter with the Christmas menu is the one with the rubbish gift you find at your place setting- with this little lot, it’s simply the word which sums up your grub.
Bromley’s best-kept secret, the well-heeled Cinnamon Culture has made a mark in its first few months of opening- already recognised with a Michelin Bib Gourmand. Don that bib to feast on festive morsels like parsnip-and-cashew samosas, Malabari fish curry and the delightfully warming honey and ginger kulfi. On the day itself, a well-priced lunch offers even more in the way of gustatory delights. The restaurant sits in a converted pub, making it a great option for those who want to carry on the party post-prandially. Great bar snacks, too.
The Christmas Party menu starts at £20 for 3 courses and is available at lunch and dinner throughout December. Christmas day lunch costs £40 for four courses with coffee. Book at www.cinnamonculture.com
A lovely spread’s on offer at Edinburgh favourite Mithas, who have gone the ‘tasting menu’ route. Turkey, clementines, roasted roots and even the much-maligned Brussels are in evidence, but all with the requisite spicy twist. Venison and saffron amp up the luxury, whilst a clever hand with flavour combinations keep things refreshingly fresh. Round off with the (not so) traditional Christmas pud- those Indian spices don’t half lift things. Christmas lunch proper is a beautifully simple affair, abundant in treat-y meats and an absolute steal.
The Christmas tasting menu costs £29.95 and is available throughout December. The Christmas Day Tasting Menu costs £24.95. Book at www.mithas.co.uk
For fine Yorkshire produce with that all-important Anglo-Indian tinge, the 1875 is a must visit. After a rather special mulled wine, tuck into a menu featuring pakori which have snuck in the sprouts in a most palatable way, with a Yorkshire game version to boot. An Anglo-Indian turkey main actually stands a good chance of converting lifetime detractors, or, for those who want booze in everything at Christmas, there’s local, double-cooked pork in wine masala. For dessert, the intriguing ‘Darjeeling fried ice cream’ is just the ticket.
The Christmas Festive Menu is available at lunch and dinner throughout December, priced from £19.95 for 3 courses. Book at www.the1875.co.uk
Cinnamon Kitchen’s fun younger sibling is the ideal venue for a friendly work do- or even a do with your actual friends. A range of set menu options mean all budgets are catered for, with dishes plucked from all over the subcontinent. Flavours are writ large in mustardy Bengali vegetable cakes, the haunting sandalwood-infused tandoori chicken, and a gooily good ginger toffee pud. Christmas Day’s offer kicks off with quirky shared appetisers, moving on to a similarly innovative four course menu.
Christmas Menus are priced from £20. The Christmas Day menu costs £40. Book at www.cinnamon-kitchen.com/soho-home