Sheba is the rather aesthetically-pleasing face behind Absolute Indian, bringing her delectable native Keralan cuisine to the people of St Albans and far beyond through both cookery classes and occasional supperclubs. Her South Indian food is typically light, fragrant, and the perfect antidote for those jaded by a lifetime of leaden bhajis and clumsy kormas, who hold the mistaken view that Indian food starts and ends with the menu at their local curryhouse.
And Keralan Christmas food is also a soothing balm for stomachs suffering from the myriad ailments attributed to festive excess. Far more digestible and flavoursome than its traditional British counterpart, it boasts colour, abundance, and flavour by the sleigh-load. If you’re temped- and I think you might well be- to sneak a few Southern-spiced dishes onto your Christmas table, appease traditionalists by showing them Sheba’s piece, and arguing that a Keralan Christmas is every bit as authentic- and far tastier.
“Religion is woven into the fabric of everyday life in Kerala, and with Christians making up a fifth of the population, Christmas is celebrated with great fervour. Malayalees have their own customs and traditions entwined with what is seen as a truly pious and holy occasion. Similar to Christmas in the West, it is indeed a joyous time when families get together to create happy memories, eat, drink and, no doubt, create meaningless feuds to be resolved in the forthcoming year.
Second to religion on Christmas Day is the food. Weeks before Christmas, women of the house prepare a Kerala Plum Cake which, like British plum pud, is actually devoid of any plums. Instead, this wonderfully moist hunk of a cake is packed with cashews, ground spices, dried fruits and juice or alcohol- not dissimilar to the western Christmas cake. During this time, local bakeries stock up their supply of plum cake alongside the traditional hot savouries and sweetmeats.
Although times have changed, with long working hours, increased social lives and the ever modernised role of women outside of the home, people still enjoy a ‘homemade’ plum cake, even if prepared in someone else’s ‘home’ or, rather, bakery. For many, the classic Kerala pairing is a glass of home-made wine prepared with raisins, sugar, water and yeast, and close in flavour to a dark, sweet port.
In most Keralan Christian homes, the day begins with a sweet-scented meal of appam and stew; pillow-soft pancakes prepared with freshly ground rice and coconut, served with an equally silky chicken and potato stew. Christmas appams are either ‘Paalappam’, a lacy trimmed pancake with a spongy dome-like centre, or ‘Kallapam’, made from batter fermented with toddy, similar in appearance to a Scotch pancake.
After morning mass in church, it’s homeward bound, heavy with anticipation of the presents ‘Christmas Father’ has left and the banquet that awaits. The home is filled with a multitude of aromas that are led by the unmistakable scent of coconut and curry leaves, both of which are used in abundance, and are requisite for achieving the true flavour of Malayalee cooking.
Christmas lunch is always a glorious feast and although there is no typical meal, it’s an elaborate feast of family favorites that colourfully cram every corner of the table: erissery, pumpkin curry with mustard and cumin; karimeen varuthathu, pearl spotted fish fry; thaaravu roast, succulent roasted duck; pachadi, tangy yogurt curry; meen pollichathu, fish cooked in banana leaf; spicy beef cutlets; rice dishes; buttery breads; pickles; pappapdams…
That said, a more ‘modern’ approach in some homes is to prepare a magnificent biriyani; the bejewelled king of rice dishes, prepared with fluffy saffron-scented Basmati rice. This ‘one-dish wonder’ takes centre stage, with humble accompaniments of pickles, pappadums, and a simple salad raita. There are no crackers at this table, just a chorus of phonetic symbols of approval as the biriyani makes it grand entrance to the table and a simple prayer of thanks.
Following the main meal is always a sweet ending, with the customary Kerala Payasam; a cardamom and saffron infused milk dessert that can be prepared with vermicelli, lentils or rice. With every spoonful of payasam comes the nutty crunch of cashews, a burst of plump raisins and a long-lasting hit of sugar that is bound to leave you dosed up until the next meal.
The celebrations continue long into the evening, with friends and family dropping by, usually accompanied by yet another elaborate meal and a festive sing-a-long of carols and hymns. The festivities extend to the whole family; the children play games and giggle; the men chat and sip whiskey; the women gossip; and the domestic help and maids clatter, bicker, eat and laugh. All in all, a very typical Keralan Christmas, or at least, it is in my home.”